By George Henson
The key to creating or maintaining congregational harmony isn’t for pastors to avoid conflict, but rather to face them squarely, an expert on church conflict told ministry leaders recently.
And that’s because conflict is inevitable anywhere human beings are working in relationships, said Mike Smith, a former pastor and associational director of missions in East Texas.
Smith told participants of a seminar at FIRM Baptist Area in Cameron, Texas, that he was speaking from experience.
“It just seemed like I was getting into conflict or people were coming to me with conflict,” he said.
Because of that, he began to attend numerous conferences and read extensively about how to deal with conflict. Soon, he became a trained mediator and has served as a “mediator, listening ear or prayer partner” in more than 3,000 conflict cases.
He also made presentations to many pastors and deacons on conflict resolution.
Statistics reflect the need
Statistics confirm what his experience and that of others, he said.
Out of 350,000 pastors in the United States, about one of eight is considering resignation, and many believe being a pastor negatively affects their family, he reported.
He also noted:
• More than 4,000 pastors have a serious conflict with a church member at least once a month.
• More than 100 pastors are forcibly terminated each month.
• On any given day, 19,000 churches are in conflict.
While conflict management is necessary, it isn’t easy.
“Conflict management is not a science; it is an art,” Smith said. “Some things you just have to learn by walking through it.”
Smith recalled being fired from his church just four months into a pastorate and how he felt his ministry was over.
“Little did I know that in a few short years, I’d be sitting in a director of missions’ chair, and I would have, on a regular basis, pastor after pastor come in and sit in the chair on the other side of my desk and start pouring their heart out. And I would be able to say: ‘I know where you’ve been. I know how you’re hurting,’” he said.
Stress levels up
Forty percent of pastors who leave the ministry cite stress as the primary cause, Smith said.
Other changes tell the story, too.
Forty years ago, Smith said, pastors were one of the safest groups to insure. Now they are considered one of the riskiest.
“If you look at all the medications pastors are taking for all kinds of chemical dependency and depression and other things, we’re way up there because of the stress of ministry. It is real,” he said.
One of the first steps toward managing conflict is to admit it exists.
“There are people whose approach to conflict is to deny it and put their heads in the sand.”
Another step is to stop dreading conflict.
“Conflict is neither inherently good or bad — it is how one manages conflict that determines if it is good or bad,” Smith said.
The Chinese characters for the word “crisis” are combined from the characters for “danger” and “opportunity,” he observed.
“In every conflict, there is that danger of dividing or splitting, hurts, breaking fellowship, but there also is opportunity to see what God can do. And that is in every conflict,” he said.
“You cannot say all conflict is evil, and if you have that belief, you’re never really going to be a peacemaker. You have to believe that conflict exists and that conflict can be an opportunity for God to do something in the change.”
Conflict will occur, he noted.
“How you manage it determines how much conflict you experience,” he said.
Most conflicts about relationships
Few of conflicts in churches are over doctrinal issues, he added. Instead, most are about relationships and power struggles.
Most start with a problem that needs to be solved and when people can’t agree on a solution, Smith said. The conflict picks up steam when people pick sides and decision making becomes a fight for what they want — or they leave. Those who remain become intractable in their positions.
Smith said the solution is summarized in a tagline from a character on the 1960s TV series,The Andy Griffith Show: practice what Barney Fife believed — “nip it in the bud” — or the crisis will spiral out of control.
“If you let it get away from you, there is very little resolution,” he said.
‘Survive a disagreement’
Listen to the language used when people are in conflict to determine what level the disagreement has reached, he suggested.
“When they start using ‘us’ and ‘them,’ you know it has become a contest,” Smith said. “When it has become a contest, it is difficult to resolve the conflict.”
But solutions are attainable with enough prayer and continued communication, Smith said.
“If you can come simply to the point where you agree to disagree, you can survive a disagreement,” he said.
The best conflict management occurs before conflict begins. And that often starts with pastors striving to create a culture of cooperation in their churches.
“You let people know that the church values peace,” he said. “You educate them on the importance of peace, unity and forgiveness.”