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How Do We Prevent Future Conflict?

Finding that Christ–like Unity

Every church will have conflict at some level. If I want to start ministry A and you want to start ministry B and we only have enough people, money and space to do one, we have a conflict. How we deal with that conflict will make the difference. We can 't prevent conflict, but we can prevent destructive conflict — letting our differences degrade into attacks and power struggles.

In Philippians 2:1–5 Paul wrote:

    Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…

In these verses we can discern several aspects of a church culture that can prevent conflict.

  1. United passion, motivation and understanding. “same love… one in spirit … one mind” Each of these phrases expresses a different aspect of church unity we need to develop to prevent destructive conflict:

    • “same love” represents our passions; that for which we are willing to give our lives. “John 3:15–13” Churches need something to which our members can passionately commit themselves. Without a big, God-shaped cause, we will commit ourselves to smaller, us-shaped causes. And if my passion conflicts with your passion, then we have a fight on our hands.
    • “one in spirit” or perhaps “one in The Spirit” speaks to our motivations. In the Bible the breath/wind/Spirit from God moves us about. Even if we have a big cause, if our motivation is divided between that which please God and that which pleases us (or worse, between that which pleases some of us and that which pleases others of us), there will be conflict. We may want to renovate the worship area. If some want to redecorate it to recreate the past glories of the church, while others want to move forward with new ministry, there will be conflict.
    • “one mind” shows that we have thought things through together. This can be best accomplished through an explicit, written plan. For only when we place all of our thoughts on paper where they can be compared are we likely to discover diffrences of opinion.

    When we draw together at least these three facets (and I am sure there are more) we see that one basic aspect of preventing destructive conflict is to put us all on the same page… literally. What are our passions? What motivates us to serve Jesus? Do we agree to the plan? When we consciously align our hearts with each other and God, then we lay the foundation for unity. Will everyone completely agree? Not in this life and on this earth. Yet, in our disagreements we can both appeal to a clear contract that the church has made with itself and God and make choices. Some may find that this church isn’t the place to express their passions, motivations and thoughts. As long as they seek a church more aligned with whom God has made them, there is no loss to Christ’s Kingdom. In fact, the Kingdom will likely better prosper when like–minded Christians band together to do His Work in its many expressions.

  2. Making it about Jesus. “selfish ambition or vain conceit” focus ministry on us. We become the center of our own little universe. Churches fall into this trap every time they ask, “What do we want our church to do?” or “What kind of pastor do we want” In any church of 100 members these questions will find 125 answers. (Many of us carry an internal conflict of our own.) If what I want does not neatly align with what you want, then conflict will ensue.

    But what if you and I could strive after something higher and bigger than our own personal concerns? “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”. Of course, Paul points to Jesus on a mission to fulfill the will of the Father by emptying himself of his own rights as God. (Philippians 2:6–8) When churches start reflecting that selflessness we can prevent conflict. I may not want to give up my desires for yours. As a follower of Jesus I will give up my desire for Jesus’ desires, if we both agree that the church’s plan reflects God's will for this church at this time.

    So we begin to ask, “What does Jesus want this church to be and do?” We can find this by examining how God has made us. When we see the gifts, experiences, abilities and passions of our members and the opportunities to use those in our Community, we begin to formulate our God–given mission. When we live out of the vision, the church is no longer “about me”. Rather is is about Jesus and what he wants to do through us in this world.

  3. Valuing others. Of course, what Jesus wants us to do is love God, neighbors and those inside the church. “Matthew 22:38–39; John 13:34) We are to be other–centered, “value[ing] others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others“ To know other’s interests I must become interested in others. I must come to see them as creations formed by the hands of God, as His gifts to our body, then I will value what they need and desire. We may not always agree. We will care.

    This has to be modeled by all the leaders of a church to instill it into the DNA of that congregation. This will come in several forms:

    • Curiosity. Leaders need to actively seek to know others. So many times we allow strangers to remain strangers — even those who are members or attendees. When we actively model curiosity, even when (or perhaps especially when) we focus on these strangers instead of and in the presence of those we know. Thus we model God’s call to hospitality and of valuing others above ourselves.
    • Courtesy. Everyone wants to be heard. Loving my neighbor as myself means that I want them to be heard, and, most especially, I want to hear them. When a person feels that she or he has not been heard, their frustration will lead to conflict in either the form of aggression or passive-aggression. In order for a person to feel heard they need two forms of affirmation:

        Being allowed to speak fully. Letting a person fully express their ideas, feelings and opinions defuses much anger. If someone goes on and on, it is likely an indication that they have not been heard in the past and feel the only way to be heard is to filibuster. It may not be appropriate to let them go on in a public meeting. In such cases make sure that it is clear that there will be a meeting of leaders where that person (and those who think like them) will be able to speak fully.

