Perhaps the best question regarding conflict was offered by Rodney King, who asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” Pastors and congregations across the country might respond, “Amen!” Interestingly, the very people who decry conflict seem unable to break free from it. The people who identify themselves as followers of the Prince of Peace lack peace. Believers who claim the fruit of the Holy Spirit have trouble experiencing or expressing love, joy and peace.
Consider the nature of the congregational community and its difficulties in resolving relational difficulties. How can people learn to forgive and be reconciled to one another? While pastors play many roles in leading God’s people, their position as preachers provides a strong base from which they can help heal conflicted congregations.
The Congregation as Community
God first referred to Israel as a congregation when He initiated the Passover (Exodus 12:3). Previously, Israel was a family, then a group of tribes. Later it would become a nation, but its highest identity was as a congregation—a community of faith that came together to worship and serve the Lord.
For people gathered for such a holy purpose, believers often fail to fulfill their potential. Instead, their reputation is often one of fighting, backbiting, arguing and other forms of conflict. James Hopewell said: “Despite our aspirations, congregations are not timeless havens of congenial views or values. By congregating, human beings are implicated in plot, in a corporate historicity that links us to a specific past that thickens and unfolds a particular present, and that holds out a future open to transformation.”
Part of the reason for congregational conflicts may lie in the fact that they are often more like a typical family. Paul Minear observed the images used to describe the church: God is our Father; we are His sons and daughters; the church is a household of faith. To become part of the Father’s family, we are adopted through being born again. As such, we are heirs with an inheritance as the children of God. We call one another “brother” or “sister.”
Unfortunately, families fight. Some families are dysfunctional (as are some congregations), but family squabbles are also part of the normal functioning of groups of people who interact in close proximity, who are interdependent for their collective purpose, and who simply are people, with the same difficulties human beings have had since the beginning. The key to having a healthy family, or a healthy congregation, involves the nature, duration and resolution of the conflict.
Gilbert Rendle observed: “The fact is that many local congregations, which once spoke openly about themselves as ‘family’ and now casually refer to themselves as communities, are likely to exhibit behavior that is a poor example of either family or community.” In support of this assessment, Alfred Poirier cited a study by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, claiming that “75 percent of congregations reported some level of conflict in the past five years.”
Forty years in vocational Christian work have taught me to expect conflict of various levels among Christian people. Still, I grieve over God’s people when they act ungodly. Instead of living in a way that glorifies their Father, many believers behave like 3-year-olds fighting in the backyard sandbox. Rendle contended: “Many of our congregations are plagued with uncivil behavior. Some experience it daily. For others, it simmers beneath a polite surface waiting to break through with the slightest provocation. Where one would hope to find dialogue, there is instead competitive debate. Where one would hope to see an honest owning of feelings, there are instead anonymous communications. Where one would hope that leaders would deal with clear opinions and facts, there is instead rumor and hearsay.”
Fighting within the Christian family often results in what Ron Susek called a “wounded congregation.” Susek observed that such congregations are characterized by a strain on relationships and family ties, embarrassment about the social stigma of a besmirched reputation, grief and guilt about pain experienced, lost momentum, and children who reject the church altogether as a direct result of the congregation’s violation of biblical authority.
Effects of Conflict
The pain a congregational community inflicts on itself includes several dimensions: Effects on the Body The congregation suffers multiple hurt whenever its members engage in conflict. From individual distress to corporate distrust, a wounded congregation loses, in part, its sense of community. Susek noted the theological nature of the effects of conflict on the church, including confusion about the nature of the church; fear from misunderstanding God’s apparent absence (Why did God let this happen?); insecurity (loss of confidence in God and one another); disappointment in the pastor and other leaders; anger; guilt (Did we do something to deserve this?); discouragement and despair—all leading to “collective paralysis.”
Discouragement and despair can set in like gangrene. One church I helped was looking for a pastor. The two sides of an internal power struggle were so entrenched in their positions that no candidate could rally the 75 percent of votes needed for election. One member of the pastor search committee cried as she asked: “Who would want to be our pastor?”
Effects on the Head
Churches need to understand that ultimately at stake is the reputation of Christ. If He is the Head of the body, then the body’s behavior reflects on Him. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know you are My disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35). Conversely, when believers fight each other, the world has reason to doubt the relationship of the church and its Head and may claim justification for rejecting Christ.
