Elders and Conflict

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I recently received an email from an office bearer who was heading into a council meeting that very night. It would be the third meeting in a row devoted to a particularly thorny issue. As is often the case, the issue had divided the congregation. And, as is often the case, more energy was being devoted to managing the conflict than discussing the issue. 

Sound familiar? 

Someone once said that conflict occurs whenever you have two people in the same zip code. In other words, conflict is natural. It occurs because we’re all different from one another and we’re all incubators of diseases like pride and selfishness. That means that in our world and in our hearts the differences between us often lead to conflict rather than delight. 

Of course, my friend the office bearer isn’t thinking about sin or perfection, conflict or delight. She is thinking about the issue that has gripped her congregation and the conflict that the differences are generating. 

  • What advice would you give to her?  
  • What might you say about the opportunities that come alongside the dangers that come with conflict?
  • What might you say about how people who disagree should communicate with and about one another? 
  • What might you say about the values that lie behind the positions that people take, and how those values might be brought to light? 
  • What might you say about the stories and experiences that bring people to their values, and how those stories might be brought to light?
  • And what might you say about where Jesus is to be found when people disagree and then collide with one another?

Please share your thoughts and reflections. Write them below. . . 

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Hi David,

A few initial thoughts:

What advice would you give to her?  Whenever possible, depersonalize the conflict.  This involves being willing to not take things personally and also being willing to not assign impure motives or otherwise impugn those with differing thoughts.

 

What might you say about the opportunities that come alongside the dangers that come with conflict?  Perhaps the greatest opportunity is to model both repentance and forgiveness in times of conflict.  This may involve repenting of words or actions said or done in the heat of conflict that were not loving.  This may involve forgiving others for the same and being willing to move on without revisiting that grievance or gossiping about it to others.  Elders must be willing and able to model repentance and forgiveness if they expect that the congregation under their care will do likewise.

 

What might you say about how people who disagree should communicate with and about one another?  I would emphasize that we should talk very much *to* each other and very little *about* each other.  When we do talk about each other to others, our language should be upbuilding, lest we model destructive and gossipy behavior for our congregation to follow.   Our communication to each other can certainly be passionate, but must also be loving. 

 

What might you say about the values that lie behind the positions that people take, and how those values might be brought to light?  I think it best to bore down to the biblical principles at stake.  If there are no biblical principles at stake, then both parties probably need to exercise increased humility and flexibility regarding a decision perhaps on carpet color or the like.  If there are biblical principles at stake, those principles can be identified and parsed together, which often will expose both virtuous and superficial values.

 

What might you say about the stories and experiences that bring people to their values, and how those stories might be brought to light?  Digging beyond the surface by allowing and encouraging open discussion will tend to unearth the “why” behind certain passionate positions.  In our small and tight-knit communities, family histories, loyalties, and identities can often play significant role in our life stories that shape our values.  Stories can be important, but ought not rule the day when biblical principles are at stake.

 

And what might you say about where Jesus is to be found when people disagree and then collide with one another?  Jesus is found whenever we exemplify his attributes in the midst of controversy.  Jesus is found in the kind and gentle word.  Jesus is found in forgiveness.  Jesus is found in grace extended to others.  Jesus is found in healing.  Jesus is found in obedience to God’s Word.  Jesus is found in recognizing that we are his Body.  Jesus is found it the eye saying to the hand "I need you".

Wow Eric!

I read the tough questions and they gave me reason to ponder deeply.

You're thoughtful, kind and judicious reply is very well worth reading and saving for regular application as Elder and a person. I will share it with many others!

 

Thank you very very much.  looking forward to your further Contributions.

 

Community Builder

The response to the conflict depends greatly upon the nature of the conflict. I have seen congregations divided over whether or not to pave the parking lot, over the time of the worship service, over the cancellation of the second service. These can be worked out through patience and dialogue.

I have seen congregations divided over an Article 17 separation of pastor from congregation, or the pending installation of an elder of questionable character, or the gender issue when it comes to selecting office-bearers.

 

Rule No. 1. Never, ever try to solve conflict by email. It invariably fails.

When dealing with potentially church-dividing conflict, take it slow and easy. Don't make rash decisions. Bring in an outside mediator. Never allow the pastor(s) to get caught in the middle of a conflict and having to choose sides (unless they are the subject of the conflict).

 

Lastly, but most importantly, spend considerable time in prayer, praying for wisdom, patience and a civil tongue.

Community Builder

Thank you so much for your answers, Eric. I have already shared them with our Council and asked them to think about how we can reflect on what you said as we deal with a conflict we are in the middle of.

