What Churches Learn from Conflict

Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from last year, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

Every church conflict is unique in many ways.  The mix of personalities, the history, and especially the specific facts and circumstances cover a huge range of possibilities.  But they all have some things in common as well.  As I “debrief” a church leadership team after having come through a difficult conflict, I am always intrigued by what they learn as a result of that conflict.  Intrigued, but rarely surprised anymore.  Because, generally speaking, I hear variations on the same lessons over and over again.  “What regrets do you have?” I will ask them.  In the instances where we actually came through with success, I almost always hear the same regrets.

Church Leaders’ 3 Most Common Regrets from their Conflict:

1.  “I wish we had built stronger relationships.”

No surprise here, right?  There is a lot of talk these days about the fact that the church is not a building, it is people.  I agree with that, but I disagree with saying it quite like that.  The church is not just people…it is people living in relationships with each other.  The key is the relationships.  It’s one thing to get a bunch of people attending a weekly “show” on Sunday mornings.  But if they are not in relationships with each other, they are no more a church than the theater full of people all attending the same movie.  What makes it a church is the relationships between the people.  And what destroys the church is when the relationships fall apart.  Relationships, then, are the very “fabric” of the church.

When church leaders look back at a season of severe conflict, they almost always realize that much of the attention, emphasis, energy and resources which they put into polished programs, beautiful buildings and synchronized schedules should have been put into teaching/learning/practicing the skills of Biblical interpersonal relationships.  The health of any New Testament church really does boil down to the peoples’ relationships with God and their relationships with each other.  Love God and love others.  Sound familiar?

2.  “I wish we had taken more time to build consensus.”

I don’t know why this is the case.  Maybe it is the democratic, “red states, blue states” culture in which we live, but too many churches have determined through the years that the best way to resolve conflict is to just take a vote and let the majority rule.  As a result of that kind of thinking, peacemakers like me will have work to do in the church until Jesus comes back…because the New Testament church is not a democracy.  We exist to discern together the will of God.  Every decision we make should be a determination of the will of God.  There is never an instance where our “discerning” should stop once we have figured out the will of the majority.  Simply voting on the will of God is a little bit like voting on what time it is…the vote will neither change nor establish the truth.

Churches who simply take a vote on a conflict and then attempt to move forward on a 60% or 70% vote are begging for far deeper trouble to follow.  I once heard Henry Blackaby describe that scenario as perhaps having figured out the will of God but not yet figured out His timing.  Both matter quite a bit.  On controversial issues, when we do not yet have a clear consensus (i.e., enough puzzle pieces in place to leave no doubt as to the entire picture), we do not yet have God’s timing.  And if we do not yet have God’s timing to move, we should stay right where we are, faithfully doing the last thing we know He told us to do and continuing to pray together about the next thing.

3.  “I wish we, as leaders, had taken more responsibility for the focus of the congregation.”

In other words, at some point in the conflict, the leaders turned all their attention to the issues and away from their usual focus on Jesus.  They “secularized” the problem-solving process, handling it all in their own strength, rather than intensifying their prayer efforts and leading the congregation to do the same thing.  A church’s focus must always be on Jesus, as the head of the church.  That’s really our job, to show people Jesus.  When times are good and the budget is fat and new people are pouring in the doors, we should be showing people Jesus.  When everything is going down the toilet and we can’t pay staff salaries and people are leaving in droves, we should show people Jesus. That focus should never change.

But we are like Peter walking on the water (your church walks on water, right?).  As long as everything is rocking along well, we keep our eyes on Jesus.  But as soon as the waves pick up and we feel less steady, we take our eyes off Jesus and start focusing on Roberts Rules of Order or the church constitution and by-laws or the sinful, fleshly side of everyone.  As soon as that happens, focus is officially gone.  At that point, we will get exactly what we’re focused on: trouble.

These are the lessons learned by churches who survived conflict.  Maybe you have experienced church conflict yourself and have already learned these same lessons.  If you have not, then ask yourself this question: can you go ahead and learn them now, or will you have to learn them firsthand?

© Blake Coffee

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