        Affirmation that we fully understand. We don’t really understand someone’s position until we can express it back to them. Mirroring someone’s ideas, feelings and opinions back to them allows us to check to see if we have, indeed, comprehended them. After they express an idea we can run a simple test by saying something like, “So you are telling me…” People, of course, correct us and continue to correct us until we truly reflect their ideas. Even if we strongly disagree, they will know they have been heard.

    • Good boundaries. When I value others I let them be them. They do not have to always agree with me or conform to all my values and tastes in order for me to love them and to remain connected to them. In fact, I will value many of the differences. As some smart person said once, “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” Or, as Paul says,

      “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (1st Corinthians 12:18–19)

      On a more critical note, the Proverbs add,

      “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17)

      and

      “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” (Proverbs 27:6)

      Obviously God values the diversity in our midst. We cannot disregard the value of those differences without rejecting God’s plan for the Church.

      Again, leaders can model this by treating with love and respect even those who strongly disagree with them without having to convert them to the “right” way of thinking about what Paul calls “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1)

    • Inter–dependence. Jesus asked the woman at the well for water. (John 4: This natural act of inter–dependence, far from some evangelism ploy, reflects clearly Jesus’ other–centeredness. When we naturally make ourselves vulnerable to others by asking them to fill our needs, we raise them to social parity with ourselves (the original meaning of the word “fellow–ship”). From that station, they find their contributions valued, including their ideas. Recruiting others into ministry (and not just committees) helps them feel heard.
  4. “Outsider” orientation. Jesus became human to seek those outside God’s will. He went outside of heaven to seek those outsiders. And Jesus tells us to go seek the outsiders and bring them in. (Luke 14:21–23) The church has no other direct command from our Lord. (Matthew 28:19L–20) The church has no other purpose for existing than to seek outsiders. I find that churches which stray from this single purpose inevitably become selfish and selfish congregations produce selfish members. Selfish members will come into conflict and, having no greater purpose, will fight destructively for their own selfish desires. When we unite our passions, motivations and plans around doing the work of Jesus by being curious and courteous to outsiders, we will seek them.

    If we are to escape this trap we must focus on bringing the love of Jesus to outsiders. There are two kinds of outsiders we need to focus on: the inside outsiders and the outside outsiders.

    • The Outsiders among us. Look around a church foyer on an average Sunday and you will likely see someone or some couple standing alone looking for someone to talk to them. They will either be visitors or perhaps a less-connected attendee. They may be “mis–fits” to our congregation not fitting our class, culture or race. Members won’t naturally feel attracted to such outsiders because they fall outside their personal self–image. Look quickly, because these people won’t stand around long. Either they will go home or they will go away and never return.

      When leaders go out of their way to seek out such people and draw them into groups of “insiders” model Jesus’ desire to draw such people in. Setting the expectation of inclusion in words as well as deeds makes clear that we are not here for ourselves, but for those whom Jesus is seeking.

      Once a rather traditional leader in a congregation I led approached me after I had begun to make changes in worship to make it more attractive to outsiders. This leader had been assigned the role of mentoring a young outsider woman who had suffered a very abusive childhood and yet, having attended our youth ministries, as an adult was now seeking to profess her faith and be baptized. This leader told me, "Wayne, I hate what you are doing in worship, and keep it up. [She] needs it.” Because of his outward orientation this man could give up his cherished way of worshiping so that an outsider could be brought in.

    • The Outsiders outside. At night parts of my house look dark – a corner here, a wall there. The lighting inside doesn’t perfectly light every part. At the same time, when I walk outside I see real darkness, no matter how bad my lighting in may be.

      I find the same is true of churches. We can fight over “wrongs” and “issues” that seem so important… until we see the lives and heartaches of those who don’ know Jesus. Then those problems fade to insignificance. I can“t be bothered with issues of paint once I see real pain. And programs will always pale before the needs of people.

      There are real issues of faithfulness to God and the Word of God. Often these crop up because we haven’t rehearsed the truth to enough outsiders outside the church. God’s truths slowly lose their force when spoken and lived only to the insiders. When regularly shared with and lived with outsiders we realize what wonderful treasures they are and how truly they change lives. Once again, the cure for conflict lies in living like Jesus, seeking outsiders.

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