Managing conflict in the church

Suggested ways of handling church conflict.

H. Jack Morris, D. Min., is pastor of Largo Community Church, Mitchellville, Maryland.

Conflict and division destroys faith and blights the Christian witness in the community. Some churches with a great history of evangelism and growth have been torn apart by dissension and factions and are now only a shadow of what they used to be.

The potential for conflict exists where two or more people are present, and the church is people. People often experience conflict as a result of divergent ideas and opinions, conflicting ambitions and goals, and varying needs and concerns. The potential for conflict is never far away. It crouches at the door ready to move in to disrupt, divide, embarrass, and destroy all that is sacred and holy.

The church must ever be prepared to become actively involved in the ministry of reconciliation. We are a new creation, a community of love, living in answer to Jesus' prayer, "Father, make them one, even as we are one." We are a prophetic people empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim by word, action, and example the redemptive, reconciling message of Christ. For a gathering of people to call itself a church, it must be a reflection of the first assembly that congregated in the upper room where there was prayer, fellowship, and oneness.

Conflict and people

All conflict is not necessarily bad. Conflict that is dealt with, discussed, managed, and resolved can be good. This kind of conflict provides an opportunity for growth and creative change. On the other hand, conflict that is left unattended and ignored can destroy unity, hinder growth, and render ministry ineffective.

Conflict is caused by people. It does not simply begin and then evolve within a vacuum. The apostle James gives some insight into the personality types who are instrumental in stirring up and participating in church conflict. He asks a pointed rhetorical question, "What causes fights and quarrels among you?" (James 4:1, NIV). Then he answers it by telling us that church conflicts are caused by:

1. Self-centered people. James points to self-centeredness as a source for the origin of church conflicts. He refers to "your desires" (verse 1); "You want something"; "You kill [literally hate] and covet" (verse 2); "You [have] wrong motives"; "You . . . spend what you get on your pleasures" (verse 3). Notice how often the words "you" and "your" appear. Church conflict occurs when people in the congregation put their personal ideas, thoughts, and motives above what is best for the congregation.

2. Angry people. Another source of church conflict is anger or hate. The hallmark of the church and its most perfect means of ministering to the world is love. Yet James tells us that Christians are capable of killing (figuratively speaking) one another with hate. When a Christian manifests a hateful attitude toward another Christian it is misplaced anger. Psychology uses the technical term "transference" when referring to misdirected emotions.

Transference occurs when a person is angry with someone or something but expresses that anger elsewhere. For example, a wife may have pent-up feelings of anger at her husband, but unconsciously transfers and expresses her feelings toward the pastor or someone else in the church. The pastor and church are usually thought as "safe" places to express angry feelings because there is often little or no retaliation. Many a church conflict is the result of some angry person looking for a "whipping boy" to vent on. Often the church, the pastor, or someone else becomes the recipient of anger transference.

3. People with emotional problems. The experience of salvation does not necessarily mean freedom from physical ailment. Sins are forgiven, but the physical condition often remains unchanged. The same is frequently the case with people who suffer from an emotional or mental disorder. Depression, anxiety, and fear persist, along with other problems associated with poor emotional and mental health. In verse 1, James speaks about "desires that battle within you." These inner, untreated and unresolved emotions "battle within" and cause conflict that may be brought into volatile congregational situations. The result often exacerbates any existing church conflict.

Churches that become involved in conflict

We have no stereotype to help us predict the kind or type of church that has the potential for conflict. Any church of any size large, small, in between has the potential for conflict. Churches that are growing because of their strategic ministries of evangelism, pastoral care, and discipleship have been victimized with inner turmoil and conflict. These aggressive, forward-looking congregations will inevitably have problems and challenges. Often conflict arises when individuals, committees, or groups are forced to grapple with the various issues of a dynamic ministry. On the other hand, smaller churches with no vision for growth sometimes become unchallenged and bored with the status quo. As a result, they turn in on themselves and begin to dicker and pick at each other.

