Awareness of Potential Areas of Conflict Can Save Heartache

by Dennis J. Hester

Johnny's mother seemed to be consumed with ironing crisp white sheets, but little did Johnny know that even while ironing, she was preoccupied with thinking about him. He was six years old and had yet to speak his first word.

On this particular day, while Johnny sat silently playing and watching his mother, the telephone rang. She had been on the phone for about a minute when Johnny screamed, "Fire! Fire! Mommy, the sheets are on fire!" Johnny's mother came running into the smoke-filled room, and in the midst of fanning the smoke from the room, she stopped, turned to Johnny with a bewildered look, and said, "Johnny, you can talk! You can really talk. Why haven't you said anything until today?" With a grin Johnny answered, "Well, up till now everything's been running pretty smoothly."

This story is typical of many congregations. Things run pretty smoothly for awhile and then things begin to heat up. Many parishioners and staff members can smell the smoke and often see the flames about to engulf their harmonious fellowship, but, unlike little Johnny, no one says anything. No one wants to talk about the fire, the conflict, that is threatening the congregation's health, witness, and ministry.

Often the pastor's strategy for handling conflict is denial or trying to relocate to another church.

Many congregations attempt to resolve conflict by simply firing their pastor or church staff when conflict arises. In the Southern Baptist Denomination alone, 77 pastors are fired each month, according to a 1998 survey conducted by LifeWay Church Resources.

There are other, better ways for the congregation and the pastor to handle conflict. One of the first strategies in resolving or managing conflict is to become acutely aware of the potential areas of conflict. The more aware that the pastor and the congregation are of the sensitive areas where conflict may quickly arise, the better the chances they have of avoiding it-or at least they can prepare to resolve the conflict before it becomes an all-out war in the church.

According to Roy W. Pneuman, senior consultant emeritus of the Alban Institute, there are nine common sources of conflict in churches. Listed below are a few of these sources of conflict and suggestions on how to prevent or manage conflict in your church.

1. "Members do not agree about the church's nature, mission, goals or objectives," in Pneuman's words.

• Suggestion:

Congregations need to develop a mission statement, widely owned and embraced by the congregation, that will clarify values and beliefs. When a congregation understands its purpose and goals, members tend to work together with less conflict.

2. There is a lack of agreement between pastor and congregation about what activities should be the pastor's priority.

• Suggestions:

Pastors may boast, "God is my boss, not the church. I do what God tells me to do." When pastors or congregations become controllers "in the name of God," there is bound to be conflict. Consensus is the key. Neither pastor nor congregation can get 100 percent of what they want, and neither can they give 100 percent of what the other party wants. Written surveys and sharing sessions can determine the priorities of both parties.

3. The pastor's leadership style is mismatched with the congregation. Pneuman describes leadership style in terms of two dimensions: task and relationship.

• Suggestions:

Some pastors are task-oriented. They enjoy administration, meetings, and the planning and leading that is necessary in a congregation. Other pastors are relations-oriented. They like to mingle with people, build relationships, and discover people's needs and minister to those needs. They enjoy visitation, counseling, pastoral care and activities that keep them close to the people.

The conflict comes when a congregation expects a pastor of one orientation to function in the other orientation. Conflict is reduced when a church takes the time to study what it needs in a pastor and when pastors intentionally and appropriately try to integrate, as Jesus did, a task/goal and a people/relationship style of leadership.

4. A new pastor rushes into changes. Pneuman states: "Many new pastors do not take the time and trouble necessary to get to know the congregation before making changes."

• Suggestions:

Pastors often say, "The seven words of a dying church are: ‘We never did it this way before.'" It is true many churches are stuck in tradition. To try to change the time of offering in the worship service, how the Lord's Supper is conducted, or how church officers are elected would be enough to cause a major conflict for a newly-elected pastor.

Churches say they want leadership from the new pastor, but often they mean "not right away." Pastors must pay the price of committing themselves to serve the Lord in one congregation long enough to build substantial relationships and trust before they can make significant changes in the life of a congregation.

I believe it is obvious that most congregations manage conflict poorly. I have found that Christians often believe that conflict is evil and that it shouldn't happen in the church. And even if their church is experiencing conflict they try to ignore it and deny the pain. But, according to the Apostle Paul, as long as Christians are in this world, they will be dealing with fleshly desires and impulses. Conflict is inevitable in human beings.

I like what a pastor told a couple who came for counseling, "The main problem with your marriage is that you both married a sinner." If couples must recognize that biblical fact, so must churches. Churches must not be surprised when conflict comes.

The key is to recognize the early signs of conflict and head-off the conflict before it becomes a damaging church fight.

Dennis Hester is an intentional interim minister specializing in helping churches to prepare to call their next fulltime minister. He also serves as a seminary speaker, church consultant, and conducts workshops in communication, conflict management, and learning to deal with transitions. He is the author of "Pastor, We Need to Talk!" How congregations and pastors can solve their problems before it's too late. To contact him call (704) 480-0494 or email:

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