Church Conflict: Preparing for the Inevitable


THERE WE STOOD: FACE-TO-FACE ON SUNDAY morning in the entrance to the fellowship hall. His eyes were flashing, his voice was rising, and his forefinger was pushing at my chest.

He demanded to know why I had not announced the visit of Bill and Delores Winder to lead a healing service until it was too late for him and his wife to sign up. Raw anger and a thousand rational answers to John’s accusations rose up from my knotted stomach, but his flood of irrationality overwhelmed any response I attempted to give.

Despite our more than 10 years of friendship, John’s inability to get his cancer-stricken wife into our healing conference had uncorked a torrent of pain and fear that was directed at me, one of the few pastors he knew personally. The fact that John and I had been friends for many years made his attacks seem even more unfair and his accusations less reasonable.

Nevertheless, there I was, being chewed out like an errant school boy in front of a group of the Sunday morning flock. Despite my best attempts to remain calm, I could feel the temperature rising inside my chest, and my face must have looked like a flashing red light.

The first thoughts that came to mind had nothing to do with being a peacemaker or turning the other cheek. In fact, they went something like this: You must be crazy- I advertised this conference numerous times. Don’t blame me just because you waited too long to register!

Somehow, though, I was able to resist the temptation to respond defensively, and I heard myself say: “I’m sorry, John. I thought I had let everybody know, but I guess we didn’t do a very good job. What can I do to help you and June?”

Then we went on to discuss ways we could minister to his wife. But neither of us were feeling or acting very loving or caring. This vignette illustrates just how difficult it is to be in the ministry and face irate church members. In fact, I’ve increasingly come to believe that the ministry is more like herding cats than shepherding sheep!

Like cats, some parishioners are independent, noisy and quick to let us know when they are upset. As many pastors have learned the hard way, instead of being “meek as lambs,” some sheep in God’s flock bite.

This phenomenon of Christians who are hard to get along with has been well-stated:

To live above with saints we love,
Oh, that will be glory.
But to live below with the saints we know,
Now that’s another story!

Perhaps we ought to add conflict to “death and taxes” as one of the things inevitable in this life. And conflict, especially the unhealthy kind, seems to be on the increase both in society and in church life.

Southern Baptist churches, for example, fire more than 100 pastors every month-and they aren’t alone in facing relational strife. A growing number of congregations have asked me to act as a consultant to help sort out their dysfunctional handling of conflict.

Disagreements, church splits and even violence are not new in religious life. In fact, the very first family had a conflict so serious that it resulted in murder. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, conflict is a prominent part of biblical history.

Yet things do appear to be worsening in the world and perhaps in the church. The 20th century is often called the most violent period in history, and our inability to resolve conflicts is impacting homes, families, jobs, churches and every other area of our lives.

The following statistics are grim reminders of how difficult it is for us to manage conflict.

Over the last 30 years, child abuse has risen from 500,000 to 3 million reported cases; single parent families have increased from 12 percent to 30 percent of all family units; divorce rates have tripled.

As a result of the epidemic of broken families, some 40 percent of all children now go to bed nightly without a man in the home, and more than 45 percent of all marriages involve at least one previously married partner. More children are now being reared without a father than at any other time in history.

If young men and women do not learn how to resolve conflicts while growing up, how can they possibly know how to work through issues when they are adults? It has been said that families do not even eat together nowadays-they “graze together.”

Families today spend little time together learning how to communicate with each other and solve their problems. As a result, we often find ourselves, as adults, learning these skills in the workplace or in church.

When families fall apart, the people within those families are wounded and carry the scars with them into the family of God. Those from dysfunctional backgrounds who find Christ and join a local congregation often lack the solid childhood experiences that would prepare them for the pressures of congregational involvement.

Although dysfunction has always been present, there are current factors that seem to make leading the family of God more difficult. The contemporary levels of dysfunction, trauma, abuse and spiritual ignorance make unhealthy conflict more prevalent and pastoring more challenging than in recent generations.

But we haven’t seen anything yet! When the current crop of abandoned and traumatized youth come to Christ–and they will-congregational life is likely to become even more volatile.

Adding to the challenge of family dysfunctions is the fact that congregations now consist of people from very different backgrounds. At one time, churches consisted of people from rather heterogeneous groups in the same geographical location.

Churches now consist of various kinds of family structures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and religious traditions. Is it any wonder that unresolved conflicts are rampant in God’s family?

In my experience, most unhealthy conflicts stem not so much from truly irreconcilable differences as from unresolved spiritual or relational problems among those involved. John’s anger, for example, rose from the anxiety and fears he had about his wife’s illness.

All pastors face similar challenges from members who carry around unresolved inner conflicts. As Jesus explained in Luke 6:45, it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks.

Congregations that become known for love, compassion, healing and recovery will likely attract large numbers of people whose hearts are filled with rejection, pain and dysfunctional thinking. Pastors of such churches may think at times that they have failed when they see the large numbers in their flock who are still wounded and stunted babies, whose immature speech and actions are filled with signs of their past trauma.

