Conflict is a fact of life in all organizations, including Christian ones. When facts, means/methods, goals/ends, and values do not align, conflict is the natural by-product. Most people prefer to look the other way rather than deal with conflict, which causes conflicts to spiral out of control. Let’s strive to understand the basis of conflict and explore helpful ways to manage it.
CONSTRUCTIVE VS. DESTRUCTIVE CONFLICT
Destructive conflict engulfs personalities, emotions, and divisive actions
of the past. It tears away at the fabric of the church, leaving broken
relationships and lost productivity in its wake. It siphons off valuable energy
that could otherwise be put toward mission. When might conquers
right in an organization (i.e., committee leaders aggressively dominating
proceedings) or when the focus is on personalities rather than on issues,
conflict is sure to be destructive. The signs are unmistakable: frustration,
noncooperation, aggression, and withdrawal.
Constructive conflict centers on differences of opinion, goals, and
operating styles. Conflict can have a constructive impact when it prompts
team members to clarify their purpose and mission and when it uncovers
hidden agendas that have blocked team progress. Sometimes conflict is
what finally prompts people to be honest with one another about a festering
misunderstanding. It brings to a head unproductive circumstances in
a church and enables people to build new bridges.
THE ROOTS OF CONFLICT
Although church conflict appears in diverse forms, most conflicts
can be traced to one of three root causes: (1) lack of goal ownership; (2)
unwillingness to suboptimize; and (3) personal immaturity.
Churches are quick to set goals but slow to proactively sell them on
a grass-roots level. When goal ownership is not shared, people develop
their own personal agendas, which often conflict, instead of directing
their energies toward a common purpose (i.e., mission, evangelism, etc.
Conflict can erupt even when ministry teams have bought into goals
but are unwilling to suboptimize. Suboptimization occurs when a ministry
group is willing to sacrifice some of its goals on behalf of larger goals.
Sometimes groups refuse to make any short-term sacrifices to enhance
the ultimate well-being of the church (i.e., a Sabbath School class giving
up its room for the growing youth program).
Finally, many conflicts grow from personal immaturities: inflexibility,
maverick independence, abrasiveness, mistrust, and so on. These
attitudes squelch the crucial teamwork necessary for a volunteer organization.
THREE RESPONSES TO CONFLICT
The way people respond to conflict determines its destructive or
constructive potential. Even though conflict can’t be completely avoided
in the church, it can be fruitfully managed if the right approach is used.
There are three main responses to conflict:
1. Avoidance: Stick your head in the sand and hope the conflict goes away. Sometimes it does, but often it gets worse. Avoidance is a constructive response only when the timing is not right for addressing the conflict.
2. Control: The person in charge strives to win the confrontation and have his or her way. Even when the leader is in the right, control-oriented tactics create resentment and invite retaliation.
3. Collaboration: The feuding parties earnestly seek to find a creative
win-win solution. Both parties emphasize what they have in common
and the interests they share. The collaborative approach has constructive
potential in practically every situation. It elevates principles above politics,
ends above means, and the group above the individual. This approach
assumes that people can and will commit themselves to ideals bigger
than any one person.
SMART STRATEGIES FOR RESOLVING CONFLICT CONSTRUCTIVELY
Here are some proven strategies for resolving church conflict constructively:
1. Choose an appropriate time to deal with the conflict, preferably after people have had a chance to calm down and look at the facts more objectively.
2. Create a supportive environment for resolving the conflict. For example, hold a special meeting so people have a chance to be heard and allocate plenty of time so people won’t feel rushed.
3. Emphasize listening over talking. Stipulate that no one can be interrupted while he or she is speaking.
4. Focus on issues rather than on personalities. Conflict is much easier to deal with when people’s feelings don’t get trampled on.
5. Seek to understand and try not to judge. Have each side express how it appreciates and cares about the other.
6. Build bridges by focusing on what you have in common rather than on your differences.
7. Break the conflict into smaller pieces that can be dealt with individually.
8. Don’t seek a premature resolution; it’s better to move slowly and cautiously toward a solution that will stand the test of time.
9. Invite a neutral third party to listen, counsel, and play a peacekeeping role if necessary.
10. Pray with and for one another as a reminder that in the final
analysis, we’re all on God’s side.
Let’s not fear conflict. Instead, let’s recognize its potential as a catalyst
for beneficial change. Church conflict can glorify God when it ultimately
repairs relationships, renews commitment to vision, and strengthens
our dependence on God and each other.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of church growth and leadership
at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary
in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.