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Resolving conflicts between pastors and parishioners

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Archives / 1996 / October



Resolving conflicts between pastors and parishioners

David VanDenburgh

David VanDenburgh, D.Min., is senior pastor of the Kettering Seventh-day Adventist Church and adjunct faculty member of Kettering College, Kettering, Ohio, United States.


Conflicts between churches and their pastors are becoming more frequent. Reasons are many and varied. Whatever the causes, pastor-parishioner conflicts are so frequent that they absorb too much time and energy and inhibit God's work at many levels.

Scope and purpose

This article does not attempt to solve all the problems of pastors and parishioners. It does not explain why the conflicts arise. It limits itself to out lining a process by which the conflict can be resolved. It advocates a process that is biblical and consistent with the principle that all things be done decently and in order.

This proposal is undoubtedly biased in favor of pastors. I am a pastor and tend to see things from the pastor's point of view. Often enough the pastor ends up as the scapegoat for conflict in the local church. The conflict may even be the result of the pastor doing precisely what he or she needs to do for the good of the congregation. An intensified episode of conflict may also be the result of deep and systemic issues that have been a part of the congregational family system for years and rooted in circumstances that happened long before the pastor arrived. So my purpose in this article is to look at dealing with congregational conflict constructively, seeking a resolution that justly involves the pastor, but does not hang everything on him or her.

One problem this proposal addresses is what may be seen as the over-involvement or premature involvement of the conference president in pastor-parishioner conflicts. This kind of "firefighting" is death to proactive conference leadership and creative visioning. The conference can ill afford to have its primary leader embroiled in such disputes. This article rather proposes the use of the conference ministerial association secretary as the chief negotiator in pastor-parishioner conflicts that cannot be resolved, first of all, in and by the local congregation. This reserves the conference president for those rare situations that escalate beyond local and ministerial confines. The ministerial secretary has the confidence of the pastors, and having in most cases most recently been a pastor, understands congregational dynamics. There should be added benefits in utilizing one person for all such conflicts: before long he or she should become an expert.

Situations addressed

In most cases, conflict situations begin with one or two church members who become unhappy with their pastor over something he or she has said or done or has not said or done. From there the conflict spreads as more and more church members are brought into the conversation. Eventually the conflict comes to involve a sufficient number of parishioners so that it begins impairing the life, well-being, and ministry of the flock. By this time people will have spent more time and energy talking about "the problem" than talking of Christ and His ministry through the church. Trust between pastor and parishioner will have declined. The pastor's preaching and teaching will have become suspect; motives will be questioned on all sides and character called into doubt. The core issue may be perceived as theological, procedural, or personal, but all too quickly the issue ceases to be the issue. In fact, in virtually all cases the "issue" is not the issue, but rather some underlying systemic dysfunction.

Ultimate resolution may come by addressing issues that seem to have nothing to do with "the issue" and may involve the congregational family, along with the pastor, passing through considerable but necessary pain. Unfortunately, few people have interest in experiencing growth if it involves pain, so ultimate resolution of the conflict is unlikely without persistent and consistent commitment to it. The process outlined here hopes to create an environment that will facilitate healing and conflict resolution.

Priorities of the process

The process is built upon three priorities derived from Jesus' direction about how to deal with interpersonal conflict among believers as outlined in Matthew 18.

1. Contain the conflict at the lowest level and resolve it there. If the conflict is between two people, then containing the conflict at the lowest level means that no third person ever needs to know about it. For one thing, this precludes gossip. No party should talk to others about their conflict with the other person. The commandment "not [to] bear false witness" precludes telling my friends about my conflict with another when he or she is not present to relate his or her side of the story. My side of the story is never the truth: it is simply the truth as I see it. The whole truth has not been told until both sides have a chance to hear what the other side is saying and to respond to it in as limited a setting as is called for by the scope of the conflict.

Gossip has caused incalculable harm to the church and its ministry. Saddest of all is the blindness of Christians who can't or won't see that talking about the failings of a person without having talked about those failings to that person first is always gossip.

In other words, stop gossiping, and you contain the conflict at the lowest level.

