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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Conflict? Ask Ken: Runaway Congregational Conflict and Why We Should Solve It

ConflictRunaway congregational conflict can have huge detrimental effects on church life and ministry.  Churches are surprisingly unprepared to deal with in-house disputes unrealistically expecting that agreement will always mark relationships.  Because of the damage churches suffer when disputes are poorly handled, this paper first addresses the need for members to alter their expectations based on a fuller understanding of Biblical theology.  Attention is then turned to the critical role a person’s perception plays when congregants become antagonists.  There is a tendency to mischaracterize one’s opponent as particularly debased, flawed, or unspiritual in comparison to others or oneself.  This is shown to be theologically unsound and toxic to the church body.  The paper concludes by highlighting the mediation alternative and the kind of dialogue disputants should engage in to work out their differences and continue building the ministry of the church.

People’s Expectations

Given the great diversity of people that attend, churches can be both a source of joy and aggravation, a place of peace or conflict.  In this paper, we will be delving into matters relating to interpersonal conflict.  Accordingly, consider the following two remarks.  Frustrated and upset, one minister verbally emoted:

“It just kills me when people are this ugly in any community, especially the church.  What happened in the nominating committee last night was bald-faced character assassination.  Nobody stopped it until I finally stepped in.  Even then, they just sat there. Today Joan is still at it, spreading her poisonous lies about Sheila all over the congregation. What hurts so is how the people of this congregation play dead and let her keep on.  I can't believe it.  At times like this, it makes me sick to be the pastor of this church” (Halverstadt, 1991).

And then there is this statement of incredulity:

“‘I thought the church was different from other organizations -- especially with regard to conflict,’ a confused and depressed lawyer said to me in the midst of a painful and protracted battle between his church’s vestry [board] and the school board which ran their parish day school” (Leas, 1979). 

These are just two expressions of disappointment about conflict in the church.  Surely, if there is one place where people want to find a respite from the world, a place of peace and harmony, it is in their church.  It is interesting to note that in the above cases, the church is distinguished from all other institutions and organizations by the use of the word, “especially.” 

However, what is not realized by the majority of clergy and laypersons alike is how unprepared the church is to deal with conflict in its midst.  Ironically, the one place people expect for differences to be managed well is the one place where, by and large, it is not.   After fourteen years of experience one church consultant and conflict specialist declared, “I have not yet been in a church that has a decent set of understandings of how to deal with differences when they arise” (Leas, 1985).  The reality behind that observation has changed little since that time.  Rediger (1997) noted, “It is surprising to find how few congregations have a clear, widely known procedure for handling complaints.” How can this be?

Unrealistic Expectations
A major reason churches have so much trouble managing conflict is because it is so contrary to what people expect to find.  Yet this widely held anticipation that houses of worship are conflict-free is very unrealistic.  In fact, such misguided expectations only exasperate the problem.  Rodger Bufford, chairman of the graduate psychology program at George Fox College writes, “Ministers don’t report that they are having much conflict in their ministries because they are not supposed to have them” (Lowry and Meyers, 1991). 

Through newspapers, radio, and the evening news, people are well aware of all the problems in the world.  Locally or nationally the names are different but the story is always the same: abuse, rape, murder.  Internationally, the names are different but the story is the same: political unrest, territorial disputes, war.  No matter what the era or where the locale it never ends.  But people expect a different, higher experience in the church where love is extolled as the greatest virtue.  Jesus’ words to his disciples are well-known:  “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NKJV).

Likewise, when pastors or Sunday school teachers look to a model of the ideal church, they inevitably turn to the snapshot of the newborn church recorded in Acts 2:44-47 (NKJV):

“44Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

This passage is often cited as a description of the kind of loving fellowship that is expected to exist in our congregations today, and in fact, such love and care can regularly be found. 

However, the above snapshot is only a momentary picture.  Reading on in the New Testament, we discover that the euphoria of those very early days gave way to instances of false pretenses and lying (Acts 5), to serious conflict between two culturally distinct groups within the church (Acts 6), to theological contention (Galatians 2, Acts 15), and to interpersonal disagreement (Acts 15).  As Christianity spread, we find that first-century churches had their fair share of disputes.  They are spoken of in virtually every epistle.  Paul’s remark to the Corinthian church which was composed of people with a strong pagan background is an example:  “I fear that there may be [among you] quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” (2 Corinthains12:21, NIV).  Such a state of affairs does not in any way diminish the words of Christ or the portrait of the early church.  But they do acknowledge the difficult realities that churches face when diverse people from every age group, race, ethnic group, income bracket, and background come together to become part of one body.  There will be strife. Conflict is a reality of organizational life, and churches are not exempt. They never were. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

But not all have come to this understanding.  Too often, for a church to acknowledge conflict in its midst when it is supposed to demonstrate love, is to acknowledge failure.  That’s why pastors underreport the amount of discord in their churches.  Its acknowledgement is incongruent with their highest ideals.  It is analogous to faculty members at a university’s department in dispute resolution publicly announcing that they are at war with each another.    