Should a conflict erupt, every effort should be put forth to resolve it early. When a conflict is resolved in the spirit of submission and love, believers will be unified and the church's mission will be refocused and pursued. If there is a conflict, make it a good conflict by resolving it, capitalizing on the growth it offers. The results of resolved conflict are worth all the effort that may be required: unity among believers and a renewed focus on ministry.

Resolving conflict

Problems within the church do not need to become destructive. As soon as they appear to be turning in that direction, the following helpful guidelines can be used for managing and resolving church conflict.

1. Acknowledge the conflict within the church in its early stages. Procrastination or avoidance can be disastrous. Conflict grows and spreads with time. Hoping that it will go away or resolve itself is like hoping a cancer will simply recede by itself. Untreated conflicts are like untreated cancers: they will inevitably spread destructiveness. In a calm but straightforward manner, we should acknowledge the conflict, identify the issues, and recognize the persons involved.

2. Select a manager. The manager should be a person of spiritual maturity who is accepted by all parties involved. He or she should know something about the procedures and processes of managing church conflict. The person should be one who will not take sides but be neutral regarding the issues and outcome. The primary concern and responsibility must be managing the process and dynamics of the dispute to a satisfactory resolution. The manager will function much like the facilitator or chair of any ad hoc committee, seeing to it that there is fairness, thoroughness, and agreed-upon rules of debate that can be adhered to.

3. Select a secretary. A secretary of high spiritual qualification and maturity should be selected to record thoroughly and accurately the proceedings/conversations as the process moves toward resolution.

4. Gather information. The manager and the recording secretary should interview all the disputants in an effort to gather relevant information. A convenient date, time, and place should be arranged with each person to listen to and record his or her views and concerns. These initial meetings with the various people involved are not a time to argue or dispute the problem. Rather they provide the occasion to listen and collect information. This allows the manager to be better informed as the next phase of conflict managing is initiated.

5. Scheduling the initial meeting. With the preliminary phase of information gathering completed, the next step is to schedule a date, place, and time for the disputants to come together and discuss the issues. Each person must be contacted and agree to the schedule. This procedure will allow everyone involved to feel significant and respected, with some "ownership" of the process.

6. The meeting. The manager should arrive early so as to be on hand to greet each person with a smile, a handshake, and a word of greeting. Such effort will reduce anxious feelings and make everyone feel more comfortable. When all are present, the manager should:

a. Greet the group with a general welcome.

b. Open the meeting with prayer, invoking the presence of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

c. State the purpose of the meeting while giving a brief historical account of the events which led up to this moment.

d. Describe the process and procedures that will be followed, such as who speaks, how long each person should speak, etc. A person may be interrupted only if that person departs from the agreed-upon subject matter or if he or she goes beyond the allotted time limit. (At this point, the manager should pause and get the group to acknowledge their under standing and acceptance of these "ground rules.")

e. The person who originally expressed the concerns that precipit6ated the conflict should be allowed to speak first. Everyone present should then be given the opportunity to speak in turn.

f. After everyone who wishes to speak has spoken, the manager should take the first step toward conflict resolution by reading the church's mission statement or the local assembly's purpose for existing. Each concern that seems to contribute to the conflict should be examined as to how it relates, complies with, or deviates from the church's mission statement. In this context, a consensus should be sought that might help to resolve the conflict.

g. Subsequent meetings may be necessary to focus on any remaining areas of disagreement, using the same general procedure for achieving conflict resolution. The founding mission of the church should be the polar star that guides the church in its witness and ministry for Christ.


A church conflict can be managed and resolved with a good outcome. It is the church united that receives the upper room fire, ushering in a strong and convincing witness. Jesus said, "I will build my church'" (Matt. 16:18, NIV). His prayer was "'. . . that all of them may be one, Father,... that the world may believe that you have sent me'" (John 17:21, NIV).

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H. Jack Morris, D. Min., is pastor of Largo Community Church, Mitchellville, Maryland.

May 2001

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