I am speaking to you, who are leaders of congregations. In my years of experience as an Elder, I have learned that addressing conflict is one of the most difficult things you are called to do. Because there is very little preparation or effective training in Bible college or seminaries, most leaders are ill-equipped to deal with the strife that arises in their congregation. In this article, I want to share with you a few things that I think will help you be better prepared for this task.
TEACH GOD’S WORD
Peter instructs congregational leaders to do this: “ Feed the flock which is among you, taking oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind: Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (First Epistle of Peter chapter 5, verses 2-3, King James version).
Just as the words that Jesus spoke to the people were “spirit” and “life”, the words that God gives to you to speak to the congregation are life changing and very powerful (see the Gospel of John, chapter 6, verse 63). Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12 and 13 point out how powerful the Word of God is: “ For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart”. If a leader wants his messages to be powerful, he cannot preach whatever he wants. He must seek God, and allow God to release through him what God wants the congregation to receive. I want to quickly point out some of the ways that your messages can be powerful, and help set the atmosphere and tone for proper resolution of conflict in the congregation you are heading.
Your messages can confront and challenge your members who are in conflict, to deal with the issues in their lives that are causing them to be at odds with each other. This makes them more agreeable to quickly settle their differences with each other. When John the Baptist spoke to the crowds of people, his words had such a convicting impact on them: “ He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, verse 17). The “turning of the hearts” means that John’s words were able to influence the fathers and sons to forgive each other and reconcile.
You words can inspire the congregation members to turn to God to help them settle their differences with each other. To do this, you have to be able to make it clear to them that God has the ability to help them end their quarrels with each other so that they will put their trust in him.
You can do this by sharing with them some of the many examples in scriptures of how he did this. I point out some examples of this in other articles I have published for Mediate.com. In this article, I will quickly point out one more. This is the story of Isaac and Abimelech, king of the Philistines.
When Isaac sowed in the land and that same year received a 100 fold blessing, the Philistines became jealous of him. Their king Abimelech then commanded Isaac to leave the land: “And Abimelech said to Isaac, Go away from us, for you are mightier than we” (Genesis chapter 26, verse 16). Because Isaac had done nothing, I am dure that this broke his heart.
A while after Isaac had moved on to occupy other territory in the land, Abimelech suddenly came up to Isaac to make peace with him: “ And Abimelech came to Gerar with Ahuzzath, one of his friends, and Philcol, the commander of his army” (Genesis 26, verse 27). When Isaac asked him why he had come to him since he hated him and had sent him away, Abimelech’s words to Isaac reveal what prompted him to seek him out for peace: “But they said, We have certainly seen how the Lord was with you. So we said, Let there now be an oath with us, between you and us; and let us make a covenant with you…. So they made a feast, and they ate and drank” (Genesis 26, verses 28, 30).
These men did not simply return on their own. It was God dealing with their heart, inspiring them to make peace with Isaac.
You can give them scriptural accounts like this. But, the best way to influence your members is for you to share with them some testimonies of how God has moved mightily in your life to help you end your disagreements. When you let them know that he has brought peace between you and someone else when you thought it was impossible or you gave up hope, your real life example lets them know that God is real,. And just as he moved for you, he can do great things for them.
BE ON THE OFFENSIVE
Too many leaders deal with strife from a defensive standpoint, and this is why they do not have as much success addressing and resolving disputes as they should. Approaching conflict from an offensive posture means that you do not sit idly by with the hope that it goes away or that things get better . You take an active, aggressive and quick stand to address and resolve these situations whenever they comes up. This is what Jesus did, and a few examples in his life reveal how he took an offensive stand towards conflict.
At Mark chapter 3, the Pharisees were very upset with Jesus, because they felt he was wrong to heal sick people on the Sabbath day. As soon as Jesus sensed their anger, he did not wait. He faced the situation head-on, and confronted them about their disagreement with him, to see if the issue could be quickly settled: “ And He (Jesus) said to the man that had a withered hand, Step forward. Then he said to them (the Pharisees), Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill” (Mark chapter 3, verse 3 and 4). He asked this question to elicit a response for further discussion.
When some of Jesus’ disciples were upset with him about what he was teaching, he immediately addressed the issue with them, to get them to discuss their differences, to see if they could have a meeting of the minds. The gospel of John chapter 6, verse 61 reveals this: “When Jesus knew in himself that the disciples complained about this, he said to them, Does this offend you ?”