It should, therefore, not come as a surprise to discover what Peter Robinson, associate director at the Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law, learned.  After working with hundreds of ministers, he concluded that a minister’s preferred option of dealing with church conflict is “avoidance” (Lowry and Meyers, 1991).  Rediger (1997) has likewise stated, “our image of the ideal church doesn’t include conflict.  This is unrealistic, of course, but this fallacy about the church is a significant part of the context; when we imagine that conflict shouldn’t exist, we are likely to engage in denial when conflict does arise” (p. 48).

Danger Lurks
The downside of avoidance is that disputes, rather than being directly addressed, slowly simmer until they finally explode, catching the rest of the congregation off guard.  And then the hallmark of Christian fellowship, love, is nowhere to be found.  It is at times like these when people scratch their heads and say, “But I thought the church, especially the church, is not supposed to be like this.” 

Ron Kraybill (1986) has given the following advice to pastors and other church leaders when dealing with disputes in their midst:

“Manage conflict or it will manage you.  Whenever churches have faced conflict openly, the congregations have grown stronger in the process.  But whenever they have hidden from conflict, it has emerged when the congregations were weakest and least prepared.  The longer the congregation hides, the more ‘political’ and power oriented the struggle becomes, and the more destructive its impact.” 

Chaos management, a contradiction in terms, becomes the emerging paradigm instead of the implementation of a pre-designed process of conflict management.  The truth is, unresolved church conflict represents one of the greatest internal threats to the work of ministry.  The manner in which pastors, lay leaders, and members handle their differences today dictates what
the church's health and stability will be tomorrow.



Unique_help_1  © 2005 Kenneth C. Newberger
Ken Newberger, an experienced church conflict resolution specialist, earned his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, has ten years senior pastoral experience, and is in the dissertation phase for his Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Nova Southeastern University, one of only two accredited doctoral programs of its kind in the United States. If your church needs help resolving conflict, if you need individual coaching, or if you would like to introduce a proactive conflict management system into your church, please visit Ken's website at
www.ResolveChurchConflict.com  or call 301-253-8877.

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June 16, 2005 in Church Conflict | Permalink

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This article sounds to me like leadership needs to adress the issues/conflict in the church. But what if the leadership is part of the problem? What if conflict lies in both members of the congregation and the existing leadership? Should other congregational memebers who see this address the problems existing with both the leadership and other members involved? I have seen on more than one occasion this problem to exist. I believe we are supposed to support our leaders but the difficulty lies wiether one should stay and ignor the conflict between the leadership and certain members of the congregation and when one should leave and allow the problem to be resolved some other way. In these situations, the issue was about control of the church(No big surprise there). In other words, who was going to decide how things would be done. Of course, everybody had motives as to why/how things should be handled. In my experience, issues of control don't get resolved properly. They continue until the stronger person/persons dominates the situation thus leaving the church unable to grow. What I've seen is the dominant culture existing in the church hinder growth for the soul purpose to protect that control. New people requires more effort to keep that control. How should both the congregation and members of leadership respond to this? Is this one of ignor and hope time will heal wounds or should the issue be dealt with harshly or should one try to find a middle ground with the dominant party? The next question would then be,
"What if things that were said and done wrong according to scripture (ie lying, gossiping,) shouldn't there be a repentance process among the parties involved?"
How does that happen when people are unwilling to admit they are wrong? Any help in this situation would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by: Pete King | Jun 16, 2005 11:06:17 AM

"How does that happen when people are unwilling to admit they are wrong? Any help in this situation would be greatly appreciated."

The person sinned against should approach the person privately. If they refuse to repent, they should take two or three with them. If they still refuse, tell it to the church. If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan. (Matt 18)

Posted by: Ellen | Jun 16, 2005 11:26:00 AM


This situation is a bit more complicated than that. It involves both leadership and congregational memebers. The resolution is extremely delicate in this case. These kind of issues when not handled correctly lead to church splits. I'm not sure that isn't always the case in this situation. A split might be necessary but I'm hoping to hear from Ken. I wonder what he thinks.

Posted by: Pete King | Jun 16, 2005 11:48:19 AM

where is the "bit more complicated" solution in Scripture? Part of the problem in our churches today (I believe) is that leadership is too fearful to actually carry out church discipline.

If you're not following Scripture (Matt 18), what *are* you following?

Is what you want to do Biblical? Is the Biblical solution wrong?

Posted by: Ellen | Jun 16, 2005 11:53:31 AM

Sorry - I just want to be clear that the "you" was a generic - not aimed at Pete King.

