You may have experienced at least one of these situations, perhaps both. Everybody in the congregation knows that one church leader who hates the other but no one will talk about it. Or the even nastier alternative: the church knows and does nothing but talk about it. Church conflict is real. Some conflict is unavoidable, but with wisdom, it can become a learning experience rather than a disaster.
When Paul shares the gospel with the ‘religious’ people of Athens in Acts 17, he focuses on what makes his God different than all of theirs. Modern church leaders can learn a lot from Paul’s method. How is our way any different than the world’s way? Time and time again, this line is blurred, and people walk away from the church because they fail to see how it offers anything different from what they already have. This is never more true than in conflict resolution.
Humans are no strangers to conflict. Millions of people live and work in conflict rich environments every day. They fight with their kids and spouse only to drown it out by watching other people do the same on TV. Why would they want to spend the weekend with a group of people that add to more conflict and chaos to their lives. I’d rather be somewhere else.
In the replanted church, there will likely be remnants of past conflicts. Some conflict residue is like the rusty debris of a long forgotten war.
Other conflicts will be fresh and sensitive wounds that have been shoddily bandaged to conceal them from the “new pastor.” Often the pre-existing members will have an expectation of a church being a contentious place. They remember the ugly business meetings that caused people to walk out or the time a leader berated individuals from the pulpit in the name of ‘clearing the air.’ The Replanter must work to intentionally rebuild a culture of broken trust in the area of conflict resolution.
The secular world would say that this is resolved through bringing in a strong manager. This individual can succeed in shutting down drama but often leaves a wake of carnage behind them because they are only looking forward to the end goal. In the church, the cessation of conflict is not the only goal. Love is what makes Christ-centered conflict resolution distinct from its secular counterparts. 1 Corinthians 16:14 tells us to do everything in love, and it is never more true than in conflict resolution. The leader can never hate the individuals involved, and every conflict should be addressed with the hope of redemption and restoration.
However, a church that only tries to resolve conflict with love will often gloss over real issues that will not only stunt spiritual growth but can really hurt the ministry of the church all because the leadership thought it was ‘being nice.’ Truly loving the church will require more than being nice. It will require honesty. In fact, the verse right before “do everything in love” says: “Be alert, stand firm in the faith, act like a man, be strong” (HSCB). We cannot just ignore conflict. Clarity is what is missing in a lot of church conflicts. Clarity is what happens when leadership clearly defines where they stand on an issue and then share the church’s plan to move forward thus preventing the lingering type of conflict that only escalates over time.
You can lead with love and clarity without sacrificing one for the other. We cannot hope to shepherd a sustainable, long-term church if we overlook this issue and think that being strong in other areas will make up for the deficit. Conflict is the curable cancer that should not be allowed to take control over the replanted church or the replanting pastor.
Published February 7, 2017