As surely as we can expect thunderstorms in the summer, hurricanes in the fall and blizzards in the winter, the church is about to experience a season of conflict that threatens to unravel our faith communities.
Much of this is a result of the merging of many external and internal forces to create a perfect storm of congregational conflict. Nationally, the mid-term elections this fall and the presidential election in November 2024 already have exacerbated a culture of polarization and hostility and have set the stage for months of overt venom, rancor and antagonism. Add to this rising inflation, increasing gun violence, denominational disputes, post-COVID challenges, congregational hearings and declining metrics for congregations, and it doesn’t take much foresight to predict that conflict is going to become a steady part of the diet of most American churches.
What can we do to engage this looming season of discord in a healthy way? Here are some ways healthy churches and ministers can anticipate and prepare for conflict in your church.
Normalize conflict. Put two human beings together and before long there will be something they do not agree on. It’s inevitable. Put dozens and even hundreds of church members together, and it is even more inevitable that differences of opinion, style and conviction will emerge and demand attention.
Naming conflict as a substantial part of what it means to be human is a place for many churches to start. Rather than create the false and damaging narrative “we should never disagree about anything,” healthy churches acknowledge in advance that “we will experience conflict.” In doing so, you will prepare your community for the inevitable. One proviso: You must also have a plan for how to engage in low-level conflict in a healthy and biblical way.
Move toward potential conflict, not away from it. For most of us, conflict avoidance is the way we were raised. Loud voices in the hallway will inevitably spark an exodus of most people from the area. Emotionally, if not physically, most of us pull away from conflict out of fear or discomfort or general anxiety about what an angry or noisy person might do.
“In congregations, that often means the conflict instigators coalesce into an echo chamber of dissent that is unopposed until the conflict has mushroomed into a major event.”
In congregations, that often means the conflict instigators coalesce into an echo chamber of dissent that is unopposed until the conflict has mushroomed into a major event. One of the best habits of healthy churches is that they deal with disagreements when they are relatively minor and have not had the time or fuel to grow large. That usually means proactive and early intervention must be a priority for lay and ministerial leadership.
Learn how to de-escalate. We can learn from those who encounter agitated people daily. Police officers and customer service reps are trained in the art of de-escalation, and there are many resources for guidance that congregational leaders can learn from.
Too often, the way we respond to an anxious or agitated staff member or parishioner exacerbates a situation. Our mode of reacting as leaders sets an emotional climate that can often calm rather than enflame a conflict. We can be less anxious because we are unsurprised by conflict and have worked on our own conflict style and reactivity. Having tools in our spiritual and emotional tool kit to de-escalate is essential.
Train a team of conflict interventionists/ECTs (Emergency Conflict Technician). As part of our awareness of the prevalence of conflict and polarization in our culture and congregations, we can prepare by training appropriately gifted individuals in the art of intervention. Like a team of EMTs waiting to be called to a medical emergency, we can have a team of trained conflict interventionists to be “on call” for congregational conflict.
Most churches do something like this regarding medical emergencies and armed intruders. We have people who know what to do when the alarm is sounded. What if we approached relational conflict the same way? These first responders would be willing to step into an emotionally charged environment and render appropriate guidance and aid.
Create a congregational behavioral covenant. Part of mitigating potential conflict starts with raising expectations of relational behavior in your church’s culture. Too many churches are victimized by bullies or angry constituents who violate the basic tenants of Christ-like behavior. Naming our behavioral expectations of one another ahead of time and asking all members to agree to and abide by those promises is one way to manage conflict redemptively.
At the Center for Healthy Churches, we are increasingly encouraging congregations to create a simple behavioral covenant and to hold members accountable to the promises they make as a member/constituent of the church. We suggest you start with a covenant among staff and lay leaders and then spread out to include all those who are part of the church community. Sample covenants are available if you would like to see them.
As a leader, proactively engage those who are your “loyal opposition” or team of rivals. Too many clergy “ghost” or ostracize those who dare disagree with them. Our insecurities make us vulnerable to the tendency to engage only with people who agree with us and who tell us what we want to hear.
“Our insecurities make us vulnerable to the tendency to engage only with people who agree with us and who tell us what we want to hear.”
Healthy leaders know the loyal opposition has something to teach us if we will learn to listen and be vulnerable. Seeking out counsel from those with whom we disagree is a critically important component of conflict prevention.
When we project an aura of aloofness or disdain for someone who doesn’t follow our lead, we convey a relational weakness that encourages conflict and confrontation. Often, aggressive behavior or conflict is the only way a member has of getting us to speak to them.
Know your own conflict style and manage it, rather than allowing it to manage you. It was Speed Leas who taught me to honestly assess and become aware of my conflict management style and to diagnose conflict according to the Conflict Pyramid.
Knowing your tendencies will help you understand your innate patterns that subconsciously dictate how you react to criticism, anger, disagreement and overt conflict. For me, it was a years-long journey to discover how my family of origin and internal voices shaped my reactions as a pastor. Gaining that clarity was like discovering a hidden truth about myself.
While conflict is still very challenging to me, I have become much more comfortable during it and have learned to allow conflict to become a tool for leading churches, staffs and individuals to a deeper level of Christian maturity. Every minister needs to be aware of his or her conflict style and how it impacts the way they engage conflict situations.
We cannot stop the tsunami of conflict that is about to inundate our culture and churches. What we can do is offer a healthy alternative to what many people experience in all other arenas of their life.
Paul invited us to transform our culture rather than be conformed to it. Living out the transformational ethic of Jesus within our church community is our only hope if we hope to avoid being caught up in perpetual discord. We need his spirit to drive us toward healthier congregational alternatives now more than ever.
Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.
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