How Can We Reduce Conflict Damage?


If you attend, lead, or serve in a congregation, you will face conflict, not once but many times. How can you prevent, shorten, and
limit fight damage to people and parish?

Preventing Fights

Hurricanes and tornadoes begin when weather conditions are right Change the conditions and killer storms do not form. Fortunately, church leaders have more power than weather forecasters. Examples of storm prevention habits:

Fully disclose financed Afraid that pastors would overspend, one congregation’s treasurer hid 10 percent of each month’s offerings in a secret bank account. Over time, other officers leaned of the – rainy day account.” Eventually, the church grapevine said, “we can’t trust the church board to tell the truth.” As well as violating nonprofit tax laws, such creative accounting generates mistrusts and frights. Full disclosure of all funds and fund balances at every governing board meeting prevents much strife.

Use big picture bylaws. One congregation’s bylaws ran forty-two pages. Written on a military-manual, government-rules model following World War 11, the bylaws attempted to list every potential danger and restrict church leaders from making mistakes. That kind of document encourages power-needy, veto-hungry board members to become expert change blockers. Result: numerous fights between legalists trying to preserve the past and change agents trying to invent the future. The church s revised by laws were only five pages, covering the basics of purpose, board size and election methods, quorum, and personnel hiring and termination procedures. Result fewer fights.

Encourage critics to speak for themselves. How should a board member respond when someone complains about the pastor, a staff member, or a church leader but says “Please don’t use my name”? Tactfully but firmly suggest that he or she communicate directly with that person. because the problem will more likely get resolved that we!. This approach prevents the formation of triangles and thereby shortens disagreement duration (when one person in a fight remains anonymous. the fight tends to continue)

Encourage all chairpersons to keep disagreements on the table. Leaders can extinguish few burning issues by refusing to discuss them openly. A board chairperson wisely said. “Let’s get all of the opinions on the table so that we can think about this issue as intelligently as possible.” Then she waited, drew out the opinions of timid people while restraining the vocal ones, and kept repealing her pica that “we hear all opinions: that way we can make a much better decision.” Her sensitivity resolved an issue that in a nearby church, became a ten-year firestorm.

Increase spiritual maturity by teaching people how to pray. Telephone First United Methodist Church. Canyon Texas for a list of the ways in which they strengthen the practice of daily prayer among their members (Cull 800/655-2851, or fax 806/655-9630). Another option: Involve numerous people in daily use of the prayer card titled The Secret to Abundent Living (Nashville: The Upper Room. ISBN 0-8358-0777-0). For the best results, use the card’s points as the outline for a sermon, with a card in each worship bulletin.

The best fights are the ones that do not happen, but what about the ones that do?

Shortening Fights

Leaders lake the first step in reducing fight duration by resisting the urge to push it under the rug. After meeting that
challenge, the other ways to shorten fights include the following:

Express the expectation that–though differences of opinion are real–a solution is possible if we keep talking with each other.

Say. ‘Differences of opinion arc acceptable in our congregation: the only unacceptable behavior here is unwillingness to discuss the understanding reasons for the differences of opinion.

Express appreciation for “the loyal opposition.” people who care enough about their church to want the best for its life and ministries.

Figure out which of the formal channels–governing board. Committee, subcommittee, task force, ministry team, or related
organization–offers the most appropriate place to discuss the opinion clash. Generally speaking, the lower on the organizational wall chart these discussions occur, the better. If fight talk already flows in torrents over the congregational grapevine. airing the different opinions at a governing-board meeting may be the best place to start toward conflict reduction.

At either a regularly scheduled or a called meeting of the appropriate decision-making group, make space on the agenda for people to express their different viewpoints. Remind them that opinions not openly expressed tend to grow stronger and go underground where they become impossible to deal with in constructive ways.

When people say. “Discussing this at a meeting will make things worse,” tell them you feel strongly that the opposite is usually true–not discussing the issue will make things worse. Ask them. “Do we want to look back on this later and feel that we didn’t try to do everything we could?”

Ask people to say directly to one another what they mean, thus avoiding the increase of destructive substitute behaviors such as post-meeting character assassination in the parking lot.

None of the above is easy. You often feel like doing the opposite. Cork that impulse.

Limiting Fight Damage

Some individual must take responsibility for this. In some cases, that person is the pastor (usually in instances where she or he is not the focal point of the fight). In other cases, that person is the governing-board chairperson (in instances where the pastor has become the center of the storm). In still other cases, that person is the appropriate denominational official or an outside conflict resolution specialist. Whoever the referee is, his or her goal will include the following:

Ask people to stop their-fight-and-fight behaviors. Tell them that we can’t resolve the problem that is damaging our church’s
fellowship and ministries by either skunk behavior or rabbit behavior. Skunks stand and fight in odorous ways that cause rabbit people to run away.

If possible, establish a four-week cooling of off period. Say. ‘This will prepare us for addressing the basic conflict issues in the
most rational manner possible.”

Suggest that all of us work at trying to increase our tolerance for different opinions. Suggest that ‘Loving neighbors includes
forgiveness of neighbors for being different. Otherwise, we cannot effectively listen to one another.”

With the exception of illegal or immoral issues, avoid voting on and/or calling in higher ecclesiastical authorities too soon. Wait
until we have time to properly surface and discuss all the issues.” If cooperation and collaboration procedures fail, the church must eventually use voting and/or denominational hierarchical authority. Doing it too soon often increases rather than decreases the fight damage.

Ask people Jo state exactly what they want. Writing this on paper increases clarify. In cases where people arc so hostile that they
refuse to speak with each other this step involves asking the two factions to work separately from each other. (In cases where hostility is not as high. ask each faction to stale its desires al a meeting while someone writes them down.) The next step is a meeting of the two groups at which they select the one or two priority issues that they want to address first. This process of “deciding what to decide” helps the two factions take the first step on the road to cooperation and collaboration–away from competition and conflict.

Encourage all participants to use I pronouns: “I feel like….” or “It hurts me when….” Urge people to avoid you pronouns: “You
always do… (thus and such). You pronouns create conflict. I pronouns create communication.

Ask representatives from each warring faction to take turns speaking. Insist that they express their desires on only one issue at a
time, not two or more. The goal is to get them to state and clarify exactly what they personally feel and want on each specific topic and avoid saying what they think someone else wants. Holding people in this framework of personal expression reduces the natural tendency to accuse “the other side” of having bad motives.

Ask members of the other warring faction to listen respectfully and responsively, then restate in their own words the desires they hear the other group expressing. “You are saving that you feel….” is a good formula for beginning those kinds of responsive listening sentences.

Appoint a drafting committee. Comprised of an equal number of representatives from both factions, ask this group to write an
agreement that lists what both sides feel are essential behaviors necessary to moving beyond the conflict. Resist the inclination to attack and try to change attitudes, as they are difficult do measure. Behaviors are observable; hence, they are much easier to discuss and agree on.

During the days and weeks when the conflict situation begins to improve, expect one or more key, players to accelerate their conflict-producing behaviors. This is logical, since conflict reduction means change is happening. Change always means that a few people who have wielded power or want more power fear that they may act less of what they want. Meet with these individuals and tell them that you arc aware of their behavior. Remind them of the agreement between the two factions. Ask them. ‘Wouldn’t it be better if you upheld the agreement? Or would you prefer that I call a meeting of the two groups and try to rewrite the agreement?”

The Bottom Line

When conflict is intense and frequent. God’s people stop growing spiritually slop loving one another, and stop reaching out to new
people with the life-changing gift of Christ. When conflict is minimal, mission and ministry can become maximal.

In which of the above methods should you and your congregation develop more proficiency?