Conflict Can Motivate Church Growth


By: Norris Smith

Good things can emerge from a church conflict. In Conflict and Caring, Keith Huttenlocker said, “When constructively approached, conflict can be immensely profitable . . . (and) can produce growth.” The same author also wrote: “Creative conflict resolution is like a genesis. It produces a new beginning.” The following new beginnings often are born out of conflict.

1. Stuctural flaws are corrected.–Conflict most often creates chaos. Church members, in seeking to know what to do, often turn to wise persons, to the church’s constitution and bylaws, to committees, or to precedental policies only to find none of these helps. In the process of resolving the conflict, a plan emerges for handling future conflicts. In this case, a structural flaw was corrected.

2. Communication systems are repaired.–Research reveals the leading cause of forced termination among ministers is a lack of communication. When communication shuts down, people feel shut out. Symptoms of conflict emerge–anger, withdrawing, maneuvering, debating outside the church, questioning business reports, making motions with hidden agendas behind them, and more.

Wise church leaders will recognize these actions to be symptoms of poor communication. Communication repairs can be made. When quality communication is restored, relational health returns to the congregation.

3. Vision is redirected.–For most churches, when vision is lost, growth comes to a halt. Maintenance of the status quo becomes the norm. When apathy reigns, and nobody cares, there probably will be no conflict.

But the moment someone who genuinely cares for the church challenges the status quo, conflict is created. Leaders who are lethargic, drifting, lazy, and coasting, are brought into accountability by a caring visionary.Leaders are then forced to evaluate the church’s growth status. They are forced to ask hard questions about the church’s mission. The conflict caused by caring persons leads the church to redream its dream and redirect its vision toward a growth posture.

4. Emotions are healed.–When a small event in church life creates a big explosion, the likelihood is there are suppressed emotions needing to be healed. Smoldering anger, guilt, grief, and fear can distort vision and destroy intimacy in fellowship.

Conflict often awakes these dormant, submerged feelings. When these emotions surface and are released constructively, congregational health is restored.

5. Negotiated alternatives are sought.–Some church conflicts result in a church split, reprisals, monetary sanctions, resignations from leaders, and hurtful behavior. In this situation, a congregation is forced to stop and think. Church members begin to seek alternatives. Clear thinking takes over. The church moves away from the heat of the conflict and begins to identify the real issues.

Negotiations take place. Through prayer and caring confrontation, alternative solutions are adopted. Trust and good will replace reprisals and resignations. The church is now set free to chart a new vision and to carry out its mission.

6. Inactive members become involved.–Inactive members can be reactivated as a result of church conflict. Many times, these persons drop out because of a closed power system in the church. “A closed power system is characterized by a handful of persons who hold control of a church.” Those persons who are shut out eventually will strive to become insiders. Conflict often alerts inactive church members of their responsibility to the church.

7. Fellowship is deepened.–Conflict tests relationships. Uncaring persons avoid conflict. Caring persons seek intimacy and view confrontation as “a function of caring.” Such functioning invades private space and creates what David Mace calls “a pinch.” As persons move closer to one another, differences heat up into conflict. Speed Leas said, “The very existence of conflict may be a sign of deepening intimacy” or fellowship.

In church, as in marriage, “each potential conflict is treated as a growth point–to strengthen the relationship.” Trust emerges. Ideas and opinions are shared openly. Growth results.

8. Decision-making processes are updated.–Conflict will expose the “chink in the armor” of a poor decision-making process. Decision processes that are centered in personalities rather than in policies will create conflict. The problem is that there is little room for serious disagreements on new ideas apart from being endorsed by a personality. Conflict, therefore, becomes the catalyst to update the process from personality centered to policy centered. This gives the church back to the people and causes a feeling of ownership that produces growth.

9. Accountability is clarified.–Some leaders, including some pastors, do not want to be accountable to anyone. Certain organizations within the church become paragroups resisting restrictive policies regarding their behavior. Such independence breeds conflict and disunity.

The person most responsible for modeling accountability is the pastor. If he sees himself beyond accountability, he will invite conflict. “Where there is no formal structure for evaluating the pastor’s performance,”wrote Keith Huttenlocker, “conflict may be the only recourse open to concerned laypersons.”

An established role of accountability will nurture unity and clarify who is responsible to whom. Therefore, when problems surface, one will know to whom to go for solutions. Creative solutions can then be applied assuring the continuance of growth.

10. Peacemakers are revealed.–Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). It is good to know who the peacemakers are in a congregation. Conflict causes them to surface.

These are the people who help keep a church balanced and stable. “They are the individuals who work within conflict to bring forth the best possible conclusion for all of the parties engaged in conflict,” stated Larry McSwain in his book Conflict Ministry in the Church. Peacemakers know how to put out fires that thwart growth. They make it possible f or people to debate and disagree without creating disunity. Peacemakers stimulate growth even in the midst of conflict.

11. Image is improved.–All churches have reputations, some positive, and others negative. These reputations are developed by the churches’ behavior patterns.

If churches are to grow, they must give attention to their image. It is important for churches to know how they are being perceived, especially in the community. Conflict can provide such knowledge. Conflicting churches have reputations that precede them in outreach visitation. Such awareness can motivate the churches to work on their image. Growing churches work constantly on their image. They know that a positive image is an ally to growth.

12. Conflict resolutions are developed.–Most churches do not have a positive, concise plan for resolving conflict. They need a model to follow. Such models are learned through experience. Resolved conflict becomes for the churches their own school of training. Precedence is set. Procedures are established. Conflict resolutions are developed.

Established conflict resolution procedures enable continued growth to occur.

13. Prayer is practiced.–Conflict motivates prayer. One woman said, “I don’t guess I have ever prayed as much in my life as I have during this conflict.” Prayer is a channel through which God has a chance with us. It exposes selfishness, produces confession, motivates dialogue, purifies motives, develops tolerance, and seeks spiritual solutions. A church always profits when conflict sends its members on their knees. Spiritual growth follows.

God does work with us in all things for good (see Rom. 8:2S). Conflict is no exception. It can motivate church growth.

(The above material appeared in the July/Aug./Sept. issue of the Growing Churches Magazine.)

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