Yet these pastors may in fact be doing exactly the right things: reaching out to heal the brokenhearted and setting the captives free
(see Is. 61:1). Instead of seeing the wounded in their flocks as a sign that they are doing something wrong, these pastors should see that because of their faithful care, compassion and good-news preaching, hurting people are being attracted to their churches.

To suggest that conflict can be unhealthy means we also must ask if it can be healthy. Ephesians 4:26-27 gives us some helpful instruction: “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity” (NASB).

Paul doesn’t condemn the experience of anger; he seems to actually say it can be a healthy and godly emotion, as long as we don’t let it motivate us to sin. He also tells us to deal with the wrath in our hearts before the sun goes down, for unresolved anger or bitterness gives an opening for the devil to work in our lives.

We can conclude that, with some prior preparation of our hearts and a commitment to the fruit of the Spirit, anger and other kinds of conflicts can be managed in healthy ways. Part of our prior preparation is to understand the three different ways people deal with the disagreements that cause conflicts: competition, compromise and cooperation.

Competition: The first way to approach our differences is to see every issue as a competition to be won or lost. This is the result of what I call the “trivialization of American life through sports.

Political differences are reported as “battles,” and we hear how Newt is defeating the president on some issue of taxes or international peace.

To some, politics is nothing more than contests between opposing teams, with only marginal concerns over the substance of the legislation or how our country will actually fare as a result. In the battles between Democrats and Republicans, which party actually represents the public?

Competition sets up win-lose situations in which truth, justice and godliness often lose while anger, bitterness and pride win. just last year I consulted with an evangelical pastor whose elders were urging him to “crush the dissenters like bugs. Don’t give them an inch or they will take a mile!” This approach is sure to end in hurt feelings, wounded relationships and a church split.

Compromise: The second approach can be described as a willingness to compromise. The desire to compromise also springs from a win-lose mentality in which each person is willing to win a little and lose a little. The people or groups are seen as adversaries to be manipulated through a process of negotiation rather than as colleagues to be treated with respect.

Cooperation: The third approach can be thought of as cooperation-the attempt to get a win-win outcome. This is usually much more difficult than the other two. It requires not only patience and a right attitude but also some skill in problem-solving.

In our training programs, we teach pastors and Jay leaders a systematic process for dealing with difficult people and difficult situations. In those sessions we coach our students in the specific skills of speaking the truth in love (see Eph. 4:15).

Learning a cooperative style of conflict management requires the presence of the Holy Spirit and hard work. But this is an important part of the purifying growth process that is designed to help us become mature in Christ.

Because 100 percent of any congregation consists of people born into God’s family with the “birth defects” of sin and trauma, what are leaders to do? To be successful in the ministry today, does a pastor have to possess the wisdom of Solomon and the relational skills of Barnabas? No, although either of those attributes would be helpful!

Instead, here are some perspectives we need while we learn to teach believers how to relate in healthy ways to God, each other and the world.

1. Expect that conflict will be a common experience, even when you have done nothing to deserve it.

This is not meant to encourage paranoia or pessimistic thinking but simply to prepare us for the realities of living with the saints we know here on earth. When believers are prepared for times when those around them are emotionally volatile, they will respond more appropriately.

2. Make it your aim to be a “peaceful presence” amid anxiety, anger and pain.

Although we cannot control other people’s responses, with the Holy Spirit’s power we ourselves can have the fruit of self-control when conflict arises.

Unfortunately, many church leaders have negative factors in their own backgrounds that make it very difficult for them to resolve conflicts. The most important thing a peacemaker can do is keep his own heart healed and pure. Insecurity, prejudice, unforgiveness, bitterness and feelings of hurt from the past can make pastors volatile.

3. Preach and teach on topics that encourage members to appreciate and accept their differences.

Preachers who “live by the sword” of criticism, condemnation and competition shall likely be attacked by those same instruments wielded by immature members.

I recently counseled a pastor whose elders were merciless in their condemnation of his rather minor flaws. Upon investigation I found that the pastor’s sermons were filled with attacks on other churches, preachers and denominations. As Jesus said in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (NIV).

4. Prepare the congregation for your own failures and stay off any pedestals.

One director of Christian education would tell her teachers and leaders: “I love you, but I will surely fail you. If you expect my
love and respect for you to mean that I will never fail you, then you will certainly be disappointed.” When pastors are on pedestals, parishioners inevitably will shoot them down.

5. Make healthy relationships the No. 1 emphasis of your teaching and preaching.

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus made a profound statement. He replied that there is not one great commandment, but two, and all of the Law and the prophets depend upon them (see Matt. 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34).

The two great commandments focus squarely on relationships-not on Sabbath rules, eating with clean hands or attending religious meetings.

First, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:45, the most familiar of all Scripture passages to Jews, the Shema: “Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

But He did not stop there-a fact that must have shocked His listeners. They were used to hearing and praying this passage several times each day, even if they failed to practice it.

Jesus added a second part, putting the two together as bookends for the most important of all God’s commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).

As we endeavor to care for God’s people, it is important to remember that His family will always have many of the same attributes as our biological families. Because so many people today have grown up in families where love was absent and violence, drug abuse and infidelity were common, it is more essential than ever that ministers model and teach believers the skills needed for healthy relationships.


