The church is God’s amazing gift to a needy world. But it’s populated by a whole heap of sinners, who may be forgiven and given opportunities for multiple new beginnings, but are nevertheless fallible sinners— actually just like me and maybe even you. And so from its very beginning, followers of Jesus seemingly on a Spirit-led journey, have fought with each other. If you doubt me, have a good read of the New Testament and see how much of it is devoted to conflict resolution. Such is the miracle of God’s grace that we have been given some treasures to savour as a result of the writings which tell the story of those conflicts.
In attempting to share something which may be helpful, I want to cover four major areas. They are prevention of conflict, dealing with conflict, discipline, and restoration. The story of God’s relationship with us is one of redemption and restoration so that has to be our endpoint.
Both as a Regional Leader in Wellington and National Leader, I worked with a number of churches experiencing conflict. This makes me cautious in dealing with this important subject as I can appreciate that outcomes were sometimes difficult. There were many times where we were on a learning curve together and I thank you for that.
My wife, Lorna, is a medical doctor and believes (like most medics) in preventative medicine so that a healthy body can ward off the attacks of disease. In the area of conflict in the church the same principle must apply: A healthy church will be able to deal with conflict when it arises.
The key to this is good leadership at every level—leadership with the right balance of freedom and accountability. I make no apology for stressing the importance of this.
One of the saddest situations I was called in to help deal with had its genesis in a flawed pastor selection process. The pastor under consideration, when interviewed, stated that he’d had major marriage problems which he hadn’t handled well. The search group understandably but sadly, thought, “What a lovely transparent man,” and didn’t follow through rigorously checking his history with regard to relationships.
One of his referees, who later admitted that he’d found him difficult, thought he would show some generosity and speak wholly positively about him. In fact this wasn’t a good move, and within a short time a previously healthy church was divided and lost about half of its congregation, its witness to the local community shredded. Sadly this story has been replicated in a number of churches. A healthy pastor call process is a must.
A second story concerns Lorna (and then no more to prevent her blushes as she’s a genuinely modest person—and wonderful wife!) In the early years of our marriage I was an associate pastor of a large church near London in the UK. I was working with a great senior pastor, the church was thriving, and so was I. Having observed me in my relationships with fellow leaders and church people generally, one day Lorna said to me: “Do you realize that when you’re talking with people, you don’t give them the opportunity to easily disagree with you?” I was dumbfounded at the time and most probably didn’t allow her to easily disagree with me!
However, as a potential leader it was one of the most courageous and profound things that has ever been said to me and I’ve passed that story on to many people. At the time, and on a regular basis since, I’ve reflected on that and tried to check how I’m doing. I’m passionate, outgoing, I’ve been physically strong with a strong voice, and when I believe in something, all of my natural strength will come into play.
In other words I have a lot of power at my disposal. Add to that the mana of a number of the leadership positions I’ve held and that’s potentially an intimidating mix. I need to be continually reminded that as a follower of Jesus I am called to be a person whose life displays the “fruits of the Spirit” and not rely on my natural talents and abilities. Therefore I have learned that selection of leaders demands wise, healthy, honest, rigorous, and Spirit-led processes at every level. In addition, people in leadership need to take responsibility for their behaviour and have an appreciation of the power that resides with them, exercising it with discernment.
Importantly, using whatever helpful tools are available, team-building must be taken seriously. Hybels’ mantra of “character... competence... chemistry”(1) is a useful guide in this regard and I’m tempted to add “the greatest of these is chemistry.” They’re all important but you know what I mean. If you have a brilliant set of leaders who don’t gel and they’re not a good fit for the church, then you have problems!
Dealing with conflict
Even when we may get a lot of things right in terms of leader selection, team development, and the rest, there can still be conflict for good reason (Ephesians 6:10- 18). So how do we deal with it?
Firstly, if you see it coming, act quickly and if necessary seek the right sort of help. Don’t let it fester! Like most pastors at different times I have been called in to help with marital problems. It’s often a pretty frustrating experience because pride prevents a couple from seeking help early enough. It can be exactly the same in the church. Guys often have a real fondness for their cars or motorbikes and generally if there is a bad sound from the motor, help is sought quickly. It’s never assumed that given time it will sort itself out! Act quickly.
This leads me onto Matthew 18:15-17, which is a Scripture I’m personally hugely grateful for. Here Jesus gives us a process which not only deals with conflict but prevents it escalating. I may be the only person who reacts like this but if I feel I’ve been unfairly treated or have an unresolved issue with another person, I can brood, be kept awake going over and over it in my mind, and possibly be a real pain to live with. Jesus says talk to the other person.
In this day and age, can I say don’t do it by email, or worse by text. Phoning is OK to make an appointment, but meet face-to-face. Repeatedly I’ve found that the person I need to talk to had not intended what my imagination had conjured up and things are put right quickly. With serious conflict it’s an absolute must that parties are brought together, and in the spirit of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 18, there may need to be support people and a skilled person leading a mediation and reconciliation process. A healthy church will be able to deal with conflict when it arises.
However, one word of caution! Occasionally I’ve experienced powerful people wanting to use Matthew 18 as a cudgel to beat people around the head with, and to impress with the brilliance of their logic. One of our Baptist movement’s powerful debaters from a previous era was known to say to people who disagreed with him, “I can only assume you haven’t heard what I’ve said”—this is not helpful! Where there is a significant power imbalance, reconciliation between two parties in conflict will need to be set up, with prayer and wisdom.
