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Congregation Conflict Resolution: The Member’s Role

by Lester L. Adams
December 2008 Lester L. Adams

To you who are congregation members. You may not see yourself as a mediator or think that you have the skills to facilitate discussion, but I believe that God has ordained for you to play a vital role in helping your congregation address and resolve some of the terrible conflict that is hurting (and may be destroying) you. You have within you the ability to help your congregation set and establish an atmosphere where the resolution of disagreements and the end of strife becomes more likely than it is today. My hope is that you see it through this article, and begin to walk it out in your life. Members need to play a more active role in helping resolve conflict because it is not healthy for a congregation to entirely leave this task up to the ministers and mediators like me. Take the case of Moses at Exodus chapter 18. From morning to evening, the people of Israel came to him to get help resolving their difficulties and disagreements with each other. When his father-in law Jethro saw this, Jethro told Moses, “This thing you do is not good. Both you and the people who are with you will surely wear yourselves out. For this thing is too much for you: you are not able to perform it by yourself” (Exodus chapter 18, verses 17-18). Leaders and ministers today are just like Moses, in that they are spending so much effort putting out various “ fires of conflict” that they have little or no time to do much of the work of the ministry. To make sure that congregational leaders remain productive and do not burn out, they need help in carrying this load. This is why Jethro advised Moses to appoint Elders.

You may not be one of the people God raises up as Elders in the flock to help facilitate resolution of the disputes. However, there are some very important things that you can do to help lighten the load of the leaders and set a proper atmosphere. Let me point out some of them to you.

ENCOURAGING PRIVATE DISCUSSIONS

As soon as you find out people are at odds with each other, you should encourage them to sit down and talk to each other, to try to get them immediately moving in the right direction. Jesus points this out at Matthew chapter 5, verse 25: “Agree with thine adversary quickly while you are on the way with him., lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown in prison” Quick and decisive action should be taken to bring disputes to an end, because the longer that people stay in conflict with each other, the more painful it is for them and the others that are hurt and impacted by their contention.

Every member of the flock should encourage fellow-members to do this because the scriptures instruct us that discussion is the pathway that all of us are to take to settle our disagreements: “ Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew chapter 18, verse 15). As we come together with right hearts, God’s presence and his power come into the situation, to deal with our hearts, give us wisdom, and influence us to make peace with each other: “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew chapter 18, verse 20).

If you have been blessed to experience God’s power work in your life to help you settle your disputes with others, you should share this testimony with the people in conflict to give them the inspiration to walk the same road that you have successfully traveled on.

There are many reasons why members need to encourage each other to have discussions, and I want to elaborate on a few of them. Some members need to be encouraged to talk privately with each other because they are so used to running to the Pastor, rabbi or minister and leaning on him for every thing, instead of resolving their problems themselves. These parishioners may not know it, but they are placing an extra burden on the leaders to deal with things that they, as members, have the ability to deal with themselves. This was one reason why Moses had to deal with the people’s problems and issues from sunup to sundown.

One way to get these congregants to talk to each other without involving their minister, a friend or mediator is to let them know that verse 15 of Matthew chapter 18 encourages private conversation between the people in conflict, when it is says, “go and tell him his fault, between you and he alone ”. When you mention this, you can also let the one in conflict know that he, with God’s help, has the ability to settle these matters without assistance.

When you are able to convince people to privately discuss their differences, people discover that they can often actually settle them without the help of ministers. By encouraging fellow-members to do this, you have helped lightened the conflict resolution load of the ministry staff. For clarification, I do need to point out that this does not mean that the members should never have their ministers help them in conflict situations. In cases where there is a major dispute that involves numerous people, or the members have already tried to discuss the matter but were unable to resolve it, it may be proper to get the leader of the flock involved.

Encouraging fellow members to sit down and talk is needed because congregants who refuse to talk to each other often leave a terrible mess that the ministry staff has to clean up. When these members will not deal with or speak to each other, their conflict often grows worse, and sometimes spread through out the congregation. When things get this bad in an assembly, it puts the leader in the position where he must take immediate action to try to put out a major fire.

As a member, it is not your job to rebuke (issue strong corrective words or discipline) a fellow member you see in this position. The leaders of the flock are to do this. But, if one of the people in conflict comes to you and tries to get you to confirm his wrong behavior or to convince you to take his side in the battle, then you have the right to gently, lovingly and firmly let him know he is wrong and that he should privately discuss and resolve his differences with the one he is contending with. Galatians Chapter 6, verse 1 confirms this: “ Brethren, if a man is overtaken in a fault, you who are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted”.

Sometimes such loving and gentle persuasion convinces people to do the right thing. When this occurs, it helps lessen the load on the ministry staff.

MAKING THE PROPER RESPONSE'S

When you are told that members of the flock are in conflict, your proper response to this news can help set the atmosphere for proper resolution and peace. And, a wrong response can help conflict grow greater and spread. You may not have known this, but this makes your role as a members very important. I want to touch on two areas you will have to deal with as a congregant.

