by Rick Grover
Over the past six years, our congregation has gone through more than its fair share of change, disappointment, loss, and now renewal. And through it all, our elders have remained united. We had to acknowledge our own mistakes and failures as leaders, the changing context of our church family, and the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding us through the murky water of conflict.
In the midst of everything, we discovered that our congregation was not equipped to handle conflict in healthy ways. We had the typical “fight or flight syndrome” rather than the “share and care syndrome” of working through conflict. We learned that there are four basic reactions to church conflict that, if not addressed, can lead to greater infighting and division.
Some church members avoid conflict because they see it as an evil rather than an opportunity. Thus, rather than deal with conflict, they respond with spiritual platitudes such as, “We don’t need to discuss this any further. We just need to be on our knees and pray that God will convict the hearts (of those with whom we disagree).” It’s hard to argue with someone’s conviction to pray, but prayer should never be used as an excuse not to deal with real issues.
Whether in marriage or ministry, some Christians take the ostrich approach and want to bury their heads in the sand. Elderships can be on a dangerous path of disarray if they are unwilling to go through the tunnel of conflict. As I’m sure you’ve heard before, “Facts are your friends,” even if those facts are not very encouraging.
This is the “frog in the kettle,” where churches are facing significant problems, but elders are still living in the glory days and not in current reality. When elders trivialize conflict, factions, or divisions, they are playing into the hands of the enemy. We should never make a mountain out of a molehill, but too many unaddressed molehills can trip up an eldership and congregation.
In church conflict, we easily fall into the trap of the blame game. The minister blames the elders for the church’s problems. The elders blame the minister. The congregation takes sides and blames the elders or the minister or both. When we were going through our own tunnel of conflict, we had to stop blaming each other and start collaborating on possible solutions and ways to move forward.
Responding to conflict is never easy, but it is necessary for church health and growth. When we had significant internal tension, it was no surprise that newcomers could sense it and wanted no part of it. Healthy things grow – and that includes churches. Your church may be in a geographic area of non-growth, but healthy growth is still possible, even if it is measured in ways that go beyond simple Sunday morning attendance.
For our congregations to handle conflict in healthy ways, elderships must take the lead. Are your elders’ meetings characterized by any of the above four common responses to conflict? Does your eldership over-spiritualize, deny, trivialize, or guilt-trip each other when conflict occurs? If so, the path forward for your church begins with you taking the first steps in your eldership and handling conflict in ways that honor Jesus Christ.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
1 John 3:16 (ESV)
And in the church, that begins with the elders.