How to deal well with conflict in the church (and not pretend it doesn't exist)

Conflict consultant Tim Dyer has a theory: of all organisations on the face of the earth the Christian church is probably the most prone to conflict.

It seems illogical. Jesus called his disciples to love one another, he gave us the Holy Spirit and we’re supposed to be on the path of transformation. So why is church is so frequently bogged down in conflict?

Dyer says there are a number of contributing factors, which can be explained in the diagram below:

Reasons for conflict in the church

This potent combination, he says, is made worse by the fact Christians feel they should be the most peaceful community on earth, which creates an atmosphere of denial.

“[This] tempts organisations to not acknowledge that conflict has actually taken place. And so very often it is forced underground by the fact that nobody wants to face the reality that we’re struggling to get along together. So for that reason, the church in my experience, is highly prone to conflict.”

Dyer works with Johnmark Ministries, helping train people in conflict resolution skills and mediating conflicts within eight denominations in different states across Australia. It’s his opinion that the church, of all organisations, should be expert at conflict resolution.

“A common mistake is to try and fix the conflict without fixing the relationships first.”

“We should be the world’s leaders at dealing with conflict. We should be exporters of really high quality processes that help people in reconciliation and in peace. And sadly, we’ve often been so busy denying it that we’re not very good at it amongst ourselves, let alone the ability to minister to our communities.”

So what should we do if we find ourselves in the midst of a church conflict? There are a number of good Christian organisations who devote themselves to helping churches and individuals resolve conflict in a biblical, godly way. Johnmark Ministries is one, and Peacewise is another.

Li Ai Gamble is a State Director at Peacewise. Both Gamble and Dyer agree there is great value in training your leadership teams and church members in conflict resolution, so they’re prepared for conflict when it comes. And it will come.

Asked to name the most common mistakes Christians make in conflict, Gamble and Dyer offer similar perspectives.

“A common mistake is to try and fix the conflict without fixing the relationships first,” says Dyer. “So, an important rule is always work on healing relationships before you try to heal the actual issue that is there.”

“A second mistake is simply believing that if we sit down in a circle and all have our say, we can work it out. Sometimes informal meetings can be very painful and very hurtful for people if they’re not well facilitated. And that’s a failure to appreciate sometimes the way power works and the importance of a good, healthy process. Many Christians don’t appreciate the need for clear, well-designed processes for dealing with conflict. Process is your best friend when it comes to conflict.”

“We should be the world’s leaders at dealing with conflict.”

Gamble says the problem starts much earlier, when Christians refuse to give up their rights, desires or preferences in the name of unity. “The mistake people make in trying to resolve conflict, is that they try to still get what they want. Often in Christian circles, it’s trying to get what we want in a ‘nice’ way.”

Peacewise promotes four ‘peacemaking principles’ designed to make sure people take a God-honouring approach to conflict. Glorifying God, is the first of these principles, which are known as the 4 G’s.

“Whether you’re the offendee or the offender,” says Gamble, “the question you need to ask once you’re in that conflict, is what would glorify God in this situation? How can I respond, now that I’m in it, in a way that will please and honour God in this situation?” (1 Cor 10:31)

Asking these questions requires a perspective shift, she says. It’s about seeing conflict as an opportunity for God to teach you something, serve other people and glorify Him.

The second principle, often the key to restoring relationship, is ‘getting the log out of your own eye’.

“The common issue that arises when Christians try to resolve conflict is failing to recognise our own heart, the contribution we’ve made to that conflict. We are blind to it.” (Matt 7:5)

In order to figure out your contribution to the conflict, Gamble says you need to diagnose what you’re putting first, in other words, what are your functional idols. Ask yourself: why do I want this so much?

The 4 G’s are:
-Glorify God
-Get the log out of your own eye
-Gently restore
-Go and be reconciled.

“What do I fear? What do I trust and what do I love and crave? Because those three words: fear, love and trust, are what the Bible says we should be doing to God. God is the only person we should fear love or trust and as everyday Christians we don’t actually do that.

“Once you’ve figured out what’s driving you in the conflict—the desire to be liked, respected, successful, or another idol— you need to confess and repent of putting this before our worship of God. You need to confess, apologise to and ask forgiveness from God and those involved for the contribution you have made to the conflict you find yourself in. It might’ve been a harsh word to the other person or to someone else behind their back, a self-righteous attitude or a heart of bitterness.”

It’s not easy, says Gamble, but often the vulnerability required to do this often melts the other person’s anger.

“Now they might say or think, ‘whatever, it doesn’t matter’; they might brush you off. Or they might say, ‘yeah I forgive you’. And not always, but sometimes, they might say, ‘yeah I know, I did that too’.”

But what if they don’t apologise? That’s where the third of the four G’s comes in: gently restore. To do this, says Gamble, you have to ask yourself: how can I lovingly serve others by helping them take responsibility for their contribution to this conflict? Usually, this involves speaking to them at a time when the heat has gone out of the conflict, and raising a particularly persistent issue with them out of love. (Gal 6:1)

The last G of the Peacewise principles is ‘go and be reconciled’. This is a call to forgive the person who’s wronged you and encouraging a reasonable solution to any material issue raised in the conflict. (Matt 5:24)

In summary, the 4 G’s are:
-Glorify God
-Get the log out of your own eye
-Gently restore
-Go and be reconciled.

Tim Dyer and Johnmark Ministries share many of the theological convictions of Peacewise, but take a different approach to conflict resolution, although it too involves four major steps. They are listed below:

  1. Creating space or creating a ceasefire: “This is helping churches to agree on what kind of process will help them deal with the conflict. The second part is helping people to forgive one another for the small offences that have occurred that caused them to be in broken relationships with each other. You can’t fix a conflict over an issue when you’re got broken relationships.”
  2. Conflict mapping: Trying to understand all of the causes of a conflict. “There is a simple answer to every conflict, and it’s wrong,” says Dyer wryly. “One of the things that happens in conflict is that people will brush aside all of the things that don’t quite make sense to them, and they’ll settle on a position and their position is normally simple and it’s normally personal. One of the things we have to do is help people put aside their simplistic solutions, and put aside their personalised solutions and step back and find out all the things that contribute to this conflict. You know, what’s the church history, what are our different values, what are our different experiences, what are our different needs?  And let’s get all of those out on the table and have a good hard look at all of the factors that contribute to a conflict. And you have to keep people in a trusting environment in order to do that.”
  3. Coming up with criteria for ‘success’: “At this point we need to agree together on what the criteria would be for a useful solution to this conflict. Before we actually work out what the solution is, we have to work out how we are going to then reach that solution together, and what kind of indicators might there be that we can all agree on before we get to the solution as to what a good solution will be.”
  4. Decision-making mechanism: “Now you need to use an appropriate, organisational decision-making process to reach the right decision. So in some churches, that’s a vote, or maybe the elders make the decision, or in other churches it might be the senior pastor who makes that decision. And then however that decision has been made, it needs to be made carefully and those people who are affected by the decision need to be cared for as a result.”

At the end of the day, Dyer says the main weapon in the war against unhealthy conflict is preparation and practise.

“My advice to people is: conflict is coming. Prepare for it well. Do lots of teaching, do lots of training, have some equipped people ready to deal with conflict in your church and have some good policies and processes in place, because most churches will experience conflict at some point in their life, and the more prepared we are for it, the better position we’re in to handle it well.”

To read more about peacemaking principles and the four G’s of conflict resolution, visit the Peacewise website.

Go here to contact Johnmark Ministries for help with a conflict in your church.