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Mar28FriMediation expert Alan Simpson on the good, bad and ugly of church conflict. March 28, 2014 by Melissa Yue Wallace
When a lively discussion turns into a full-blown argument, do you behave aggressively, stand your ground or shut down? Many people have experienced the pain of unresolved conflicts at home and work. And when they happen at your corps, the ripple effects can be devastating. Brokenness can be found in the lives of once-avid Christ-followers who seem to transform into hard-hearted agnostics overnight.
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Alan Simpson has seen a lot of conflict in churches. As the director of Christian Mediation Canada, Simpson has taught conflict management skills to congregations of various denominations, including Salvation Army corps, for 11 years. Features editor Melissa Yue Wallace speaks to Simpson to find out what churches can do to resolve conflicts effectively.
What have you observed about the way people deal with conflict in churches?
There are five responses to conflict: avoid, accommodate, adjust, assert and assist. We often have a built-in natural tendency toward one.
My experience with church and with people in general is we tend to avoid conflict. We avoid it because it feels bad, we've seen negative effects in others or we act poorly in conflict, so we don't know how to properly respond. What I want to do is flip that mentality around and help leaders and churches value conflict and see it as potentially creative, productive and transformative.
What practical steps do you recommend to churches to resolve conflicts?
First, we have to understand how we think about conflict and why we resist it instead of having a good look at it. How do we separate the personal conflict from the actual issue? How we think about conflict will inform how we act in conflict.
In The Peacemaker, Ken Sande mentions four Gs when dealing with conflict.
1. Glorify God. Be willing to surrender to the Lord's request in the situation and be willing to be adjusted by his Spirit.
2. Get the log out of your own eye. Ask yourself what it is that has gotten you in this conflict. Is there something that is preventing you from seeing clearly? What is your responsibility and what can you do about it?
3. Gently restore. Go directly to those you have conflict with and go with the attitude of seeking to understand before being understood.
4. Go and be reconciled. This doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is best buddies again, but that we've resolved our issues. Even if we may not agree, we are able to bless each other and not hold things against each other.
How has the nature of conflict changed in congregations over the years? Are people still fighting over the same issues?
The current issues that I deal with in congregations have a lot to do with decision-making processes. It's more about “who gets to make the decision in the church,” and a lot of that has to do with history. Fifty years ago, 89 percent of people, no matter what congregation they were in, would have an understanding of how decisions were made. Nowadays, you might have 20 to 30 percent of people who have an understanding of the denomination they're in while others have come from different denominations, no denomination or don't value a denomination background. So they come in and are confused because maybe what they're used to is a congregational model and now it's a leader model and their expectations are the same. It creates unnecessary conflict and is based on who gets to make decisions.
In a corps, because there are commanders, corps officers and soldiers, it's very “military-style” in its decision-making. It's much more directive and congregations may struggle if they don't understand that it's how decisions are made. It's a current tension in the church.
This doesn't mean corps leaders have to change their decision-making style or process, but it does mean they have to be good listeners. They have to communicate well and manage conflict well so that they're reducing negative conflict for congregation members. They have to be clear on their expectations of how decisions are made. People want to be included in those decisions and corps leaders need to be able to find a way for them to be heard and be included, without necessarily giving up their authority to make a decision. That's been a major shift in the last 10 years.
From your visits with other congregations, have you seen a leadership style that has worked to reduce conflict?
Any governing structure or decision-making model can work. The key is, “Do we have healthy leaders working the system?” I've seen leader-led, top-down congregations that are beautiful and people are happy because their leadership is the immune system of the organization. If the leadership is secure, they communicate, listen well and are as inclusive as possible. If the leadership is not secure, they don't know how to manage conflict, they have emotional issues and—what is often true in The Salvation Army—they're overworked. Those things contribute to ill health in leadership and result in negative conflict within the congregation.
What happens when congregations don't resolve their conflicts?
Since we have a culture of avoidance of conflict, people leave because churches aren't dealing with their stuff. Pastors are burning out and a lot of that has to do with the expectations that are placed on them. It creates a great cost for the church and for the cause of Christ because the church isn't seen as a place that deals transparently, inclusively or carefully with conflict. Rather than trying to understand what the conflict's about and trying to create processes for people to have those conversations in safe environments, we treat people harshly and judgmentally.
Are there Scripture verses that you draw on when teaching conflict resolution?
Absolutely! The whole passage in Ephesians 4 is about how we should talk with each other. We should not have unwholesome talk, we should build each other up and not hold grudges, but forgive each other as Christ has forgiven us.
Another would be Romans 12:18: “If it is possible … live at peace with everyone.” The goal isn't so much about reconciliation as the ultimate goal of peace, which brings wholeness, completeness and connectedness. It's not the absence of conflict, but how we manage conflict in our midst. If I'm honest with myself, I have to reveal my thoughts to another and I have to be willing to listen to someone else, even though they're different from me.
Matthew 18:15-17 is about the steps to take if your brother or sister sins against you, to go to them individually, then take someone else as a witness, then tell it to the church. Unless we're able to define what the “sin” is, it is not helpful to use that passage. So often, churches use that passage inappropriately for dealing with conflict. It's like using a sledgehammer on a mosquito. It's too much for non-sin conflict. So can you be in conflict and not be in sin? I would say yes. Conflict is more neutral than negative and how we behave in conflict will make it either destructive or non-destructive and has a tendency to move toward sin depending on how we behave.
Are there any cases in which conflict can't be resolved?
I'm thankful for Romans 12:18, which says, “If it is possible.” That means, sometimes it's not possible. It might be the wrong time or an unwillingness to deal with pride.
If it's the wrong time, the way to deal with conflict is through prayer. Present yourself to God and say, “God, what work do you want to do in me?” Inquire of the Scriptures and say, “What do I apply here? Do I need to go to this person and try again? Is it a church discipline issue that needs to be looked after?”
A biblical example of an unresolved conflict would be in Acts 15:36-41, when Paul and Barnabas had an argument over whether to bring John, also called Mark, with them on a mission trip. They were at opposite ends and decided to go their separate ways. That's an option as well for unresolved conflict. The key is, we may not be able to resolve the issue, but can we keep our hearts in check with each other before God and leave the issue for now?
Describe a healthy congregation.
A healthy congregation would start with leadership having the capacity to communicate and manage change and conflict well. Then it would be a congregation that has a culture of conflict awareness and biblical peacemaking training such that, when there are issues between brothers and sisters, they're able to resolve most of it themselves. On a personal level, they have to check their assumptions, seek to understand and think the best of each other rather than the worst. Then leadership can provide an opportunity for the congregation to have a voice.
What would you say to someone experiencing conflict?
Conflict isn't sin; we choose to sin in conflict. Take courage and pursue conflict. Don't be shy and don't allow the troll underneath the bridge to sound louder than he is—bring it out into the open and into the light. Create a safe environment for having those difficult conversations and trust that God is in the midst of it and he will, by his Spirit, give you the confidence and help that you need.
For a resource kit available to pastors and church leaders at no cost, e-mail Alan Simpson at email@example.com.