Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

Coping with Conflict in the Church

The real question is not whether Christians have disagreements, but how we handle them. Our attitude and the "rules of engagement" we follow can be as important as the issues themselves for the long-term health of the church. Conflict is an opportunity to prove what the Gospel means, not just in terms of who may be right, but by how we handle it.

Conflict is also laden with temptations - we need to be sure we actually understand what others are actually saying not just what we fear or imagine they might be saying. We need to be cautious about assuming the motives of others do not include seeking to know and do God's will. We especially need to be careful about letting the behaviour of some cloud our judgement as to what is the real issue. People who behave badly may be quite right - those who behave impeccably, quite wrong (and vice versa). There are sinners, there are saints, but they are seldom tidily arranged.

In the last two decades one of the great debates in many churches, including Presbyterian, has involved the place of homosexual persons within church leadership. For the courses using these websites we will be considering some of the issues which arise from having a debate like this rather than the debate itself.

Contemporary issues like this have parallels with earlier debates in our history.  These historical and recent experiences have lessons for our ongoing handling of differences and how we engage with the sources of authority and understanding we appeal to in making Christian decisions.

Almost every generation in church and society faces moral issues which people see differently. If it is not this it would be something else. It is also common for issues to be compounded - generations, power, understanding of biblical authority, theological stream, and a moral dilemma facing society as a whole.

Some books I have found helpful

  • David Lott, ed. Conflict management in congregations, Alban, 2001.
  • Roger Nicholson, ed. Temporary shepherds. A congregational handbook for interim ministry, Alban, 1998.

Some thoughts I have picked up along the road

  • God is always blessing people I disagree with.
  • I will usually have friends on more than one side of an issue.
  • Like many things in life knowing how something works and how we work are related but different. Conflict can press some deep psychological buttons.
  • It is often a mistake to assume we are talking about the same thing.
  • It is, surprisingly perhaps, usually more important to cope emotionally, spiritually, and relationally than to be correct.
  • God has something to teach us through what happens – it is not always what we expect.
  • Having the right answers does not save us from conflict - changing your views only changes the people you are in disagreement with.
  • At any time of the day or night, somewhere, some Presbyterian is doing something I disapprove of.
  • At any time of the day or night, somewhere, some Presbyterian is doing something I would be proud to be associated with.

Dealing with stuff

  • Acknowledge process – knowing the rules and when, and when not, to use them.

  • Consensus is great and worth working for. However we have to accept that people will appeal to the Book of Order when it supports them, and say that is legalistic when it does not. If an appeal to order is made it has to be respected. When Paul appealed to Caesar, that is where he had to go.

  • Focus on behaviour not personality.

  • Value people, but don’t be fooled either. People are devious and manipulative as well as incredibly caring and principled. Liars and saints are part of the diversity around any issue. Some of each will see things your way.

Managing Personal Risks

  • Be careful about buying into stuff you cannot handle.

  • Be aware of where you are personally and what your limits are.

  • Take time out.

  • Be careful about repenting of other people’s sins. One’s own are usually sufficient.

  • Be careful about getting caught up in other people’s crusades.

  • Transference and counter-transference happens.

  • Conflicts are not solely about power, status, fear, and personality they are also about spirituality and theology.

  • Theological and spiritual conflicts are usually also about power, status, fear and personality, not just truth.

  • Keep asking: “What is my responsibility?” “What does God want me to do?” “Who do I check this out with?” “What is God trying to say to us here?”

  • Remember supervision and spiritual direction

Managing Congregational Risks

  • Every human organisation goes through bad relational and directional patches – so do not be surprised. This will happen.

  • Try to get some runs on the board first.

  • You may believe you can handle it, but you will handle it better with help.

  • Do not be surprised or hurt when people do not buy your vision straight off.

  • Give your team confidence they can work stuff through.

  • Pray and talk and get help.

  • Avoid suggesting that God sees it your way and those who oppose you are opposed to God.

Managing Regional Risks

  • Developing healthy presbyteries is one of the great challenges facing our churches. Presbytery moderators have a difficult task, but they have more authority than they sometimes realise to decide how issues are best dealt with on the floor of Presbytery.

  • Even new presbyteries are vulnerable to becoming an easy dumping ground for people’s personal and parish frustrations. Participatory leadership always carries this risk. It may seem hard to change this culture, but you can do your bit.

  • Pull your weight and know your limits with Presbytery involvement. Suggest a code of conduct.

  • Talk solutions and get together with solutions people - including those who have views different from your own.

  • Encourage meetings which allow time to hear other people's stories. Explore the issue and minimise set piece debates around motions. Pray for a better way. Reserve your judgement if you are not sure and sometimes even if you are.

Managing National Risks

  • There will always be some national issues.

  • Have a care for the good of the church.

  • Be informed and form your own views.

  • Check your views with the views of your congregation and colleagues in Presbytery.

  • Think politically about groups, but be careful about working the system politically – Jesus said something about those who live by the sword.

Email, Facebook and Twitter carry risks for making things worse

  • If it makes you angry do not reply  - but you may want to talk to someone else about why something presses a button for you.

  • Are you reacting to what you fear what someone might be saying more than what they actually say. (Don't respond to one "hidden agenda" with another "hidden agenda".)

  • Take time to decide whether this is something you can contribute to helpfully or not.

  • Resist attacking the motives of others. You actually don't know.

  • People who do not know you may not know how to take things you say.

John Roxborogh