Saturday, July 07, 2007

Conflicts in the Church

Mary Wong has been with the Women Fellowship in her church for the last 5 years. She has led the group for the last 3 years and decided that it is time for a change in direction. She feels that the fellowship needs new members and suggested that new activities should be more evangelistic in nature. Ruth Tan, the treasurer however feels that the fellowship should concentrate on activities improving their families. This lead to a heated argument during their committee meeting and both ladies are now not on speaking terms with each other. Marvin Tong felt that John Ding, a new recruit to the para-church organization that both work for is rude and too outspoken. Sparks tend to fly when they are together; whether in board meetings, organization mission work, and in the office.

Conflict occurs when people interacts and works together. It is a dangerous fallacy to think that because we are Christians, conflicts do not occur. The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship did a large survey of churches, pastors, and Christians in 2001. The finding of the survey on “the extent of significant conflicts in churches over the past two years” shows that
47.2% say relationships in their churches are generally harmonious
26.9% say that there has been no outburst of conflicts but undercurrents and discontentment are felt
17.7% say that there have been one or more conflicts but they are resolved amicably
8.2% say there have been one or more conflicts and people are leaving the church

This survey serves to highlight the fact that all is not well in our churches in Malaysia where relationships in less than half of our churches can be said to be generally “harmonious”

Reasons Why Conflicts Occurs

In churches, para-church organizations or in any communities where people comes together, conflicts are inevitable. This is because we are all individual beings with different temperaments, ways of thinking, ambitions, desires, likes and dislikes. Therefore conflicts occur when

-There are limited resources. This is a common limitation in most organizations where there are limited resources such as money, and volunteers. Conflicts occur when leaders fight for these limited resources. This also happens in the support each ministry receives from the church or organization leaders.
-Adversity, problems or difficulties at home or at the workplace may also translate into conflicts among individuals in churches or para-church organizations. These individuals, being already stressed, tend to take each slight personally. This often leads to aggression and anger.
-Poor or faulty communication. One of the major causes of conflict is poor or faculty communication. Rational, reasonable, and understandable communication must never be underestimated in any organization especially in churches which is purely a voluntary organization.
-Perceived differences. It is sad but even in churches there exist perceived differences in ethnic groups and skin color, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, white collar and blue collar workers, and pastors and lay leaders. What is even sadder that most Christians denies that there are perceived differences. Inevitable conflicts happen when these people come together and do not take into account their perceived differences.
-Personality’s differences are another area of conflict. This occurs when the sharp edges of different personalities rub against one another. This is especially so in those with strong and stubborn personalities.
-Ambition. Some Christians will be surprised that ambition can be a cause of conflict in churches and para-church organization. They should not be; because each of us has our idea of how something is to be done and what is needed to be achieved. So when this does not gel with another person’s way of doing things, conflict occurs. The difference from other organizations is that in churches, we sanctify our ambitions by invoking the divine will.

Conflicts do occur in churches and para-church organizations. It is important to recognize this and to recognize that it is possible to resolve conflict before it spiral out of control and involve everyone else and ending in a church split.

The Conflict Spiral

Baden Eunson who teaches in Monash University, Australia describes a conflict spiral in his book, Conflict Management (2007). He postulates that conflict can escalate sequentially. There are two parts to the conflict spiral. The first part is covert or hidden. Here the conflict has not yet emerged into public view but is mainly between two individuals or two groups of people. When the conflict develops further, it enters the overt or public view and the confrontations become more direct and aggressive.

It is important to be aware of the features of these covert and overt areas because early intervention in these areas can prevent a conflict spiral blowup. The covert area is where a conflict occurs. This is the start of the spiral. Generally the conflict is tolerated. Moving up the spiral is covert resistance which involves gossips, rumor-mongering, non-cooperation and sometimes sabotage of the other’s projects. If the leadership can recognize that covert resistance is occurring in their congregation or organizations, the conflict spiral can stop there. It is interesting to note that 26.9% of churches surveyed can identify this covert resistance but do not know its significance.

If not stopped, the conflict spiral moves into the open or overt phase. Resistance also become open in the form of nagging and whining to complaining, anger, blaming and to arguments. Somewhere along here, a critical incident happens which causes a flare up. It may be something insignificant as a side comment or it may be something major as a church policy decision. The incident or incidents serve to divide the people. Members begin to take sides, the faults of the other side are highlighted and it becomes personal.

Other issues are dragged into the spiral and threats are beginning to be uttered. Usually at this stage action is taken to try to resolve the conflicts. If this action at reconciliation fails, the next stage occurs as a provocation, retaliation and even violence. In such situation, the church will split with one group leaving to start another church such as the 8.2% reported in the survey.

