Posts Tagged ‘resolving church conflict’

Our family bought a house last spring, and one of its many wonderful features is a three-car garage.

About one-third of the garage is filled with file boxes containing my books, sermons, teaching lessons, and other assorted items from 36 years in church ministry.

I’ve been trying to create more space in the garage by tossing as many of those files as I can, but one kind of file in particular has been sending me into mini-depressions.

Those files contain written documentation of conflicts that I’ve experienced over the course of my ministry life.

If I could blame all those conflicts on others, I would.

But in some cases, I didn’t handle matters as well as I could have … and it pains me to think about that, even for a second.

Whenever a church has a major conflict, there are often unreasonable, obstinate, irrational leaders and lay people involved.

But pastors and church leaders can do a much better job of teaching and modeling what God’s Word says about how to handle our differences as well.

Let me share three mistakes that pastors and church leaders often make that can help create church conflict:

The first mistake is that the pastor fails to teach on biblical conflict resolution often enough.

It’s the pastor’s job to teach his congregation, “This is how we handle conflict in our church family.”

Many pastors are afraid to do this, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

I once knew a pastor who found it relatively easy to confront people one-on-one about the sins in their lives.

That was always hard for me to do.

But he found it difficult to confront people’s sins from the pulpit … something that came naturally for me.

So I realize we’re all different, but I believe that a pastor has to plan at least one Sunday every year where he reminds the congregation, “This is how we deal with our differences around here.”

Some pastors prefer to preach through books of the Bible, and that’s commendable, but you can preach for years and never hit the key biblical passages on conflict resolution.

It has to be done intentionally.

It might be wise for a pastor to do a series … maybe four or five weeks … on conflict in general.  Touch on issues like conflict in the home … the workplace … with friends … and in the church.

Let people submit questions in writing on the conflicts they are experiencing all through the series, and then answer the best questions on the final Sunday.

Then announce, “This series has been so fruitful that I’m going to preach an annual sermon on conflict resolution from Scripture.”

My suggestion would be to schedule that sermon around the time of the annual meeting and budget presentation.

If the pastor never teaches on conflict resolution, how will people know how to act if they’re upset about something?

The second mistake is that church leaders have not devised healthy feedback mechanisms.

During my second pastorate, our church had a large wooden Suggestion Box, which I inherited from the previous administration.

If churchgoers weren’t happy with something, they could write a note and drop it in the box.

One Sunday, I held the box up during a sermon, made a negative comment about it, and then placed it inside the pulpit.

I didn’t like that box because it allowed people to write anonymous notes of complaint.

But what I failed to do was give people a healthy alternative instead.

There are many unhealthy ways that churchgoers express their negativity, but it’s up to church leaders to give them healthier ways to share their concerns.

I’ll mention three quick ones:

*Let the pastor and board conduct an all-church survey at least annually … maybe in the spring.  Cut the Sunday service(s) short by ten minutes and ask people to fill out the surveys where they’re seated.  Ask a handful (maybe five) open-ended questions that call for a positive response.  For example:

Why do you attend our church?

What are we doing well?

Where do we need improvement?

Where would you like to see us in five years?

Then tabulate the responses and put them all on the church website.  Don’t fear the negative responses … they will usually be drowned out by the positive ones. (When I did this once, under improvement, someone wrote, “Get a new pastor.”)

*Hold an informational meeting at least annually.  Let the pastor/staff/board present the church’s goals and budget for the next year.  Then ask people if they have any questions or concerns about the presentation.  If the leaders really listen, many people will share their true feelings, but do so in a structured way.

*Designate several times a year for the pastor to take questions from the people of the church.  He can do this in a large meeting … a smaller forum … or online.  (Maybe try all three to see what works best.)  When he does this, he needs one or two key church leaders to monitor the discussions and to support the pastor in case things go south.

The beauty of these approaches is that:

*the pastor and official leaders are being proactive, not reactive

*the leaders can stay in touch with the congregation better

*the leaders come off as being transparent

*if people complain in inappropriate ways, the leaders can ask them, “Why didn’t you speak up when we had our survey/meeting/forum?”

Over the years, I’ve discovered that people want their say far more than they want their way.

If feedback opportunities are spread throughout the church year, leaders will usually be able to head off any major disgruntlement.

But the one thing church leaders cannot do is to prohibit churchgoers from expressing their opinions and feelings.  Better to channel their concerns in a structured manner than to provide zero feedback mechanisms.

I know a church where the pastor did one of the most reprehensible things I’ve ever heard.  (I have the documentation.)  But whenever churchgoers went to church leaders and expressed their concerns, they were told, “If that’s your attitude, you can leave the church.”

If the leaders want people to attend, serve, and give, the very least they can do is listen to them if they want to express a concern.

The third mistake is that church leaders forget to remind churchgoers of the biblical principles for conflict resolution and the existing feedback mechanisms.

A wise board member once told me, “Most sermons don’t contain a lot of new information.  They’re just reminders.”

We all forget how to act like a Christian at times.

Maybe we’re not feeling well physically … or we’re dealing with frustration at home … or we’re afraid we’re going to lose our job … and we bring our concerns to church.

And when something makes us feel uncomfortable, we overreact emotionally and start spreading our discontent to others.

In fact, even the best Christians get upset about something at church from time-to-time.