Effects on the Lost: Having arrived at a golf course by myself, I was placed with three other golfers whom I did not know. Trying to be a faithful witness, as we made our way around the course, I asked them about spiritual interests. When one of the players inquired about my church affiliation, he replied, “Oh, I know about you all. You fight all the time.” With little to say in defense of the church, I tried to focus the person’s attention on Christ, whom no one can disparage. Unfortunately, the unchurched tie the reputation of the church closely to that of the Lord. A corollary effect of church conflict is the lack of church growth. Nobody likes being around a family that fights. The lost often stay that way because they see little to be gained from a conflicted congregation.
Causes of Conflict
Conflict resolution experts Speed Leas and Paul Kittlaus employ Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s groupings of causes for church conflict. They note that most people fight about facts, means, ends, or values. Who shot John? How did they shoot John? For what purpose was John shot? Was it a good or bad thing that someone shot John?
Poirier adds these problems among the genesis of conflict: “Divided allegiances, authority issues, boundary making and personal affairs.” Susek contributes the following as common causes of conflict: “Culturally learned resistance to authority, rapid church growth, marketing Jesus (creating a mindset of wanting whatever helps market the church more effectively), freedom and form clash, systemic problems, culture clashing, wounded people and the hidden agendas of multiple staff.” However, Susek wisely observed that the ultimate culprit is “the condition of the human heart,” which is fallen and sinful.
Types of Conflict
No single solution exists for conflict, because it manifests itself in so many ways: Intrapersonal Newton Maloney said, “conflicts exist inside people, not between them.” James agreed: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). Because conflict is an internal matter, peace must also begin within individuals before it can occur between individuals.
Problems occur between people in all walks of life; the church is no exception. Sometimes personalities by their nature conflict with one another, although the Creator intended them to complement each other. Some people are task-oriented, while others enjoy relationships. Some individuals are outgoing and aggressive, while others are more relaxed and responsive. Instead of appreciating the differences and using them to complete the community, people can become annoyed with one another’s uniqueness.
Interpersonal conflict that involves only two or three people should rarely be addressed from the pulpit, especially if the minister is party to the problem. Only a coward attacks others from the seeming safety of the sacred desk. Scripture is clear that interpersonal conflict resolution begins with a personal approach between the parties involved. However, the pastor can teach, exhort and rebuke as he preaches, preparing the way for resolution.
People who are attracted by the powerful emotion of love can be repelled by just as powerful emotions. When couples have problems, they rarely want other people at church to know about their difficulties, much less become involved in them. However, marital conflict often flows over into the congregation as the husband and wife seek allies, supporters and comfort.
Because the church is organized, people experience conflict between organizational groups. Affecting the basic fabric of the church ministry, corporate conflict often revolves around the personalities and agendas of staff or lay leaders. Task issues quickly become personality focused, intensifying the tension.
The Role of the Pastor
The pastor is shepherd, preacher, administrator, counselor, prophet, priest and much more. Dealing with conflict, pastors can be mediators, moderators, counselors and spiritual coaches. Unfortunately, some pastors are so afraid of conflict that they avoid it, ignore it and polish up the resume so they can run from it. They believe they are called to preach and to offer comfort and care, but dislike anything that even resembles problems.
Poirier challenges the pastor: “Do you see peacemaking as a fundamental character of the pastoral calling? Or do you view the conflicts…as amoral intrusions, keeping you from the important moral matters of preaching the gospel? Do you find yourself grumbling about conflicts in the church as annoying detours keeping you from your ‘real calling?’”
Pastors cannot pick and choose their ministries to a congregation. They cannot immerse themselves in the activities they enjoy while ignoring the more difficult, messy tasks of ministry. Richard Baxter echoed the voice of Jesus to unwilling shepherds: “Did I die for them, and wilt not thou look after them? Were they worth My blood, and are they not worth thy labor? Did I come down from heaven to earth, to seek and to save that which was lost; and wilt thou not go to the next door, or street, or village to seek them?…Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation; and was I willing to make thee a co-worker with Me, and wilt thou refuse that little that lieth upon thy hands?”
God not only has reconciled us to Himself through the blood of His Son, He has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). No one can have a shepherd’s heart without accepting this ministry of bringing peace to God’s people. The basis of reconciliation is not merely finding mutual goals, accomplishing compromise or helping people to like one another. The only ground for reconciliation is that which reconciles us to God—the blood of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:19-20).