Managing Conflicts

Management of conflicts involves understanding the conflict spiral and how it escalates from one stage to another. This requires the vigilance of the pastors, leaders, and other members of the church or organization. In the covert stage, gossips, rumors, non-cooperation and sabotage must be challenged. These are serious signs of the worst to come and so must be dealt with appropriately. Bringing together the parties for an open discussion, prayer, confession, repentance, and reconciliation at this stage will avoid more heartache later on.

By the time the conflict spiral comes into the open, it is more difficult to deal with. Everyone in the church or organization knows something is going on. The worse thing the pastors or leadership can do at this stage is to pretend that nothing is wrong and try to bury the whole issue. Instead they should challenge the nagging, whining, complaining and arguments. The issue should be brought into the open and discussed. Critical incidents should be defused as they happen and other issues must not be allowed to be linked to this conflict. More important is that members are advised against taking sides.

At this stage, the formal action to be taken is
-Negotiation where the two parties come together and try to reach a compromise, usually by seeking a common ground and trading concessions.
-Mediation is when a third party is brought in to help with the discussion. However this third party can advise but cannot compel.
-Arbitration is when a third party is brought in to try to settle the issue. This third party has the authority to compel the other parties to accept the compromise. This may occur in denominations where someone from the central committee come to arbitrate or from international or national headquarters of para-church organizations.
-Litigation means bringing the case to the courtroom. It is surprising how many Christian church issues ended up in the courtroom.

If these actions fail, then the response to provocation is to challenge the interpretation of events and words. Retaliation should not be met with an equal retaliation. If one must retaliate, a lesser retaliation should be done. Better is to follow Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek and refuse to retaliate.

Avoiding Conflict

Is it possible to avoid conflict? Is conflict inevitable in human relationships? It is possible to avoid or minimize conflicts if we have the following perspectives.

A correct perspective of God. It is important we know who God is. God is three-in-one or the Trinity. If we understand the relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit within the Trinity, then we can understand our relationships with each other. The relationship within the Trinity is the model for our relationship with others. It is a relation of love and communion. It is not a relationship where conflict takes place because of selfish ambitions.

A correct perspective of self. If we see ourselves as God sees us, then there is no need for ego-self dominance. Most of conflicts occur when we try to exert our ego-dominance over others. We need to prove that we are better, richer, stronger, smarter, and more powerful than others in our communities. God loves us for who we are, not what we achieve. Hence there is no longer the need to prove ourselves or feed our egos. Paul instructs us to honors the others over ourselves (Rom.12:10).

A correct perspective of community. The source of conflicts starts with us. If we recognize that a community is a minefield of conflicts and if we resolve not to start a conflict and help to break the conflict spiral as soon as possible, then we can avoid conflicts. Paul calls for us to bear one another in love (Eph.4:2), serve one another (Gal.5:13), and love one another (Rom.13:8). Peter calls for living in harmony with one another (1 Peter 3:8).

A correct perspective of the cross. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, by His dying on the cross resolved the conflict of mankind and the holiness of God. Jesus has shown by His example that conflicts can be avoided and resolved by the sacrifices of our pride and self-centeredness. Paul calls us to be “living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1) in giving up our pride so that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Jesus challenges us to take up our cross and follow Him (Matt.10:38) by a daily dying to self.

With the correct perspectives, it is possible for us to live the Christian life by choosing to avoid conflicts and live in peace with all man. C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity,

“I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”


Conflicts in churches and parachurch organizations occur. There are many causes of conflicts. We have seen how a conflict can escalate into a major disaster for a church or an organization. We have also seen how certain actions like negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and litigation helps us to resolve conflicts. However, the more spiritual way is not to allow conflicts to surface. This spiritual way comes from a correct perspective of God, self, community, and the cross. May the Lord helps us to avoid conflicts and if it happens to manage it appropriately.

Soli deo Gloria

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Blogger Paul said...

ooohhh Good piece! Thanks

6:13 AM  
Anonymous blogpastor said...

Dear Doctor,
Thanks for a very helpful diagnosis and prescription.
Another area of conflict, particularly in the board, is the clash of ministry values, the invasion of un-evaluated values from the corporate world into the church ministry.

8:56 AM  
Blogger doc said...

i quote Frederick Toke, Psy.D : when 2 or 3 are gathered in My Name, there will be politics!

you could well have described the church i currently attend.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi paul,


hi blogpastor,

clash of ministry values is a big issue as people tend to move across denominational lines.

Invasion of values from the marketplace as lay leaders take a more active role in ministries.

These are potential areas of conflicts but if handled properly, a tremendous boost for the church.

hi doc,

I believe that all churches are but a step away from a crisis. We must thank the work of the Holy Spirit because he is holding all of us together.

10:35 AM  

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