And when that happens, they need to be reminded, “How do you think God wants you to handle your feelings right now?”

This is why I believe that every church should have some sort of written brochure that specifies “how we handle conflict around here.”

Let’s say that Joe is upset after a service because he didn’t like something the pastor said in his sermon.

So Joe goes up to Harold … a board member … and starts ripping on the pastor.

Harold should pull Joe aside … listen to him … ask some questions … and then say to Harold, “I suggest that you read this brochure on how we handle conflict in our church and then contact the pastor directly about your feelings.  I have found that he is a good listener and that he really cares for every person in this church.  Will you promise me you’ll do that?”

What are the chances that Harold is going to go home and either hit the phones or complain online?

He might … but he’s also been told by a church leader how to handle his concerns in a biblical and healthy manner.

And if Harold finds out that Joe isn’t handling matters wisely, he has every right to contact him and remind him what to do.

When it comes to handling conflict wisely, we all need reminders, don’t we?


The first three mistakes have to do with failures on the part of the pastor, staff, and official board.

The final four mistakes have to do with failures on the part of disgruntled congregational members.

I’ll write on that next time!







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My wife and I were enjoying a fine dining experience at In-N-Out Burger the other night when I overheard a conversation at the table next to us.

An elderly gentleman … after using the terms “church” and “split” … told his assembled friends, “We are not going to get tangled up in church anymore.”

There was a time when I would have thought, “That man and his wife will not be able to grow spiritually outside the realm of a local church.”  And there is undoubtedly some truth in that thinking.

But I’m hearing of more and more people who are walking away from church … not for doctrinal reasons … but because there are just too many conflicts.

One Christian friend told me that he and his wife really liked their pastor … but one day, their pastor resigned and disappeared.

So the church called a new pastor.  My friend’s wife especially liked him.  But after he was there a short while, a bully forced the pastor to resign.

At that point, my friend and his wife said, “We’ve had enough of this.  We’re not going to invest our lives in church anymore.”

They still love and follow Jesus, but they’ve tossed in the towel on the institutional church … at least for now.

Another Christian friend told me that he had attended five churches over the past few years.  And in every church, a major conflict eventually broke out – almost always involving the pastor – and my friend decided that he couldn’t take it anymore.

So he no longer attends a local church.

When I was a pastor, sometimes newcomers would tell me, “We’ve just come from a church that suffered a horrific conflict.  We’re a bit shell-shocked right now, so we want to take time to heal before we volunteer to do anything.”

At the time, I didn’t completely understand.

But after being in the middle of a major conflict several years ago, now I do.  Going through a conflict can make a believer more guarded … less trusting … and even paranoid.

I’m all for winning unbelievers to Christ.  But while we’re seeking to bring the lost into our churches, how conscious are we that conflicts are driving the found out of our churches?

Several weeks ago, I met a Christian leader who travels the world presenting the gospel.  When I mentioned to him that American churches are rife with conflict, he responded matter-of-factly, “It’s not just America.  It’s a problem all over the world.”

How can we reduce and resolve conflicts in churches?

Let me offer four quick solutions:

First, pastors need to teach the biblical way to resolve conflicts at least annually.

If the pastor doesn’t do it, it won’t happen.  If it’s not done annually, people will forget.  As a pastor, I used to plan a brief “unity” series every November … right before our church’s annual meetings.  Whenever this is done, it should be viewed as essential.

Second, pastors need to model biblical peacemaking.

Most pastors try and cultivate an image of perfection … even when it comes to relationships.  But when pastors act like they’re always right … which they aren’t … they don’t model biblical confession and forgiveness.  I used to admit to my children when I messed up, hoping to demonstrate humility and reconciliation for them.  Pastors need to model healthy interpersonal behavior as well.

Third, church leaders need to address potential conflicts sooner rather than later.

Whenever a church suffers a pastoral termination … or a church split … the signs of discontent were usually present beforehand.  Let’s learn to read the signs and resolve issues before the sun goes down (Ephesians 4:25-27) or it’s like giving the devil the keys to our church.

Finally, bullying in church must be exposed and outlawed.

There are people in every church who use intimidation to get their way.  They threaten to leave the church … take others with them … withhold their giving … and throw the church into chaos unless church is done their way.  Bullies use threats and make demands.  Spiritual people share their concerns and abide by the decisions of their leaders … or leave quietly.

And most churchgoers are unaware of this behavior because it happens behind the scenes … and because bullies usually charm their followers in public.

This behavior in our churches must stop.  We need to realize that bullying has consequences … including the damaging of people’s souls.

Many years ago, I attended a major league baseball game with a friend (who happened to be chairman of the church board).

We took the local rapid transit train toward home, when suddenly, a nasty fight broke out in one of the cars between two men … one a fan of the local team, the other a Yankee fan.

These guys were determined to hurt each other.  They were hitting each other … hard.  Knives and guns could have emerged next.

Know what happened?

Everybody ran into adjoining cars … as far away as they could … so they wouldn’t be injured.

When pastors and church boards fight … when staff members are disloyal to their pastor … when a faction rises up to remove the pastor … most people run.

They don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.

And they don’t want to watch people they love hurt one another.

Let’s create ways to prevent conflicts in churches so that God always wins and Satan always loses.

How can we do this better?  I’d love to hear your ideas.

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