Gary Sweeten is a professional clinical counselor and the founder of Equipping Ministries International in Cincinnati, Ohio.



Conflict often creeps into a church gradually. The people on each side of the issue believe they are doing what God wants and are adamant about standing up for Him, Underneath the veneer of purported issues, though, the true source of conflict often is rooted in the personalities, insecurities, past hurts and selfish attitudes of the participants (see James 3:13-4:7).

Pastors need to recognize the different approaches that people use to deal with conflict situations. Some people see disagreements from a battlefield perspective and are bent not only on winning the argument but also on tearing down and destroying their opponents. They are willing to split the church to have things their way-for, after all, they believe they are representing the Lord.

Others see conflict as a contest. They love to categorize people in terms of us” and “them,” often pigeonholing “them” with such labels as “liberal” or “legalist.” And some in your church will approach disputes with a primary motivation to promote dialogue, conciliation and peace.

There are also practical procedures that pastors should consider:

Separate the factions. Do not get them together without setting some ground rules specifying the procedures for dealing with the conflict. It is important to have a designated forum for discussing the issues rather than a parking lot meeting or a telephone blitz.

Lay out a plan for a meeting of the factions. Where will the meeting occur? Who will speak for each group? In what order will they speak? How many points on one side of the issue can be discussed before the other side can respond?

Consider the possibility of an outside mediator. In many cases it is not best for the pastor to be the mediator, particularly if the
conflict involves people with a battlefield approach. Mediators often are accused of being for one group, and it may be better for you to stay in a position that allows you to minister to those on all sides.

Even when you agree more with one side than another, you should remain as neutral as possible unless the issue truly is important to the future of the church. It’s not worth staking your ministry on a secondary issue.

Have each side separately determine the issues and set priorities on their concerns. Each side must then agree that the matters set forth are what the conflict is about-they cannot add issues as the discussion proceeds.

Setting the priorities of the issues is very important. What one side believes is critical may not be of great concern to the other side, and those issues can be readily resolved.

Establish common ground. Always focus on the areas where there is agreement first. It is then easier for the parties to resolve the
items still in conflict. Lay out an action plan for handling the conflict. The action plan should include five areas: setting goals,
determining priorities, making assignments, implementing the action plan and tracking the progress.

Not all church conflicts will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. But pastors who grow in their understanding of interpersonal
relationships and wise mediation procedures are in a better position to handle conflicts and resume their focus on the church’s mission.


After pastoring for 23 years, Walt Lacey founded interlink Consultants Ltd., an organization based in Overland Park, Kansas, that consults for churches and businesses.



Looking back, I realize that I was the pastor in name only. I had abdicated leadership of the flock Jesus had entrusted to me.

Because of my weak leadership in certain areas, Satan was able to mount a fierce spiritual attack and bring painful division to our church. Through the experience, God taught me a lot about forgiving people and asking them to forgive me-and eventually our church moved past the pain of our split.

My heart is still broken for other pastors and church leaders who are going through the same kind of spiritual attacks. I want to share with you what the Lord showed me as I went through the fire.

1. Before any release of God’s Spirit, there will be resistance.

You will be challenged. At such times you must be convinced of God’s call on your life. Are you willing and ready to lead, no matter what the cost?

2. Communication maintains unity and prevents division.

If you struggle in relationships, ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to share your heart and not be just a “pulpit personality.”

3. Develop a mission statement for your church and coordinated mission statements for each ministry in the church.

It is important to provide a clear explanation of the church’s vision, letting people know who you are, where you are going and how you plan to get there. Such clarity of purpose will alleviate much confusion and mistrust and the tendency for people to devise their own agendas for the church.

4. It is vital to draw the lines of authority for your leadership.

Each of the staff members should have clearly defined job descriptions and know what is expected of them.

5. A team concept of leadership is crucial fop a healthy church.

When you have trustworthy leaders who have plugged in to the church’s vision, release them into active ministry. Those with leadership gifts eventually will become frustrated and disgruntled if there is never an open door to fulfill their calling. Some other tips that will help:

Building a team takes time. Start by hearing each other out; learn to be a good listener.

Plan together and let the other leaders know you don’t have a corner on truth or vision. When you bring together a “collective” mind-set, things happen! Expose your leadership team to God’s work in other churches and ministries. The church next door may have an answer to a problem you’ve been struggling with.

Look for ways to encourage your leaders so that they know you appreciate them and have an interest in their spheres of influence.
Encouragement does not comes by osmosis-we need to affirm one another actively.

Always show respect for your leaders’ opinions and unique callings.

Be loyal to your staff and to other leaders. Guard them and protect them as gifts to you from God.

I am thankful for what God taught me and worked in me through the painful strife our church went through. Some days I look at myself and wonder if perhaps the Lord didn’t pick the wrong guy. But despite my failures, I trust that He will someday be able to say to me, “Well done, faithful servant.”


Chuck Schumacher is pastor of High Mill Church of the Resurrection in North Canton, Ohio.