Handling Chronic Conflict

Healing Underground Anger: How one church untangled 22 years of bitter roots.

This article in the Winter 1999 Leadership Journal, written by Kenneth Quick, caught both my mind and heart. Twenty-two years! How could anything go on so long? The truth is that the story's time frame is very believable. Think of the sad stories we hear of marriages that have struggled for that long or longer. People are people, and hurting people hurt people.

I consulted with a church that had an average attendance of 550 and was in the throes of long-term conflict. Not 22 years, but a good five, and that is still a long time. The church board was clear in their mandate. "We have run (ruled) this church for a long time, and we are not changing now." The board wanted the new pastor to follow the pattern of his predecessors by doing only two things: preach on Sundays and visit people during the week. The board would take care of the matters of business. The pastor, a bright, Godly, and energetic guy, basically pleaded with them to allow him to truly lead. He didn't just want more responsibility; he also sought the authority to really get the job done. The battle went on. It wasn't ugly in the sense of yelling and vicious behavior, but the result was just as devastating. It wasn't overt, but more like a cold war that dragged on and wore people down. As we worked together, I asked them to first set aside the issues of structure, and focus on forgiveness, healing and restoration. The board insisted on forging ahead with the business at hand. Eventually, they fired the pastor.

How can intelligent Christians stand by, watch and allow such behavior to continue? Naturally, it differs from church to church, but the core issues are similar: pride, jealousy, insecurity, immaturity and control. To deal with these issues would be somewhat sermonic and that's not the focus of this article. There is, however, another issue which involves the long-term patterns of such behavior. The patterns are so ingrained that it becomes difficult for people to distinguish between right and wrong. The behavior becomes a way of life, non-biblical though it may be; it becomes the new reality. The kicker is that in order to reengage with scripture requires admitting to years of sinful behavior - and that is enormously difficult, especially when the issues are spiritual in nature. I liken it to the Holy Crusades. Never in history was there so much bloodshed for a righteous cause that was supposedly in the name of God.

There are no easy answers, nor guaranteed how-to's, but I'd like to offer you some guidelines to help you handle chronic conflict in your church.

First, reach agreement on an accurate picture of the situation, including the current damage, and the future consequences of continued conflict.

A young married couple was in serious financial trouble. Each month they were falling deeper into credit card debt, but they had no logical approach to solve the problem. The husband's reaction was even to buy a new truck, saying, "What's the difference? We're in debt this far, what's a few hundred more a month? Plus, I need transportation." This is a classic example of resignation, rationalization and denial. He didn't have an accurate picture of reality and had no idea of the coming consequences. His response was to continue the same pattern that had gotten him in trouble in the first place. The wife's vantage point was very different, with an equally amazing response. She knew all too well the fragile financial situation they were in, right down to how far in the red they were. Her response was to get a second job to help her husband pay for their new truck.

Like this young couple, the first step to a solution for a chronic problem is an accurate assessment of what is really going on. Married couples often need a counselor to help them sort things out. Churches often need a consultant, or perhaps a pastor of another local church in town who would be willing to help in the assessment, or maybe a denominational official. Whatever the method, you must see reality clearly. That reality must include an educated forecast of the future of the church if it continues in the same pattern.

Second, help everyone involved grasp the difference between disagreement and divisiveness, and seek healing before fixing things.

It's okay to disagree - it's even healthy to disagree. Whenever healthy and growing minds of church leaders are involved in ministries together, there will be disagreement. The problem occurs when defensiveness kicks in, agendas surface, and people dig in for their preferences rather than seeking a solution for the good of the church.

There are times when a simple resolution is not possible. A genuine impasse is at hand and the disagreement brings about a stalemate. Two things are needed in generous dosages at this point. The first is prayer and the second is a commitment to honor people first over any particular issue. This means making reconciliation non-negotiable when resolution seems impossible. All persons involved make a commitment to "unity among the body" and to honor one another as individuals. I highly recommend that if you are at an impasse, and you seek reconciliation that you do a couple of practical things to help you achieve that reconciliation. Meet offsite in a warm and friendly environment, such as someone's home. Furthermore, make sure that you do not discuss any of the issues at hand. No exceptions. Focus only on understanding and on healing the relationships. Make it simple and informal. Pizza and blue jeans are your best bet. Open with prayer and allow God's love to be your guide toward grace and forgiveness. You may be thinking: "It's our whole congregation. How are we supposed to do that with our entire congregation?" Start with the key leaders, and the reconciliation will spread quickly from there.

Third, embrace the idea that seeking peace and harmony often produces the opposite effect.

Those who don't bring peace should not be instantly indicted as troublemakers. Leaders typically do not bring peace - they bring progress, which rarely comes about through peaceful, easy methods. Several years ago, a northwestern church had to decide between relocation and building a new building. There erupted such emotionally charged and divergent opinions that the pastor and board thought the best thing to do to achieve peace was to do nothing. Today, the congregation is upset because they are located in a declining neighborhood and no one had the foresight to do something about it while there were still good options and sufficient time.

Peace is not the opposite of conflict when it comes to leadership and progress. Peace is not the goal, progress is the goal. Your church will never achieve progress in the midst of an environment of total peace and harmony. Patrick Lencioni says it well in his creative book, The Five Temptations of a CEO: "Harmony is like cancer to good decision-making." Progress is found in an environment of productive chaos, where tension is managed, conflict is resolved and people honor people.

Fourth, recount the success of the past and celebrate the blessings of God.

No church is without its successes, good memories, and victories both large and small from the hand of God. Meetings should be held with the specific purpose of recounting these stories. Sermons that point to the positive aspects of the church's heritage and point to the potential of the future are also needed. Small groups need to share testimonies of personal blessings the church has brought into their lives.

We learned an expensive lesson at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego while attempting to persuade our future neighbors of the value our church would bring to the community. Our adversaries created a lot of bad press about how our new church would ruin the view, mar the landscape and destroy the local wildlife. We engaged in an all out effort to convince these people otherwise. We hired a good consultant who taught us that no matter how hard we tried, we could never beat bad press. The only way to win was to get out front and create good press. That's what we did. We abandoned fighting the negative news, which just promoted the bad news even more, and began to create good news of the positive impact the church would bring to the neighbors and the entire community. The consultant was right - it worked.

Fifth, let go of the past and agree upon the solution or new vision.

Let go of the negative elements that continue to keep the church stuck. I know this is easier for me to write than it is for any church to do, but the truth is that this is required to move forward. At some point, through discipline, maturity, or the Holy Spirit's intervention, you must let go of past issues that prevent progress. The key to a breakthrough is focus on the new vision, the new plan. If you only let go of the past and do not replace it with the new vision or solution, you will snap back like a taut rubber band to the old patterns. Again, do not design a new plan and cast vision about a solution or a preferred future until healing has taken place. That even may be the new vision--the congregation's healing. The original idea itself may be similar to the old, but the people's minds and hearts will have been renewed. Now they see the original idea in a new light. Furthermore, do not confuse healing with peace. When the congregation has its primary relationships in a healthy and loving working order, and when they are willing to put the good of the church first, it's time to go after your dreams.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at www.injoy.com. I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.