Dealing with Conflict in Your Church


Written by Pete Lowman


Are you facing conflict in your church?  Where can you find help as to how you begin to deal with it?


One site we at Living Leadership have found especially helpful as preparation for such situations is, especially the 12 Skills Summary in their free training material section, and also in the same section the Fighting Fair Guide.

Then, a site on conflict resolution with a massive array of biblically-based resources is .  Start with the sections in Resources - Foundational Principles and Key Articles.

The article on Lawsuits in the Church in the website section titled The Peacemaking Church/Articles,  and the subsection titled Risk Management, deserve particular attention from any church leadership. In an increasingly litigious society, our church may need procedures in place that will prevent a future church conflict escalating into potentially ruinous legal confrontation.

Our ability to resolve conflict depends on the vital skills of negotiation, which any church leader will need for many other situations too.  A superb book on these (not specifically Christian but generally compatible with biblical faith) is Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes ; and you’ll find a good summary, much of it relevant if we’re heading into church conflict resolution, on, and a longer one

Finally, back to vital first principles: enjoy this piece by Fred Bailey of InterVarsity-USA on something we all need to understand more about…


How to Handle a Difficult Conversation


Difficult conversations are almost by definition emotional, and confusing. How can we approach them?

The following things can help us remain clear (and this may not be easy!) on the intrinsic value of our partners in this conversation, as well as on the actual goal of our conversation – which includes to build one another up in love.

With the help of God and each other we can get to where we all most want to be: a place of clarity, caring, and agreement.  But often a facilitator, a helper trusted by both sides, will be needed - at least for the first conversation or two.  Otherwise, however, don’t involve other people or complain to other people; follow Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15.


What are our goals in this conversation?


1.  Our first goal is not to make our respective points and pin the others to the ground until they admit that we are totally right and they are totally wrong and worthless scoundrels! Rather, our first goal is to hear and understand the message they are trying to give us; and then, to effectively let them know that we've heard them.

2.  Second, our goal is to empathize - that is, to place ourselves in their position, to see what they see and feel what they feel.

3.  Third, we seek to validate as much of the other's concerns as we can, with a view to rebuilding mutual respect and trust (and to affirming goodness and truth wherever it’s to be found).

4.  Finally, we seek to identify for the future the one or two things that need to change, from each of us and/or from us together; so that we may become more Christlike, and our working together may be joyful and fruitful.


How do we go about it?


1.  Identify and communicate in writing beforehand the 1-3 main things that you want to address with the other person(s), in order of importance to you. Explain what concerns you about each issue as objectively as you can, while also identifying and owning your feelings about them.  Deal with one example at a time, and be specific; don’t say “You always..” or “You never…”

2.  Each person will take turns presenting one concern at a time, in order of importance to them. The other(s) will not correct or rebut, but only ask clarifying questions and restate what they've heard, until the speaker can affirm that they have been accurately heard.

3.  Pray, and take a break.

4.  Each person then has an opportunity to respond to each concern raised, with a view to understanding each other. Ongoing active listening and feeding back what was said may continue to be necessary, until there is agreement that what was heard is close enough to what was meant.

5.  We will draw conclusions and applications together, hopefully with significant consensus. Commit to whatever next steps we agree are appropriate.

6.  Pray, hug (or an appropriate cultural equivalent) and adjourn?


How Might The Conversation Work?


1.  One approach that is helpful when we are the one presenting is "WXYZ:"  That is: “In situation W, when you say or do X, I feel Y (and I would prefer it if you would say or do Z instead)."

2.  An approach that is helpful when we are the one receiving is active listening and reflecting back.  That is: "Thank you. I want to be sure I understand. Are you saying that...?" or "It sounds like you are..."   In what you reflect back, you are trying not to interpret their words or intentions, but to reflect back as accurately as you can what you think they are saying and feeling.  If the hearer didn't get it right (which we often don’t the first or second time), the speaker clarifies further and the hearer reflects back again, going back and forth until the hearer reflects back to the speaker’s satisfaction what they have been trying to express.

3.  To pursue a “win-win” result, practice “2 yeses and a no:” For example: “I really want to see you succeed at this; I cannot lead the seminar for you; but I can train the small group leaders next month. Would that help?”

If there is a facilitator, they should do their best to stay out of the way, but to be present and active to help as much as they are needed.

Remember, God loves each of you very much and he is at work in each of us, making us more like Jesus. This is a great opportunity for him to do that in a wonderful way. May it be so!  Amen!


© Fred Bailey 2011