When Jesus’ disciples became indignant towards the woman with the alabaster box who poured ointment on Jesus head, Jesus did not allow for the conflict and argument to go on. He took immediate action to quickly bring the dispute to an end: “ And Jesus said, Let her alone: why trouble ye her ? she hath wrought a good work on me” (Gospel of Mark chapter 14, verse 6). When members are fighting like this, sometimes you will need to correct them to bring the quarrel to an end.
While taking an active stand like this works, being passive or hesitant can be deadly. When we allow conflict to continue without facing it head-on and quickly acting, the situation often gets much worse. The people in conflict often get more angry at each other and become less open to talk and settle their differences. And when conflict gains momentum, it becomes much harder to address and resolve. These are some of the reasons why Jesus encouraged people to deal with disputes quickly: “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him: lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison” (Matthew chapter 5, verses 25).
When you have dealt passively with conflict for so long as most of us have, how do you change your ways and start operating on the offensive ? Here are two things that you can do.
The first is to allow God to deliver you from your fear and timidity. Unless you do this, you will not be able to take the bold stands that Jesus did. According to 1 John 4: 17, God is able to deliver us from our fears: “ There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear , because fear involves torment”. As we allow God’s love to penetrate us deeply by walking with him and letting him change us, we go from timidity to being bold as a lion (see Proverbs chapter 28, verse 1). David, the Psalmist, overcame fear as he sought the Lord: “And I sought the Lord, he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears (Psalm 34, verse 4). Gideon is another success story in this. He started off as a weak, paranoid man. But, after God got finished with him, he was a valiant warrior that led Israel into a great victory over the Midianites (see Judges chapter 6, verses 23, 27; Judges chapter 7, verses 10, 16-25; and Book of Hebrews chapter 11, verses 32-34).
The second thing that you do is to learn to live in humility instead of pride. Humility or meekness is not weakness. It is choosing to stop depending on our own power or wisdom, to have access to the unlimited strength and power of God. On the other hand, pride (arrogance, haughtiness) is when we exalt ourselves, and depend on our strength instead of God’s.
When we start choosing to live humbly instead of in pride, God provides his grace, his enabling power or ability to us. Peter confirms this at 1 Peter chapter 5, verses 5 and 6: “Yes all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble ” . The grace (power) of God is what allows us to go from being passive, hesitant leaders who are controlled by conflict into leaders who have the power to bring conflict in a congregation under control.
YOU NEED TO TURN THINGS AROUND
As you live on the offensive as a leader, you will also be able to turn conflict situations around. To see how you do this, we will look at a situation in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18 where Jesus took decisive action to turn impending conflict around, to bring it to an unexpected end.
The gospels reveal that Jesus’ disciples were fighting each other over which of them should be accounted the “greatest in the kingdom” (See Mark chapter 9, verse 34; Gospel of Luke chapter 9, verse 46).
These men, like others who are in conflict, often try to get people who are not involved in the fight to take their side. This is what disciples were trying to when they asked him this question: “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 18, verse 1). They were hoping that Jesus would choose one of them by saying, “Peter is the greatest” or “Thomas is the greatest”. This would allow the disciple he mentioned to have “superstar status” , bragging rights, and the right to claim himself the victor in the on-going conflict.
While they wanted Jesus to honor them, Jesus had others ideas about this which led him to take action. First he immediately confronted the disciples about the pride and desires in their hearts that caused them to fight with each other: “ Then Jesus called a little child, set him in the midst of them, and said, Assuredly, I say unto you, unless you are converted, and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 18, verses 2 4). This act of Jesus shifted the focus from these disciples being honored, over to them having to think about and deal with why they were fighting each other. I am sure that such a shift was shocking to them. Dealing with their disagreement was something that they wanted to avoid, and Jesus was now making them deal with it.
But, Jesus did not stop with this. After dealing with them about their reasons for fighting, he pointed out to them how to solve their problems, by trying to get them to engage in discussions with each other: “ Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 18, verse 15).
I hope you see how his decisive actions turned things around. These men started off on the offensive, wanting Jesus to take sides in their conflict. But, when Jesus was finished, they were on the defensive, now having to address settling their differences with each other. When you are able to do what Jesus did here with these disciples, your actions will stop some quarreling congregation members in their tracks, and bring some of the conflicts to an end.