One thing you will have to address is murmuring. When a person in conflict tells you he is at odds with a fellow congregant, he is guilty of murmuring to you if all he or she wants to do is quietly grumble, complain about and attack the person who he or she is in strife with. He does this instead of going to the person he is angry with and confronting this person about the wrong that he or she has done to him.

Sometimes, it is our best friends who murmur to us like this when they have strife with someone else. Since we are friends, they expect us to spend hours upon hours listening to them talk to us about the wrong that the other person did and how badly hurt they are. They not only want to justify their conduct. They want you to be on their side and confirm that they are right to be angry about this.

When you face a situation like this (and we all do at different times), you cannot afford to allow your friend or the murmurer to talk on and on like this. You need to stop him in his tracks by letting him know that you do not agree with his behavior. You can let him know that you understand that this other person has done wrong to him and you can relate to his pain; but, he needs to take constructive action to address his problem instead of dealing with it in an improper way.

You also need to encourage him to discuss his problem with the one he is at odds with for his own good and the good of the congregation. When you allow him to murmur without telling him you disapprove or trying to influence him to take positive steps to end the problem, it hurts him because you are allowing him to remain bitter, resentful and hateful instead of moving towards gaining the blessings of peace.

Allowing murmuring to continue also hurts the flock because it keeps the door open for the dispute to grow greater and spread throughout the congregation. I need to warn you that you may lose your friend when you take such a stand because some friends prefer that we be loyalty to them instead of doing the right thing for the congregation. But for the sake of the assembly, it is best for you to use your influence for good to try to convince the member to stop murmuring and sit down with his brother to end the problem.

You will also have to deal with people who gossip and spread rumors about the people in conflict. The person who gossips is a talebearer, who sometimes gets joy from telling juicy details about someone else’s personal life. Some gossipers do this maliciously to hurt people’s reputations. This Old Testament scriptures encourage us not to be involved in talebearing: “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord (Leviticus chapter 18, verse 16). According to Strong’s Concordance, the Hebrew root word that talebearer is derived from, RAKAL, refers to one who travels about, carrying tales. He or she is seeking someone in the congregation to tell the story to.

When the gossiper approaches members with a story, some congregants have a “live and let live attitude”, where they listen to the story, laugh uncomfortably, and refuse to say anything about it or get involved. Then, you have other parishioners who hear the story, and continue to spread it to friends or others they have close ties with.

Although some people choose not to get involved because they are afraid or they do not want to stir up any trouble for themselves, members need to take a proper stand against the spread of gossip because of the terrible impact it has when it is allowed to continue in the congregation. This gossip, often spread through whispering and secrecy, makes people suspicious, angry and mistrusting of each other. When the person whose secrets are shared finds out what is being said about him, he gets angry at the talebearer, and he ends up in conflict with the talebearer and everyone else who listened to or spread the gossip. The result of all this is that it causes relationships to end and it spreads conflict throughout the entire congregation. Proverbs chapter 17, verse 9 confirms this truth: “He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends”.

Based on the definition of the gossiper traveling about and carrying tales, the picture I have of a him or her is a person who is flying a jet plane filled with a cargo of poison. As a talebearer looking for someone to hear and spread the story, he or she is looking for a place to land his cargo. The congregation members are the airports that the gossip tries to land his plane on.

When you start looking at these words he brings to you as poisonous cargo, you will no longer let him land his plane on your landing strip. And if you love your fellow-members and do not want to see them get hurt, you will also want to do something to try to keep them from landing in their airports as well.

The way to try to stop the gossip is for you to forcefully tell the gossiper that you will not listen to the tale he is carrying or spread it to anyone else as soon as you realize that he is sharing gossip and rumors with you.

When enough people in the congregation refuse to hear or spread this gossip, it will help bring contention to an end. Proverbs 22, verse 10 indicates this: “Cast out the scorner, and contention will leave. Yes, strife and reproach will cease”. If the gossip has nowhere in the congregation to land his cargo, he will have to leave and take it elsewhere.

Once you have taken such a firm stand, you should also report the incident of gossip to the Senior Pastor or lead minister so that corrective action can be taken to quickly bring this destructive behavior to an end.

CONCLUSION

I hope that this article has shed some light on the powerful role that you, as a congregants, can play in helping your congregation properly address and deal with destructive conflict in its midst.

Biography


Lester L. Adams is an attorney, author, a trained mediator and arbitrator, and an ordained minister. Lester has been a mediator and arbitrator for the following organizations: National Association Of Securities Dealers; National Arbitration Forum; Better Business Bureau; New York Stock Exchange; Circuit Court Of Baltimore County, and the Maryland Human Relations Commission. Lester has been an ordained Elder since 1994, and he currently serves in that role in a church called New Covenant Tabernacle. Lester also heads up Pursuing Peace Ministries, a ministry that mediates conflict, and teach, trains, and equips congregations and church leaders to make peace. Over the years some of the teaching series Lester has conducted for congregations include, “Becoming A Man of Peace”, "Developing Good Relationships In The Church" and "Anger And Conflict". Lester also has published two books on resolving conflict, God’s Power Released (Amazon.com, 2014) and Preparation For Resolution: Biblical Strategies For Conflict Resolution (Amazon.com, 2014).



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