2. Do not hold meetings in secret. Holding secret meetings to which the person under discussion is not invited is inappropriate. There is no need to counsel with others: Jesus has already given us clear instruction on what to do.

3. Make the conflict an opportunity for growth rather than sickness. Conflict is both inevitable and a potent means of growth. If contention is handled correctly, all parties will come out of it stronger and more mature. We can't afford to avoid problems. We must bring them to the surface, face them, resolve them, and learn from them.

Conflicts are inevitable. Church membership doesn't save one from conflict. The book of Acts frankly describes the conflicts of the New Testament church.

In Matthew 18 Jesus says, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt. 18:15-17).*

Here Jesus prefaces His direction with "if another member of the church sins against you." That phrase frames the first question that must be asked before a biblical conflict resolution process can be initiated: "Has my brother or my sister sinned against me?" If the answer is no, then I should not pursue the matter any further. If the offense is not a sin, then it is simply a matter of individual difference. For instance, this would be the case if my brother or sister has done something unconsciously and with clear con science that I don't happen to like, but he or she didn't do it to hurt me. I don't like it, and if I disagree with it, I am free to go to him or her and talk about it, but it should go no further.

If, on the other hand, I am angry with my brother or my sister for no reason and attempt to enlist others in my anger over this imagined or exaggerated grievance, then I have sinned against my brother or my sister, and I become the object of the process Jesus described.

Clearly Jesus intended His directions to be followed whenever there is a conflict between Christians. When we apply Jesus' directions to a conflict between a congregation and its pastor, we come out with a protocol that involves five steps.

Four practical steps

1. Go to the pastor directly. The person with the complaint should go to the pastor personally and privately, without discussing his or her complaint with any other person. In a spirit of love and humility, recognizing that he or she may have misunderstood, lay the conflict before the pastor and ask for clarification. Is this actually what was said or done? Is this what was intended? Why is this objectionable? What would he or she like to see done about it?

If satisfactory resolution is achieved at this step, the matter is closed and ought not to be shared with any other person either by the pastor or the parishioner. If a satisfactory resolution is not achieved, and if the situation still seems to call for it, then the parishioner should go on to the next step.

2. Take one or two elders and go to the pastor again. At this point the aggrieved parishioner should meet with one or two elders and tell them the complaint and that he or she has already shared it with the pastor directly, but to no avail. Either the pastor refused to listen to the complaint or gave an explanation that was unsatisfactory. Perhaps the pastor refused either to apologize or to change. Whatever the outcome, the parishioner still believes that the pastor is wrong and needs to be corrected.

If the elders advise the parishioner that he or she has no case, the process may stop right there, and nothing more should be said about it. If the parishioner feels strongly that he or she must talk with the pastor with the elders present, the elders should accommodate him or her.

If the resulting conversation results in satisfactory resolution, again, the matter is closed and no one else should ever hear about it.

If satisfactory resolution is not achieved, then the parishioner should go on to the next step, again with no discussion of the conflict with anyone beyond the pastor and the elders.

3. Ask for a formal hearing before the church board with the pastor present. Up to this point the conflict has been private; it now becomes public.

The church board should hear the complaint against the pastor, then the board should ask whatever questions are necessary to determine what the real issues are. It is a fundamental principle of justice, and a fundamental biblical principle, that an accused person has the right to face the accuser and hear firsthand the accusation. Therefore, all parties to the conflict should be present for the entire discussion. Time should be given to both parties to explain their positions. The board may be tempted to exert influence to keep the conflict under the table, but the conflict should be explored and discussed. Conflict denied creates sickness.

Hopefully, discussion will bring a resolution in which both parties will emerge satisfied. If not, the board should take its time in making a decision that will be just and merciful, and will preserve the best interests of the church. Paul's statement to the Corinthians might be kept in mind: "Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?" (1 Cor. 6:2).

If, however, the church board cannot bring about reconciliation and the parties continue divided, the next step is to involve the conference leadership---the larger church.

4. Ask for the ministerial secretary from the conference to meet with the church board and the pastor. This is the first time the conference is involved.

Only after every effort has been made to resolve the conflict at the congregational level should the conflict escalate to the conference level.