Posted by: Ellen | Jun 16, 2005 11:54:41 AM


I agree entirely with the concept of Matt 18. However misinterpretation of this scripture has caused a great deal of problems. I pose this question then.
"Should these witnesses have personally seen the conflict in hand?" The answer should be yes. But here's where it becomes confusing and "complicated" as I stated earlier. Most of the time these "Witnesses" serve more as a support group rather than a person who actually seen the acts in question. Also, most crimes done in the church are done through elaborate channels such as gossip lines and secret plots as to hide their actions. If this be the case then it becomes even harder to pick out who actually is the culprit. True, given enough time one can with the Lord's guidance likely guess whose behind the thing but by the time you do you, you find yourself swirling in a nest of yellow jackets. The only thing left to do then is spray in a general direction in hopes that you hit the actuall bee who started the whole thing. Thus the problem, spraying the bug spray may kill the bad one who stung you first but there were many other yellow jackets who woudn't have even been part of the attack if it wasn't for the one bad yellow jacket who didn't like you getting too close to him. In essense, the entire yellow jacket network can be destroyed in one blow leaving the nest at the very least fractured and possible even killing it entirely. I think that's the real problem with bad yellow jackets. They are very territorial and are great recruiters when it comes to formulating there attacks. Because they have strong personalities, they are very good at manipulating people to take their cause and fight for them. Throw in a few key leaders influenced by the bad yellow jacket and what you have now even becomes more difficult to resolve. Hopefully, I have explained this issue more clearly. Understanding the problem is only a small part. Solving it however is an entirely different animal.

Posted by: Pete King | Jun 16, 2005 12:46:29 PM


There are answers to the questions you raised. If yours is a real situation, and not just theoretical, and you want to fill out the form on my website, I will be happy to personally respond. I will also send you a free 4-page document on the overall approach I use to resolve church conflict.


Ken Newberger

Go to this page:

Posted by: Ken Newberger | Jun 16, 2005 1:58:31 PM


I want to echo what Ken said. I don't think Ken's purpose in writing this blog is to drum up business for himself but to help us become aware of the pitfalls of church conflict and ways to avoid them. However, I can testify to the fact that Ken is very good at what he does. He helped our church through a difficult conflict situation before I came here, and I have personally used his services to help me through a conflict with our Elders.

I have experienced conflict of the nature you have described at least four times in three different churches. Two key factors stood out in each case as very important in bringing resoulution. The first is an incredible amount of prayer. The second is bringing in an outside consultant that both sides can agree upon to help through the resolution process.

I hope you will talk with Ken, or another church conflict consultant, if nothing else but to get some direction on where to go next and how you can be a positive influence in your situation. In the mean time, I'll be adding you and your church to my prayer list.


Posted by: Rich Viel | Jun 16, 2005 3:57:44 PM

Pete says:
"What I've seen is the dominant culture existing in the church hinder growth for the soul purpose to protect that control."

We all need to learn how to get along and come to agreement. It takes time... lots of it... When someone like yourself sees a problem, you need to step up and be a part of the solution. Likely, you'll have to confront leaders who'd rather stick their head in the sand. Confrontation isn't easy, but it's a part of maturity to learn how to do it patiently and lovingly.


Posted by: bernie dehler | Jun 16, 2005 9:01:13 PM

It would be nice if all of us could receive your "free" four page process Ken. Maybe Todd could post it here or a link to it.

I'll put in my two cents if you don't mind.
1. Define the problem: It ALWAYS comes down to expectation and sin but defining the expectation can be a task - especially when "hidden agendas" are being instituted (you have to get down to the "agenda" [expectation] and define it as either sin or righteousness - both parties cannot be right Scripturally, otherwise the Bible would contradict itself).

2. Define the solution. The solution is ALWAYS found in Scripture (in this case, gossip [vain speech, back biting and tale baring] seems to be the major culprits)

3. Engage in Church Discipline. If you cannot define the individual, define the general "congregation" of individuals. A meeting face-to-face MUST take place and a mediator should be used.

4. The Scripture is the final authority. Use someone who knows Scripture. IF something other than Scripture is used, it will fail. Guaranteed. Opinions, feelings, emotions and philosophy are NOT deciding factors.

Scripture is good for three reason as defined in Timothy - "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work:
1. For doctrine
2. Reproof and Correction
3. Inspiration to righteousness

Reproof engages in conduct (#3)
Correction engages in doctrine (#1)

The answer to the conflict is in the Bible.

Posted by: BeHim | Jun 16, 2005 9:06:21 PM

I don't mean to oversimplify the problem that Pete is describing, but I think that the church I am a part of handles conflict very well. First, each member of the church is required to take a conflict resolution class to become a member (among other things). In that class, they learn specifics of how to handle conflict, what gossip is and how to defer it, and why conflict needs to be addressed quickly and appropriately. Second, when each member signs their yearly membership covenant, they agree to "protect the unity of the church." I think both of these steps are crucial because then each member is aware of the standard for which they will be accountable. It's just like raising kids; they need to know the rules before they can be expected to follow them. :-) As for issues with the pastor, we also have a church council in place that has the ability to handle those types of conflicts, even if it means overriding the pastor. I think the most important step is to be real about conflict from the onset and let people know what to expect when it happens, then it doesn't escalate to the same level.

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