When I first started teaching congregations and their ministry teams how to manage conflict according to the scriptures a little over nine years ago, I realized that strife, debates and quarrels were a major problem in the church, just as they are in other places. Because of this problem, congregations, like other organizations, need the help of skillful mediators.
I got a rude awakening as to how bad the problem can be back in 1996 when the church I was an Elder in went through a major conflict.
A "tug of war" was occurring within the congregation, with three of the main leaders fighting over the direction the ministry was to go in. Two of them believed that there should be major changes in the operation of the ministry, while the third Director believed that the church should continue as it had been for the past few years. After they argued about this behind closed doors for a year or more, this issue came to a head in November, 1996.
Instead of these leaders seeking help either from other ministers or mediators, they continued to try to deal with it in their own way. The two leaders who were in agreement gave the third Director an ultimatum. Either he would agree to the changes they felt were mandated by a certain date, or they would resign from the ministry.
The ultimatum date passed without the Director relenting on his position, and these two leaders resigned just as they had promised to do. They turned in their resignations on a Friday, and they, their wives and children would never return to the church again. The good relationships that these departing families had with the families and members they had left behind were now over. To this date, some of those relationships have never been mended.
You can imagine how much the ministry suffered, with two key leaders leaving suddenly.
When other members of the congregation learned that these Directors had suddenly resigned, they started to take sides. Those who had aligned themselves with the two ministers who left, eventually left the church also. This kind of warfare brought great pain and suffering in the lives of the people of the congregation, and many of the goals that these three leaders had planned for the ministry through years of meetings and prayer were never accomplished.
After I lived through this painful ordeal, I understood the terrible effect that unresolved conflict is having on congregations throughout the land. Because I want to see others avoid going through the suffering that I and other members of congregations have gone through, I promised God that I would do whatever was in my power to make this happen.
This is one of the reasons why I wrote this article. I hope that the few insights I share with you from my experiences as an Elder and a mediator will help you assist the congregation members and Pastors who may call you in desperate need of help in resolving their conflicts with others. The text is written with applicable scriptural quotations because congregations, no matter what denomination they are a part of, use the scriptures for guidance in addressing the problems in their lives. All quotations are from the New King James Version of the Bible.
People Who Call Are Often Hurting And In Need Of Answers
The Psalmist, King David, describes the unbearable pain that congregants often go through when they are unexpectedly in conflict with each other:
For it is not an enemy who reproaches me;
Then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates
me who has exalted himself against me; Then
I could hide from him. But it was you, a man
my equal, my companion and acquaintance.
We took sweet counsel together, and walked
in the house of God in the throng.
Psalm 55, verse 12
Whether they are a husband and wife going through marital conflict, or they are a Pastor trying to bring an end to congregation wide conflict or the threat of a church split, most congregants that will call you are looking for wisdom and guidance to end their suffering and resolve the contention in a way that pleases God.
They Are Looking For Solutions From God
Because many of these congregants have experienced the miracle working power of God in other areas of their lives, they believe the scriptural declaration that God is the true source of peace to help them settle their disagreements.
Come behold the works of the Lord, who has
made desolations in the earth. He makes wars
to cease to the end of the earth: He breaks the
bows and cuts the spear in two. He burns the
chariot in the fire.
Psalm 46, verse 9
When a man's ways please the Lord, he makes
even his enemies to be at peace with him.
Proverbs 16, verse 7
For this reason, they are praying to God, asking Him to help them settle their dispute. Although they may be seeking your help as a mediator to facilitate discussions, they do not see you as the source or the answer. They are looking to God to provide the ultimate answers and wisdom they need to gain peace.
Encourage The People In Conflict To Have Private Discussions
This should be done by you because the scriptures instruct them to engage in discussions as their first step in attempt to settle their dispute.
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
Matthew chapter 18, verse 15
When the passage says "Between you and him alone", this means that congregants should first try to resolve the dispute by themselves without involving others. If this proves to be unfruitful, their next step is to seek out help from others. This can include mediation.
But if he will not hear, take with you one or
two more, that by the mouth of two or three
witnesses every word may be established.
Matthew chapter 18, verse 16
Congregants are instructed to engage in these face to face, heart to heart discussions first because these disputes can often be settled by them without them having to get the help of a mediator or others. For this reason, if congregants come to you and they have not first tried to talk privately to each other to settle their differences, you may need to refrain from offering them mediation assistance until they have taken this initial step.
You May Need To Refer Them to Their Pastor And Congregational Leaders For Spiritual Ministry
If you decide to mediate the dispute, you may be able to help the congregants resolve the immediate conflict. However, most of the time, the mediation sessions will not address the root cause of why the conflict occurred. Unless the root cause for the contention is dealt with and properly resolved, the people in conflict are destined to go through the same problems over and over.
To avoid this consequence, you, as a mediator, should encourage the congregants to get assistance from their Pastor and church leaders to help them deal with the spiritual issues at the root of the problem. Many of these root causes to conflict are discussed in scriptures. Pride is one of them.
Only by pride comes contention; but with
the well advised is wisdom.
Proverbs chapter 13, verse 10
Anger is another problem which causes us to do and say things which lead us to fight each other.
A wrathful man stirs up strife, but he who is
slow to anger allays contention.
Proverbs 18, verse 15
Hatred is another problem which causes us to fight each other.
Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.
Proverbs 10, verse 12
An experienced congregation leader can help the congregant deal with and overcome these problems. When the congregation member gets this help, the result is that he or she will have healthier relationships and cause less conflict in the future.
Encourage Congregants To Seek Reconciliation With Each Other
According to the scriptures, if I am in conflict with you, or I have defrauded you, it is not enough for you to seek and gain restitution from me. You are called to "love your neighbor as yourself" (see Leviticus chapter 19, verse 18). This means that you are to also try to work at restoring the relationship you had with me through a process called reconciliation.
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there remember that your brother has
something against you, leave your gift before
the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled
to your brother, and then come and offer your
Matthew 5, verses 23-24
Because congregants are instructed to do this, you, as a mediator should encourage them to work at their relationship issues.
Some mediators are qualified to provide this kind of assistance. If you do not have the ability to do this, you should encourage the people in conflict to seek this help from the leaders of their congregation. A skillful minister can guide them through this process, and help them deal with critical areas such as a genuine admission of wrong, restitution, forgiveness, accountability and the rebuilding of trust.
It is my hope that these few insights will help you better understand congregational conflict and how to help resolve it.