When a husband and wife aren’t getting along … and they can’t seem to resolve their issues … they may seek out a third party: a counselor.
When an employee feels she’s been wronged by her employer … and she’s tried but can’t resolve the issues inside her company … she may seek redress from a third party: a judge.
But when people in a church are in conflict and they aren’t able to resolve matters, what do they do?
They usually choose up sides … exonerate themselves … demonize their opponents … put their heads down … and attempt to bulldoze their way to victory … even if it splits their church wide open.
There is a better way.
Church conflict expert Speed Leas, in his brilliant manual Moving Your Church Through Conflict, believes there are five levels of conflict in a local church.
Leas says that conflict at levels one through three can be resolved by God’s people within their local church.
But when a conflict escalates to levels four and five, the conflict cannot be resolved inside the church. It’s gone too far.
The church needs outside intervention instead.
But in my experience, the great majority of Christians resist that idea.
Years ago, I served as pastor of a church where we were being cheated by a building contractor. He was billing us for his work … we’d pay him … but then rather than pay his sub-contractors, he’d divert the funds to other projects he had.
The sub-contractors were naturally upset that they weren’t being paid and came to us for the money … but we’d already paid the contractor.
We held a board meeting, and it was a bit tense because I wanted us to go to an attorney, while someone else felt it would be a waste of time.
I understand the sentiment: “Look, this is our problem, so we need to be the ones to solve it. All we’ll do is make the attorneys richer.”
But sometimes, the biggest barrier to resolving a conflict is our pride. We just don’t want to admit that someone else knows how to handle matters better than we do.
According to Leas, a conflict at Level Four has the following characteristics:
*Each group stops talking with the other, even when they’re in the same room.
*Each group is convinced that the other party “won’t change.”
*Each group no longer wants to win … they want to hurt the other side.
*Each group takes on an air of self-righteousness: “We’re right … they’re wrong.”
*Each group uses threats and demands against the other.
*Each group takes the stance: “Either he/they leave(s) or we will.”
When a conflict reaches Level Five, one side wants to destroy their opponents.
At Level Four, a faction may want their pastor to leave.
At Level Five, they want his position … his health … his family … and his career decimated.
I have been on the receiving end of both Level Four and Level Five conflict, and in both cases, the opposing group left the church. In the first case, the conflict died down. In the second case, the conflict got worse.
If a church is having a conflict, the chances are great that the pastor has become involved somehow. Either he’s perceived as “the problem” or he hasn’t yet “fixed the problem.” And the anxiety around the church becomes so great that people begin to wonder, “If our pastor is this incompetent or this useless, why should he stay?”
So when a conflict hits Level Four … or if it quickly leapfrogs to Level Five … the church board needs to seek outside intervention as soon as possible.
Here are five reasons to seek outside help:
First, the current church leadership has been unable to resolve the conflict at Levels One, Two, or Three where it’s much more manageable. If they can’t manage things at the lower levels, they’ll never be able to manage matters at the highest levels. They need an outsider.
Second, many church leaders have either been in their church for many years, or their present church is the only one they’ve ever known. They’re so immersed in their present church culture that they don’t know how pastors and boards in other churches handle conflict … but an outside interventionist almost assuredly does. He will help them broaden their thinking.
Third, pastors and church leaders can become so anxious and stressed about a conflict that they think they’re going crazy. They become so irrational that all they want to do is get the conflict over with. An outside interventionist comes in with a clean slate … no emotional investment … and a neutral approach that seeks the good of the church as a whole, not just the pastor, board, or a vocal faction.
Fourth, pastors and church leaders usually lose control of the process when a conflict erupts in their congregation. An outside interventionist can remind everyone of what Scripture says, what the church constitution/bylaws say, and what secular law says about how Christians are to treat one another. The interventionist can set ground rules for behavior and remind people when they have crossed the line.
