Pastor I. M. Eger has recently arrived at his new church, a 225-member congregation in a city of just over five hundred thousand people. Pastor Eger was in his former church district for seven years. He is looking forward to serving in a new location where his children can attend a local church school. He is enthusiastic and open to new ideas.
The church of which Pastor Eger is now the pastor was without a pastor for almost a year. During that time, head elder Ben Wright had coordinated things well; church services were running smoothly, funds were adequate, and attendance was low but stable. Ben likes order, system, tradition, and predictability.
Pastor Eger has arrived with a host of new ideas that would bring substantial change in several areas of church life. Worship service features would change. Additionally, refreshments would be served in the foyer before and after worship. Ben Wright and Pastor Eger are headed for conflict. Here are six things they can do, individually and together, to turn conflict into concord.
1. REALIZE THAT CONFLICT CAN BE BENEFICIAL
The presence of conflict is most often viewed as negative—a blemish on the expected tranquility of life and relationships, a threat to progress, and a diversion from mission. However, conflict can be beneficial in helping an organization and individuals adapt to change. Healthy conflict resolution strategies bring realization of alternative ways of thinking and acting.
Leaders must recognize that conflict is inevitable. They need to spend less time lamenting about it and more time developing a principled practice of addressing conflict. Change is a constant reality of life, even in the local church. Differences in viewpoints can yield new insights and new ways of doing things.
CHANGE IS A CONSTANT REALITY OF LIFE, EVEN IN THE LOCAL CHURCH. DIFFERENCES IN VIEWPOINTS CAN YIELD NEW INSIGHTS AND NEW WAYS OF DOING THINGS.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced many unwelcome changes to church life and meetings. The challenge of dealing with these changes resulted in various creative ways of maintaining church life but under altered circumstances.
2. EXAMINE YOUR OWN MOTIVES IN THE CONFLICT
The essential question is whether or not the conflict centers around me or around an issue separate from me. Am I feeling threatened, sidelined, ignored, criticized, challenged? Does the conflict center around my perceptions, my needs, my goals, pride in my opinions and my power? If so, I need to reevaluate the situation and get myself out of the center. I must not make or magnify a conflict into more than it really is. The questions I should be asking are: How does this matter affect the mission of the church? Is there a theological truth or principle at stake? Is this a matter of right or wrong, or is it a difference that stems from personal viewpoint or preference?
Differences are not always to be assigned to categories of right or wrong. Many times, they are just that— differences. All flowers are not the same color. All notes on the piano are not the same tone. The differences in flowers and the notes on the piano can actually add depth and variety to a bouquet or a piece of music.
3. ADDRESS CONFLICT INTENTIONALLY AND CONFIDENTIALLY
The principles outlined in Matthew 18:15–17 for situations in which one has been wronged also apply very well to relationships that involve disagreement even though no wrongs may have been done. It is a mark of maturity to deal with conflict rather than trying to avoid it or attempting to magnify it by telling others about it in an effort to get people on my side. Being intentional and confidential means that I will first get control of my emotions. Conflict can trigger anger, in which case I need to “cool down” first.
Then I need to be sure that I understand the nature of the conflict. Does it truly involve right or wrong? Is there definite harm to the church in doing things differently? When I have understood the root of the conflict, am I prepared to assume the best about the other person? Have I listened carefully so as to understand the viewpoint of the other person?
Careful thought about the preceding questions prepares one for the next phase of conflict resolution: talking things over directly with the other person with whom I have a conflict. I need to share feelings honestly, speak the truth respectfully, deal with specifics rather than generalities, and refrain from attacking the person. I must be ready to accept responsibility for mistakes on my part or for misunderstandings that have contributed to the conflict.
4. INQUIRE; DON’T BLAME OR ACCUSE
Conversations that focus on blame often lead to aggressive or defensive behaviors. Instead of resorting to accusations, it is far better to ask questions or to use “I” statements to elicit response. For example: “Could you help me to understand better what you meant when you said . . . ?” “I am feeling a bit uncomfortable about your plans to . . . ; could we talk about how this might affect other aspects of our church family life?”
There is a huge difference between explaining and blaming. Asking questions and giving explanations allow the focus to remain on the issue. Accusations or blaming shift attention from the issue to the person, often with unsatisfactory outcomes. The aim in conflict resolution is to deal with ideas and perspectives rather than to attack persons.
5. BE WILLING TO ACCEPT A MIXED OUTCOME
In large groups it is rarely possible to please everyone. Good decisions don’t always garner unanimous support. Resolution of interpersonal conflict often requires that both sides in the conflict demonstrate some flexibility. Insistence on your preferred solution, winning at any cost, establishes a foundation for other conflicts in the future. People who disagree with each other can often find points of agreement on which to build their relationship for the future.
The apostle Paul (Phil 4:2–3) urges two women to “agree in the Lord.” He did not identify one as the winner and the other as the loser. Instead, he appealed for them to begin not with their differences, but with their shared commitment to Jesus Christ. This shared foundation would enable them to figure out how to address their other issues.
A mixed outcome should not be viewed as a compromise of principle. It means instead that I am prepared to acknowledge and accept some of the concerns or ideas of the other person.
6. LEARN TO MOVE ON TOGETHER
The resolution of conflict has to focus on the future—and how it will be different from the past. One must not harbor a grudge towards another. Instead, all the parties involved in the conflict must be willing to put the matter behind them. Preoccupation with the past is a formidable obstacle to progress.
We don’t need to agree on everything. But we can learn to live in mutual support and respect for each other.
Interpersonal conflict is a reality of life—in families and in organizations. The Bible provides numerous examples involving conflict: Moses and Aaron/Miriam (Num 12); Jesus’ disciples (Mark 10:35–41); Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36–41); the churches at Ephesus (Acts 20:29–30) and Corinth (1 Cor 3); Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2–3); and Peter and Paul (Gal 2:11). Conflict can advance or hinder a relationship and the mission of the church. How a conflict is handled is most important in determining whether the outcome is beneficial or detrimental.
There are times when external intervention may be necessary to aid in the settlement of differences. In the case of Pastor I. M. Eger and Head Elder Ben Wright, there may be great wisdom in both of them discussing with the church board the advantages and disadvantages of making major changes in church programming. Whatever their course of action, they need to begin with their personal submission to the lordship of Jesus, their love and respect for each other as children of God, and their commitment to God’s mission in their community.
Lowell C. Cooper is a retired general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, USA. Lowell and his wife, Rae Lee, live in Kennewick, WA, USA.