The contact person for pastor-parishioner conflicts is the ministerial secretary. He is the person charged with pastor-conference relations. He has recent and extensive knowledge of pastoral and congregational life. If the conflict cannot be resolved even at this level, appeal to the conference president is available, only after the process outlined here has been tried in good faith.

The ministerial secretary should meet with the church board and the pastor. Again, all parties should be present to hear the discussion. Nothing is to be gained by secrecy. Conflicts are not resolved without frankly airing the issues.

Far-reaching resolutions are needed

Often conflicts are not merely misunderstandings or concerns that can be easily resolved. They may stem from deep, foundational differences in philosophy about the church, ministry, theology, leadership, or relationships.

The pastor may be in conflict with the parishioners involved, or they with him or her, not because they don't under stand each other, but because they do, and they see that they are locked in a struggle for the identity and/or mission of the church. For example, the pastor believes that worship should be a celebration of adoration and praise, and the parishioners believe that worship should be a solemn time of repentance and soul affliction. The two are likely to continue in conflict as long as they are together.

At this point it falls to the church board to decide whether the pastor's vision of church and ministry and leadership is the one they want, or the one the contending parishioners want. The board must face this responsibility clearly and make a decision. There is no point in trying to compromise or harmonize. If the conflict stems from foundational, fundamental, essential matters of vision, direction, and leader ship, then the board must decide which way the congregation will go and act accordingly to affirm one group's vision or the other's.

If the ministerial secretary can help all parties come to a satisfactory resolution, the process has worked and God is honored. If not, the board should decide the question of vision, ministry, direction, mission, and leadership apart from the question of the pastor. Here the conference should be employed. The decision should be What do we choose as our vision for this church? Only then should the board ask the question Do we believe this pastor can lead us into that vision?

One thing that needs to be recognized in any conflict situation is the inevitability of conflict whenever change is sought. The church board must be very sure that the conflict that creates so much discomfort in the congregation isn't simply the result of an inevitable, necessary, and even desirable change that is occurring among them. It is important to remember that good pastoral leadership almost always produces change, and change is always uncomfortable, especially in institutions that are inherently conservative. It would be a mistake to fire a pastor for orchestrating the very change that the church needed in order to be more effective.

One person's "strong leadership" is another person's "dictatorship." It is frequently confusing and difficult to tell which is occurring in a specific situation. Entrenched lay leadership will always resist change, especially the kind of change that brings new people into leadership roles. In my experience, this is frequently the cause of complaints against pastoral leadership. Such entrenched leadership has almost no capacity to see that change is good, and the pastor is almost always identified as the source of their discomfort over what is changing in their congregation. An objective church board would see the issues and vote for change, however painful. In practice, it is more common for church boards to vote to get rid of the pastor. If the ministerial director can help the board to be objective and see the larger issues, well and good. If not, perhaps the best that can be achieved is a quick pastoral move to a more open and teachable congregation.

The final step: the conference president

If the conflict cannot be resolved by meetings between the factions, the church board, and the conference ministerial secretary, the last court of appeal is the conference president. This is the end of the resolution process, not its beginning. The president prob ably should refuse to meet with any delegations from the church until the ministerial secretary tells him that the process is over and hopelessly dead locked. As long as the ministerial secretary is working with the process and is willing to continue, it is wise for the president to be removed from it.

Suggested reading

Augsburger, David W. Anger and Assertiveness in Pastoral Care. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

Bagby, Daniel G. Understanding Anger in the Church. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979.

Bossart, Donald E. Creative Conflict in Religious Education and Church Administration. Birmingham: Reli gious Education Press, 1980.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. The Changemasters: Innovation/or Productivity in the American Corporation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983.

Kittlaus, Paul, and Speed Leas. Church Fights: Managing Conflict in the Local Church. Philadelphia: West minster Press, 1973.

Lewis, Douglass. Resolving Church Conflicts: A Case Study Approach for Local Congregations. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Schaller, Lyle E. The Change Agent: The Strategy of Innovative Leadership. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Walrath, Douglas Alan. Leading Churches Through Change. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1979.

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* All Scripture passages in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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