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The Cost of Unresolved Congregational Conflict

Originally published in The Tarrant County Association of Mediators Newsletter, Vol 10, No.1, February 2002

The greatest threat to the church today is unresolved congregational conflict. Most church members have a tendency to avoid conflict until situations become explosive, or until there is such a sense of frustration that apathy takes hold of the entire congregation. The undertones of apathy are easy to spot in a church. There are no outward signs of conflict. The risk of open conflict has become too high because negative feelings have been building – sometimes for decades. There is a growing distance that hides entrenched resistance and long-term feelings of bitterness, distrust, and loss of hope. When conflict is ignored or avoided people eventually stop volunteering and may even begin to leave the church.

The majority of congregations are not looking for change because change is often seen as threatening. It’s easier to just keep doing the same old things in the same old way. It’s easier to ignore what lurks just beneath the surface. Pastors and lay leaders must learn how to handle differences with spiritual skill if the church is to become a stabilizing force of future health. A study by the Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal found that almost 80 percent of pastors who used conflict resolution consultants felt that they had waited too long to call in outside help.

Faith-based CR differs from secular CR and it is dependent upon the theological foundations of differing faith perspectives. Faith-based conciliators believe that conflict can be an opportunity to glorify God and to experience spiritual growth. Faith-based CR enlists God’s grace and guidance in the effort to find a common ground that is faithful to God’s work in the world, and which seeks to restore the relationship with God through transformed relationships. The process encourages an openness to change, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It encourages an authentic transformation in relationships that incorporates active and attentive listening and spiritual discernment. This openness must respect the integrity of all parties as it recognizes individual needs and the long-term nature of the conflict.

The priority of Christian norms, values, and world-views varies greatly among denominations. Congregational differences also involve a variety of rhythmic patterns of social interaction, as well as differences in the symbolic use of language. Some denominations reject the prevailing social norms and place the highest value on conformity to a particular Biblical interpretation. Other denominations tend to embrace changing social norms and place the highest value on a broader definition of God’s love. Conservative denominations tend to prefer directive CR while moderate denominations usually prefer facilitative or transformational CR. As a rule, CR will be most successful if the mediator(s) are representative of the communal beliefs, values, and norms. If there is a perceived difference between the congregation’s beliefs and that of the mediator, the establishment of trust becomes a large issue. When more than one faith tradition is involved in a dispute the teaming of mediators might be required so that each mediator is symbolically representative of those differing faith perspectives.


Barbara Sowell

Barbara W. Sowell is a Licensed Master Social Worker and trained Mediator. She earned a Master degree in Theology (M.T.S.) from Brite Divinty School (TCU) in 1999. Barbara is a trained mediator and social worker with over fifteen years of professional experience. Her rich multidisciplinary background gives her a unique… MORE >

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