Some helpful principles on dealing with conflict within church

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - In a world of shifting expectations and polarized opinions, it is no surprise that conflict remains a force of division and frustration within the church. Whether it’s because of change, a difference of opinion, slander or gossip, churches are filled with imperfect people who are going to fuss from time to time.


So how do Kentucky Baptists pursue peace, goodwill and purity amid conflict? Andy Gowins, co-pastor of East Hartford Baptist Church, Larry Purcell, KBC regional consultant, and Peggy Berry, KBC women and transition associate, offer nine helpful principles.

  1. Conflict is a matter of when, not if.


Conflict is inevitable, explained Purcell. “A ministry leader should not be surprised when a disagreement comes to the surface.” Part of this awareness involves preparedness, he said.


“Ministry leaders are in competition with limited resources as in use of space, leaders, calendar and finances. Competition for a church’s limited resources becomes the cause for identifying different values, goals, and desires for various ministries,” said Purcell.


“In my 30-plus years of ministry, I have had more seasons of conflict than not, but they have all been good in the sense that they have allowed me to lead God’s Church into a closer relationship with Him,” said Gowins.


“As leaders—in our churches, in our occupations, in our neighborhoods, in our relationships, in our parenting, and, yes, in our marriages—conflict is certain. For change is constant if we are growing and maturing in these different relational dynamics,” he said.
 

  1. Conflict stems from the heart.


“James 4:1-3 reminds us that the cause of conflict is not just competition between various ministries, it is from within a person,” said Purcell.


Purcell reminded that there is only one cure for a corrupt heart—the gospel. “The Apostle reminds the church then and now that the most important focus of the church is the gospel. This is also a reminder that a pastor or ministry leader must be a person of the Word and prayer.”

  1. Identify the right problem.


Berry said “many times, what presents as the problem is not the problem, it’s a surface issue.” She suggests mediators to spend time with those in the conflict to identify the real problem at hand.


She explained that theological differences, power and control issues, fuzzy expectations and change are four such root problems that cause surface-level issues.


“Sadly, I often see the issues of power and control—who has it, who wants it, what am I willing to do to get it and keep it?” she said.


“Also, I see the issue of fuzzy expectations. There are times the pastor or staff member did not know the issue was an expectation until they disappointed someone. There are times when someone assumed something that was unclear. Clear expectations from all members of staff, church and church leadership are vital.” 


Lastly, Berry explained that change in any capacity is often difficult for congregations and can cause conflict. “It is a good practice for leadership to get input before instituting major change. Changes should be planned and methodically thought out before implemented.”



  1. Take the RIGHT information to the RIGHT person. 


“Describe the incident that hurt you and how it made you feel,” Berry suggests. “Always listen for feedback and try to not be defensive. We tend to listen with our own filters and prejudice. Repeating what you heard the person say is a good practice.” 


“Make sure what they said is what you heard. Our hearing filters are prejudiced in our favor. A conversation can usually result in a good outcome by simply sitting down and talking early into the misunderstanding. It may take more than one hard conversation. Establishing rules of confidentiality is good if both parties agree,” she said.

  1. Address the issue in a timely manner.


“In my present role, I think most of the calls I receive about conflict come as a 911 call,” said Purcell. “I would ask that pastors and ministry leaders not wait too long to ask for assistance. The assistance may just be to have someone to listen to them and keep it confidential. Pastors need someone to pray with them, listen to them and share some of the best practices. There is wisdom in the counsel of many.”


“Address the issue quickly,” Berry said. “The longer it goes the deeper the hurts can become. We tend to dwell on our hurts until they can become distorted and out of proportion.”

  1. Navigating conflict well can lead to growth.

“I find in my own walk that when I experience conflict, it makes me more reliant upon the Lord,” said Purcell. “This prevents me from taking credit for any success and humbles me as a leader. Conflict will cause me to ask the valuable question, ‘Why am I doing what I am doing?”

Gowins said, “I would propose that conflict is a good thing when handled in a godly and righteous manner. If you are going to lead anything, then you will have to face conflicts as you make decisions that impact people, groups, and organizations. How one handles that conflict reveals his or her true character, their true heart and their true identity.”

  1. Avoid gossip and be humble.


“Gossip is like plaque in the veins of the church. Sooner or later the heart is affected,” said Berry. Gossip often stems from a place of pride in desiring to talk bad of others, she explained.


“Checking our motives for spreading any kind of information that can become inflammatory should be the norm. This can be taught and practiced in a congregation. This would come from Biblical study, training and modeling from leaders of the church. We can all learn to be better,” she said.

  1. Consider another’s perspective.


Purcell encourages those involved in conflict to get input from people who see things differently than they do. “I invite people to meet with me and talk through changes I am considering, and these persons are different in personality and much more detailed-oriented thinkers. I value their input and push back.


“I also go to small groups, Sunday School classes or meetings with various church groups to share and listen to their responses to plans or ideas. This allows for proper feedback and a time of prayer,” he said.

  1. You are not alone in times of conflict.


All of the leaders wanted to remind church members and leaders that they are not alone during seasons of conflict.


“I believe that the art and skill of conflict resolution is to be found in God’s Word. There is a prescribed order and methodology for conflict confrontation and resolution found in Matthew 18:15-20,” said Gowins.


The KBC regional consultants and KBC staff are available as a resource provided by the Cooperative Program. Purcell encouraged any pastor or church leader facing conflict to reach out.


“The CCR consultants and myself are highly trained and skilled in conflict resolution and mediation,” Berry said. “We have resources and devotional materials to help churches in conflict. We will contextualize our training to fit the church based on the issues we are working with.”



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