Personalization: To use the pulpit effectively in peacemaking, the pastor must be incarnational. Whether in the pulpit or the parish, the preacher begins with his own relationship with the Prince of Peace as displayed in His personality and behavior. As Paul wrote to his son in the ministry: “The bishop (pastor) must…given to hospitality…no striker…but patient, not a brawler” (1 Timothy 3:2-3). A man of God must flee the lusts and nature of the flesh while pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness (1 Timothy 6:11). The only fight he engages is the fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12). The pastor’s goal is not merely to live in peace, avoid stress and grow the church, but (as Ken Sande said) to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Additionally, the pastor must relate incarnationally to all parties, bringing them together to Christ. He said: “I’m not the issue, but I can be the channel of Christ’s love.” During intervention with several conflicted churches as an intentional interim pastor, I found that I could relate to people on all sides of various issues, providing a bridge for them to rediscover one another. One key is not playing favorites, but standing against error on all sides—a dangerous, but often necessary precipice.”
Sometimes, the preacher must use bold statements to get the attention of a conflicted congregation. While serving as intentional interim pastor of a deeply divided church, I discovered that part of the problem lay in a barrage of blogs certain members were firing at others on the Internet. After two weeks of building foundational relationships, I addressed the issue directly from the pulpit and declared, “The blogging ends now.” Applause broke out across the audience in affirmation and agreement. The prophet of God must speak boldly against sin in any form, especially when that sin harms the bride of Christ.
At the same time, shepherds must beware of personal attacks. The previous pastor may have been the source of current conflict, but it is improper to remind the people, “Elvis has left the building.” Instead, preachers can teach/preach biblical injunctions regarding conflict resolution and Christian behavior.
Beware of siding with one group against the other. A staff minister at one conflicted church used the pulpit to draw a line in the sand. He brought 12 leaders of the church onto the stage, had them link arms, then held up a rock while challenging anyone from the congregation to throw the rocks of accusation against this formidable group. His action was bold, but counterproductive to conflict resolution.
As undershepherds, pastors can use the pastoral pulpit to guide and encourage people to return to the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. We must remind them of who and whose they are. Rendel remarked: “…congregations seem to have defaulted to the standards and behaviors of the culture rather than claimed and followed the standards and behaviors of their own faith.” Pastors must bring churches back out of the world and into the realm of the kingdom in which they are responsible to glorify the Lord.”
Principles for Preaching that Heals
Determine Your Goal: In his vital work The Peacemaker, Ken Sande quotes Justice Antonin Scalia in asking whether one’s goal is vindication, vengeance or peace. Sande urges believers to follow Christ’s command to “love one another” as He had loved them (John 13:34). If our goal is to express Christ’s love as we have experienced Christ’s love, we will not seek personal gain, but will desire the best for others. Preachers can help congregants consider their agendas within a conflict in light of God’s love. Texts such as 1 Corinthians 13 come to mind for this purpose.
Lead People to Pray: Paul promised the Philippians “the peace of God which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds…” (Philippians 4:7) How is that possible? The previous verse puts the promise within the context of not being anxious about anything, but praying about everything (Philippians 4:6). By preaching about prayer and leading people to pray, we can help congregants bring their heartaches to the cross. As they find inner peace, they can better seek inter-relational peace.
Build on Congregational Strengths: Preachers may employ numerous motivational appeals while preaching to heal their congregations. In his insightful book Firestorm, Ron Susek points to four pillars of strength the pastor must utilize in his ministry. The reconciling pastor also can use these four emphases in preaching to help heal a hurting congregation:
“Truth: Presenting Christ in concept and communication (teaching what and whom we believe).
Relationship: Presenting Christ in companionship (building bonds of trust).
Rendle advocates helping congregations create a covenant (ground rules of behavior and cooperation). Pastor can use the pulpit to remind people of their covenant relationships with God and one another.
Integrity: Presenting Christ in character and conduct (practical holiness).
Mission: Presenting Christ in conquest (vision—purpose with a plan).”
Learn to ‘Live Loved’: In a telephone interview, Dallas Demmitt related how in his advancing years he was learning to “live loved.” Well-known for his lessons about discovery listening,18 Demmitt has been helping people discover how to be loved in order to love. Preach on the love Christ has for the congregation and you may help the congregation learn to love Christ and one another.
Encourage Communication: Most conflict escalates when communication shuts down. When people feel they no longer are being heard or no longer care what the other parties think, they close the channels that make reconciliation possible. From the pulpit, pastors can model and encourage open, honest communication. At the same time, they can remind members that godly communication exhibits love (Ephesians 4:15). Share the wisdom of God’s Word applied to healing communication: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Other helpful texts include Proverbs 10:1; Proverbs 13:3; James 1:19; James 3:5-10; and James 4:11.