Secondly, when dealing with conflict it’s essential to listen well to see the truth of a situation. Truth is multifaceted and according to our personalities, gifting, and sometimes theologies, we read situations differently. Some of us may look at a tree and marvel at its beauty in spring or give thanks for the fruit it produces. Another may see firewood for a wood-burner; another material to create furniture with or cladding for a house.
Yet another may see it as part of the creative life-giving chain, a gift from our creator God. We need to be able to discern the truth appreciating that people may have truthful experiences of the same incident and remember them differently. If you have the task of trying to discern the truth, it’s sometimes difficult to do so if you are operating alone. I’ve often found it helpful to have someone with me who may see things that I’m not seeing well and help me to form a more accurate picture or diagnosis.
Thirdly, and related to the truth, it’s important to look for life-giving solutions. Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Sometimes we can be so preoccupied with preserving our truth, that we lose sight of what is truly life-giving. Way, truth, and life must go together. If I can give an example and risk the wrath of many who hold to a strongly reformed theology: Some of the great reformers of Wittenburg, Zurich and Geneva—Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin— had a major problem with the Anabaptists, in many ways our spiritual forefathers.
They were complicit in terrible persecutions—legalised murder by another name. Calvin for example, was a great upholder of the truth and lover of order. But with the treatment of the Anabaptists, he and others were acting out of fear and in this instance their truth was destructive rather than life-giving. Looking at the way Geneva operated under the rule of Calvin, with his incredibly tight control, you’re inevitably drawn to the conclusion it contained many of the elements of Pharisaic rule that Jesus came to free his people from.
I realise it’s very easy for me several hundred years on to make a judgement concerning John Calvin and the other mainstream reformers, but our God has got to be big enough to cope with some disorder.
Discipline and restoration
At times, discipline will be needed. Discipline can take a number of forms, but must be treated with care. By being very conscious of good process, discipline can ultimately be life-giving and lead to restoration.
Discipline badly handled can be destructive. I was involved in a situation where a church was beginning to be seriously divided due to the personality of the pastor, and the way his theology expressed itself. The pastor was gifted and there was a strong desire to put in place measures that would see him well supported but also accountable to the leaders of the church. I had been present at a church meeting where agreement had been sought and found over the way ahead. Being a Baptist meeting, a number of people spoke and some doubts had been expressed about the way ahead. I was chairing and although my patience was at times tested, I wasn’t unduly bothered as I was keen for people to have the freedom to healthily express themselves.
I was horrified several days later to discover that one of those heading an important pastoral ministry, who had asked searching questions at the meeting, had been stood down without consultation with the leadership group. Looking back I see that as a key moment when the church began to fracture and ultimately lose about half of the congregation. It was tragic.
Discipline is easiest to administer when there has been moral failure as the issue is clear: There will normally be a stand-down period after which, if there is genuine repentance, there will be the opportunity for a fresh start. This is absolutely biblical as God is a God of new beginnings. Discipline will sometimes be administered in a meeting, whether it is a church meeting or something much smaller. I’ve had to challenge people for bullying or being abusive, and occasionally twisting the truth in a church meeting—I’ve had to make it clear that the behaviour is unacceptable. I haven’t enjoyed it, but it has been necessary. If someone is seen to be acting sinfully in a public context and getting away with it, fellowship is harmed and the integrity of the congregation suffers.
Discipline will always involve making a judgement call, which is a serious responsibility and needs serious prayer backing. It also needs those who are making the judgement to be very aware of their role and ensure there is proper pastoral care for the person who is being judged. On more than one occasion I’ve had to tell a pastor that I was not there to support him but rather to resolve a difficult situation.
However, if discipline has been fairly and biblically administered, there is always the possibility of restoration—that must be our ultimate aim. Some of the most uplifting experiences I’ve enjoyed have been standing with someone who is making a new beginning and is joyfully welcomed as they recommence ministry.
There is a great deal more that could be written on this very important area of church life but I finish with a reminder of the beautiful way that we see Peter not only restored, but also given the greatest new ministry that could be imagined in John 21. It’s an amazing Scripture and one that I never tire of preaching on. Peter, with all the evil of the events leading to the cross swirling around him, had denied three times that he was a follower of Jesus—he would have been heartbroken. The risen Jesus takes him aside and three times asks Peter if he loves him. After each question as Peter responds, Jesus says, “tend my sheep...feed my sheep.” By my reading, here is the one we know as The Good Shepherd handing to Peter the responsibility for leading the greatest ministry there is, the one owned by Jesus himself. That is restoration!
Story: Rodney Macann
Rodney is a Baptist pastor and opera singer, married to Lorna.
1. Are you struggling with conflict? What principles can you take from this article to help you move forward?
2. If you are a leader, how do you feel about discipline? How could you develop yourself in this area?
3. How does having restoration as the end goal change your outlook on, and process of, dealing with conflict?
4. One of the challenges for conflict resolution and restorative discipline today, is that when something comes up that needs to be addressed, it is easy to leave one church and go to another one, rather than dealing with the situation. Harper and Metzger’s Exploring Ecclesiology has a helpful chapter which considers how to address this across churches.
References: (1) Bill Hybels. 2008. Courageous Leadership: Field-Tested Strategy for the 360° Leader. (p.81). Grand Rapids. Zondervan.
Photo credit: Prixel Creative/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.