Paul Clark

“Marriage means expectations and expectations mean conflict.” (Paxton Blair)

“Every word has three definitions and three interpretations.” (Costa Rican proverb)

I read somewhere, that if pastors habitually ignore or avoid resolving conflict situations, it might be better to look for another profession. Without a doubt, conflict resolution, is one of the most unpleasant and difficult tasks that leaders have to deal with. Most of us are just plain lovers of harmony.

Carey Nieuwhof lists four reasons why we as pastors and leaders struggle to deal with conflict in the local church:

1 In the name of grace, we feel we need to sacrifice truth.

2 When we do speak truth, we often don’t know how to speak it with grace.

3 We worry about hurting other people’s feelings, when the best thing we can do is offer honest feedback.

4 We’re not sure how to support someone we genuinely disagree with.

One pastor friend stated: “I would rather be a teddy bear and give out hugs than be a shepherd carrying a staff in my hand.” My friend admitted later that the pure “teddy bear” approach turned out to be a poor tool for the healthy development of his church.

Gary Allen believes one of the main reasons most churches are not growing or have plateaued is due to a lack of healthy conflict resolution. “Many churches are stuck in interpersonal conflict that hinders effective ministry. This conflict cycle continues because the church does not have the ability to resolve conflict. If the pastor is intentional in learning better conflict management skills, demonstrating those skills, and leading the congregation through effective conflict management, he or she can significantly minimize conflict in the church.”

As leaders we often hope that difficult inner personal conflicts will somehow go away by themselves. I have discovered the opposite is true, and the longer I wait to address a conflict situation, the worse it usually becomes. There is a lot of truth in the German proverb that says, “better to have a terrifying end, than continual terror that never ends.”  Paul’s admonishes spiritual leaders to speak the” truth in love.”  However, there is no guarantee that everyone will shout hallelujah after we share the truth!

One thing I do know, emails, Facebook posts, and WhatsApp messages are inadequate tools to resolve conflict within the church. I agree whole heartily with Terry Linhart, who has set guidelines in his organizations, that inter personal or ministry conflicts should never be dealt with by email or social media. 

From time to time (thankfully not too often) I receive emails or WhatsApp messages that are anything other than personally edifying.  In such unpleasant situations I have consciously decided never to respond by shooting from the hip, followed by hitting the answer icon.  By giving into the “fire back” temptation, one easily slips into the dark abyss of misunderstandings, opinions and cutting remarks, that are volleyed back and forth, similar to a ping pong match. Written words running wild will never resolve conflict. However, I usually try to schedule a meeting in person or by phone, to clarify the aggravated author’s concern.

Even when conflict is resolved, not everyone will be happy. It is true that you can’t please all the people all the time.  Conflict resolution is generally not a win-win situation, but clarification and a clear direction for the future health of the church must be a priority.

As a pastor and shepherd, I have the responsibility to make sure the church does not become a free-for-all, where various forms of discontent and quarrels are left on display for all to see. You cannot change what you refuse to confront.

Sad to say, too many churches leaders have become enablers, allowing a few individuals to propagate their own personal agendas and hobby horse topics. Such members are not seeking the good of the whole body but tend to be more concerned about their own image, desiring attention and recognition.

Oh, how I do wish there was an easy answer to resolve conflicts within the local church. Reading the Acts and the Epistles, various methods were applied to resolve conflicts, and not all were entirely successful.

Gary Allen writes: “In the pain and anger of conflict, pastors often want to resolve the situation immediately. This is understandable. But in reality, conflict management is a leadership lifestyle. A pastor minimizes and manages conflict by using ongoing leadership skills and abilities. Conflict cannot be completely prevented but pastors must be as preventative as possible in intentionally leading and training people.”

I remember one time confronting a woman about a particular conflict situation, and afterwards she was positively changed. Each time she saw me during the next few weeks in church, she would always come up to me and gave yours truly a big hug. She felt so blessed to experience caring confrontation, since it led to relieving a difficult conflict issue. However, I have experienced other conflict situations, where my caring confrontation, did not bear this kind of positive fruit, and sad to say, fell on deaf ears.

The Apostle Paul recognized, that even in the church, it was not possible to be at peace with everyone. It is paramount, that we know in our hearts, relying on the Lord, that we have done all we can to resolve conflict. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

I do not know what particular conflict situation you might be dealing with today. Maybe you feel overwhelmed, knowing that you have put off too long a conversation, that you need to initiate with someone who is causing conflict in the church.  Here are some ways to begin.

1 James 1:5 has always been an encouragement to me when I face conflict situations. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”

2 Don’t forget, as leaders we are in a spiritual marathon and not a spiritual sprint. It is vital that we persevere long-term in the calling that God has given us.

3 When necessary, do not be too proud, to seek wise and mature counsel. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

Be encouraged today, that as we step out in faith, this difficult situation will too pass! Never forget, that Jesus is the head of His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail!

(Please note, I have also written an in-depth paper Managing Conflict in the Church that is available online.)