Find Forgiveness: When the apostle Paul wanted members of the Colossian church to forgive one another, he reminded them that God, for Christ’s sake, had forgiven them. Only by finding forgiveness can we forgive others. One reason is that we cannot receive forgiveness until we admit to having sinned. Withholding forgiveness of others often is the result of focusing on their wrong-doing, while disregarding our own. People who have confronted their own sin are more likely to be kind and compassionate about others’ sin. Forgiven people have experienced God’s grace and tend to share His grace more freely. Preach about sin, but also preach about grace and forgiveness. Sometimes, preachers may find occasion to be confessional (within proper limits) so others might join in their experience of God’s grace.
Discounting sin does not aid reconciliation, but rather hinders it. Without genuine contrition over wrong-doing, people leave little ground for belief in their desire for resolution. Preachers cannot succeed at reducing tension by minimizing the sins of either party in a conflict. Instead, the pastor must hold out the Scripture verses that relate to specific issues at hand and then depend on the Holy Spirit to do what only He can do to reprove hearers of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). When people truly confront the reality of personal sin, they have only two choices: to repent and return to God or try to flee His presence. Reconciling pastors proclaim the value of repentance toward God and one another.
Develop Believers’ Identity as Christ’s Disciples
Pastors can use numerous biblical passages to help their listeners rediscover their true identity as disciples of Jesus. Preaching on John 13:35, we can help Christians remember the community does not recognize them as Christians simply because they are members of a church. Only by their mutual love can they claim to be the sons of God (Matthew 5:9).
Poirier noted that Paul’s letters are “peacemaking letters” and that “God purposes peace.” Help people grow as disciples of the Prince of Peace by learning to make peace with one another. Peace with others is not possible unless one is at peace with God and with one’s self. Sande observed: “Internal peace is a by-product of righteousness” (Romans 5:1-2; Isaiah 32:17). As believers become disciples who walk with Christ, they desire greater expression of His righteousness in their lives, naturally leading to repentance, confession, restitution and reconciliation—first with God and then with others. Help them discover their roles and responsibility in peacemaking: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
Offer a Common Direction
Dr. Fred Wood advised me: “Sometimes the people need the tonic of a great task.” Sometimes, focusing on the problems is not the most effective route to reconciliation. Instead, preachers can help people discover what they have in common. On what can they agree? While mediating a church conflict in Florida, I challenged the people to find a common direction. What five priorities would God have them pursue for the coming 12 months? As they worked through that question, based on the biblical foundations offered from the pulpit each Sunday, they eventually arrived at a point where they could declare a truce. As they then pursued their mutual goals, they rediscovered the joy of God’s service and eventually reconciled for His glory.
• Pray. Ensure the message originates from God, not the preacher’s frustration.
• Consider the people, as well as passage. Think about how you present truth to the flesh and blood personalities in your pews.
• Love people. Demonstrate your genuine care between Sundays, as well as during the sermon.
• Focus on bringing people first to Christ. As they draw close to Him, they will get closer to each other.
• Recognize there are times to go through the front door and times for the side door. Inductive preaching with an authoritative conclusion often can accomplish what confrontation cannot. (I do not advocate the weak approach of Craddock and cannot accept his position that preachers speak “as one without authority.” However, by using the inductive method of presenting authoritative truth as Peter did at Pentecost, preachers can bring their people along the same path of discovery they have walked, arriving at the “aha” moment of biblical application in the conclusion.)
• Preach expositorily. The Word of God, not the word of a man, is the only tool powerful enough to break through the emotional barriers of a conflicted congregation. Preach the Word!
• Use warm worship to soften people’s hearts. Remember that most worship wars can be avoided if all people are allowed to worship in the music and style most appealing to them and to God. Also, teach people that worship involves much more than music such as prayer, preaching, giving, serving and other expressions.
Nearly every scriptural pericope has potential for preaching to heal conflicted congregations. Some of the most obvious texts include:
• Psalms 34:14: “Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.”
• Psalms 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; as the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the Lord commanded the blessing, even life forevermore.”
• Proverbs 12:20: “Deceit is in the heart of them that imagine evil: but to the counselors of peace is joy.”
• Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
• Mark 9:50: “Salt is good: but if the salt has lost his saltness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.”
• Romans 12:18: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”
• Romans 14:17-19: “For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serves Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.”
• 1 Corinthians 14:33: “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”
• 1 Corinthians 13:11: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.”
• Galatians 5:22-26: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.”
• Ephesians 4:1-3: “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
• Hebrews 12:14-15: “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled.”