Finally, the interventionist can teach the leaders … and by extension, the congregation … new skills, processes, and resources for managing conflict in the future.
Let me share my story along this line.
Seven-and-a-half years ago, I found myself in the worst conflict of my 36-year ministry career. I didn’t know which Christian leaders to contact, so I contacted everyone I knew outside my denomination.
The name of a Christian leader popped into my head … someone who had once commended me on an article I wrote in a Christian magazine … so I looked him up online and made a phone appointment with him.
He had been a pastor … a district executive … and a denominational president. Later on, I found out he was considered to be the best-networked evangelical leader in Southern California.
We had a two-hour conversation. He gave me more valuable counsel over the phone that day than the other sixteen leaders I contacted combined.
He later became my mentor … and my friend … giving me hours of his valuable time, and advising me at key times when I needed to make a major decision.
My conversation with that leader was free. He recommended I speak with the head of the consulting firm that he worked for, so a few hours later, I did.
After about a 45-minute conversation, the consulting head told me, “Jim, we need to get someone to your church as soon as possible.”
The next day, our church had been assigned a top Christian leader. The following weekend, he dropped everything to fly to our area and help facilitate the conflict.
How much did he cost?
Think $5,000 to $10,000. The better the interventionist, the more they cost. If someone says they’ll do it for free, they’re probably not very good.
What did he do?
*He met with me and heard my side of things.
*He met with the church staff and interviewed them.
*He met with a group of church leaders and helped formulate strategy for two congregational meetings.
*He later met with both my wife and me.
*He stayed in constant contact with a transitional leadership group.
*He attended the two public meetings and became so incensed that he stood up after the second meeting and scolded the congregation.
*He did investigative work and uncovered a plot originating outside the church designed to force me out of office.
*He wrote a report and gave one copy to me and one to each of the transitional leaders.
*He told me that I had a future in ministry and made recommendations to the transitional leaders for a realistic severance package.
And he did it all in five days.
Who should a church hire as an interventionist?
I recommend … along with many other Christian leaders … that you don’t seek outside help from your denomination, at least initially.
Most denominational leaders aren’t trained in conflict intervention. Even though they’ll make a pretense of acting neutral, any decisions they make will most likely be political.
And they usually recommend that the pastor leave the church, even if he is innocent of any and all charges.
If you do use denominational services, only go to them if every other avenue fails.
Here are some ideas about hiring an interventionist:
*Contact Peacemaker Ministries. They often have trained interventionists and mediators in many communities, including former pastors and attorneys.
*Contact the executive pastor of a megachurch. It’s nearly impossible to make contact with the lead pastor of a huge church, but you can often contact other staff members, like the executive or an associate pastor.
*Contact the seminary your church knows best, or the one you graduated from. I was able to speak with a professor from my seminary who had extensive knowledge of church transitions and was able to give me valuable feedback.
*Contact Christian leaders who do this for a living, like Peter Steinke with BridgeBuilder. I’ve had training directly from Steinke, and he focuses on the process that congregations should use to resolve conflicts rather than resolving matters by himself.
*Contact someone like me … a former pastor who has credentials in conflict management.
Two additional ideas:
First, make sure that you allow representatives from both sides to interview a consultant before he’s hired. Don’t hire someone and then try and impose that person on the other side. That will create even more conflict!
Finally, do your best to follow the consultant’s recommendations. I’m amazed when a church hires a conflict consultant and then completely ignores his report. How arrogant … or stupid … is that? This usually happens in situations where either the pastor or the board is faulted in some way by the consultant and those leaders refuse to believe that they might be the problem.
By the way, when my church hired an attorney many years ago, that attorney … and someone else from his firm … not only saved our church … they also helped us settle a lawsuit that was eventually filed against us … and we settled for pennies on the dollar.
That incident completely changed my outlook on attorneys.
And hiring that consultant in 2009 changed my outlook on hiring church outsiders as well.
Is it possible that your church needs an outside interventionist?