ADVISE AND WARN MEMBERS
You need to quickly advise members who are not in the conflict and have stepped in the middle of the fray (by trying to give advice or help) to refrain from interfering or meddling in the affairs of others because outside involvement is often what keeps things stirred up and makes it harder to get disputes resolved.
Advise these members and close friends to give those at odds space to settle the problem among themselves. Although they want to give so-called friendly advice, and feel that they have the solution these people need, let them know that the people in conflict should seek God, and settle it on their own without them. You can also let these members know that their comments like, “I wouldn’t put up with that if I were you” or “you shouldn’t let him get away with that” cause more harm than good, and they make things worse instead of better.
You should also to warn members who interfere or meddle in the affairs of others that their conduct will get them in trouble. Giving them this warning that is written at Proverbs chapter 26, verse 17 may be proper: “He who passes by and meddles in a quarrel that is not his own, is like one who takes a dog by the ears”. You do not have to grab a pit-bull, German shepherd, or a large vicious dog for this passage to apply.
When you grab the ears of even the littlest dog, that meek, helpless looking, friendly dog, will suddenly turn into your enemy, and become a mighty, relentless warrior, who will attack and hurt you . Any one who has grabbed a dog this way can relate to this, and understands the pain, heartache and sorrow you are opening yourself up to when you interfere in other’s affairs. Giving your congregants this kind of advice and your issuing them such a graphic warning of the pain meddlers open themselves up to will stop some of the meddling. This will keep some potential conflict from arising.
ISSUE STRONG DISCIPLINE
As a Pastor, you are called to love the members and care for them. But, this does not mean that you are to put up with their improper conduct, and allow them to continue to stir up strife. This puts the entire congregation in danger. You are to immediately try to lead those who are at odds with each other to make peace. And, if they refuse to settle their differences, and they keep stirring up conflict and strife after you have corrected them a number of times, you may have to take strong action to end the conflict.
One thing that you may need to do is alert congregation members that these people are troublemakers, that they are to stay away from: “ Now I urge you, brethren note (mark) those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you have learned, and avoid them” (Romans chapter 16, verse 17).
A similar instruction is given at 2 Thessalonians chapter 3, verses 14 and 15: “ And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother”. You are to tell the members to separate from these unruly individuals with the hope that the pain of being ostracized wakes these people up and makes them change their behavior.
If marking them does not work, you may have to remove them from the congregation. Proverbs chapter 22, verse 10 encourages such action, when it is merited: “ Cast out the scoffer, and contention will leave; Yes, strife and reproach will cease”.
Another passages which advises removing the unruly to end strife is Proverbs chapter 26, verse 20: “Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases”. As these passages say, causing troublemakers to leave will bring conflict to an end. When other members of the congregation know you will take strong action, it will also stop them from stirring up strife in the future.
Allowing destructive conflict to remain unchecked can be devastating to a congregation. Over the years, I have seen it cause people to suffer major health problems, such as heart attacks and nervous conditions. I have seen churches split needlessly and good friendships end which should have remained intact. I have seen conflict cause ministries to end, families and marriages to be torn apart, and for people to get so hurt that they no longer want to trust congregation leaders or ever go to worship services again.
Although I have seen these things occur, I know that some of them may not have had to happened if the church leaders took strong, quick, decisive stands. Such a stand does not win friends or make you popular. But, sometimes you have to remove people from the congregation to make sure that the church is what it is supposed to be, a place of healing, which provides an atmosphere of peace where the love of God can flow.
The story of Jesus’ cleansing the temple by casting out the money-changers illustrates this point. When these people made God’s sanctuary what it was not supposed to be, Jesus cast them out, and told them, It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 21, verse 13). Once he removed them, healing was restored: “Then, the blind came into the temple, and he healed them” (Gospel of Matthew chapter 21, verse 14). Also, joy was restored, as indicated by the little children singing beautiful songs of praise in the temple (see Gospel of Matthew chapter 21, verses 15 and 16). Restoration of peace and joy are what return to a congregation when the scorners and unruly who cause chaos, confusion, strife and division are removed.
I hope that this insight helps you better carry out your conflict management role as a leader in your congregation.
From Stephanie West Allen's blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution. Musician David Amram tells a story in the beginning of his book Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat, and...By Stephanie West Allen