I also agree with Keith that the nature of the conflict has a lot to do with the response. I appreciate that your answers, Eric, also addressed this, as when you said, "If there are no biblical principles at stake, then both parties probably need to exercise increased humility and flexibility regarding a decision perhaps on carpet color or the like.  If there are biblical principles at stake, those principles can be identified and parsed together, which often will expose both virtuous and superficial values."

A couple years ago our congregation dealt with a serious situation and there were definite opposing opinions on how we as a Council and church should handle it. One big thing that helped is I had read Brene' Brown's book, Rising Strong, and kept trying to work for UNDERSTANDING rather than agreement. I honestly tried to understand why people thought what they thought, and tried to make that mutual - so they could understand why I/we thought and did what we did. One big thing that happened in that process is we all realized that we on Council made the decisions we made because we loved the Pastor AND those who disagreed also disagreed because *they* loved the Pastor. Even though we continued to disagree, we did know we both loved him. Understanding that helped.

I also learned PATIENCE. We never made a decision at a meeting when a new issue came up. We discussed the issue and then prayed about it and made a decision at a later meeting. 

HONESTY and the freedom to disagree with each other openly during our Council meetings was also immensely important. We felt free to disagree without fear. And once we made a decision, we were a united front, even if we had disagreed.

Those are some of my thoughts.

Participant

In the end, resolved conflict mostly comes about because of our willingness to submit to the other person. Submission isn’t about agreement, of course. Submission comes about when we strongly disagree and choose to set aside our demand for how things must be for the sake of the other and for unity. It is beyond difficult because everything in us wants our own way or to be at least seen as being right. Scripture reminds us that the strong act for the sake of and on behalf of the weak (eating vegetables instead of meat) which quickly removes the power dynamic. Winning is no longer the goal, but love. Giving up our demands disarms Satan. 

 

Seeking common ground is good, but rarely succeeds. Getting everyone in a room and, after hearing all the other side’s objections and expectations, and after challenging the false beliefs surrounding what each side believes, it is good, in my experience, to ask if either side is willing to break covenant over the matter or whether one side is willing to submit to the other side’s way even while completely disagreeing with it. 

 

I’ve chosen to submit to things with which I vehemently disagreed and have never regretted it. I find it frees me from the demand to be right and to judge my neighbor. It has built bridges instead of walls and has encouraged the ‘other side’ to follow in kind in the next dispute. 

Community Builder

When I have found myself faced with conflictual situations - personally, professionally, or within the congregation - I have been tempted to flee to the poles. One pole is temporary paralysis or feeling intimidated. This can result in saying or doing nothing, out of fear. At the other pole I may want to jump in and solve the issues so everyone can be apparently at peace again. Worse yet is taking sides, a tactic that creates a win/lose dynamic. What I might do only later is to seek the middle ground by being quiet, listening and asking questions that seek clarity from each party to the conflict. Stopping to pray for myself in such situations is just as important as prayer for the parties. Not when all human efforts fail (as they will), but at the outset, when the Holy Spirit may be active, and when I am more likely to have a listening heart. Blessings and peace to you in that critical role.   

Hello everyone! And many thanks for your thoughts re: conflict. Eric, special thanks to you for starting off the responses by engaging each of the questions, doing so with wisdom and clarity. So very helpful!

Let me add something to the mix: One of the other tools that can be helpful when facing conflict is "both/and" thinking as opposed to "either/or" thinking. In other words, you might try to identify the polarities that shape the conflict and then try to understand how to manage those polarities (both/and) rather than choose between them (either/or).

Let's break this down a bit: A polarity is a pair of values that might seem to be in opposition to one another but could instead be seen as values to be held in tension with one another. It's like breathing, You can't either breathe in only or breathe out only. You must do both if you want to stay healthy! 

Grace and Truth form a polarity. You can't do only one of these two values and remain healthy. You must have both. John tells us, in John 1:14, that Jesus came full of both grace and truth. The rest of us are wise to try and follow his lead.

Tradition and Innovation form another polarity. If you aim for only one of these two values then you'll experience limitations in your ministry and alienation from people who might aim for the other value. If you allow for the two value to co-exist in tension with one another then you get to experience the best of both and remain in partnership with other people. 

Inreach and Outreach form yet another polarity. Identify what challenges or problems occur when you focus only on one of these values and try to notice when those challenges or problems occur in your setting. If you see those challenges or problems arising then you'll know that it is time for the group to adjust its focus more toward the other value. For example, groups that focus too much on inreach (taking care of their own people) often experience people who become very concerned about small issues. If you notice that happening then it is time to ask if your group is leaning too heavily into the work of caring for the concerns and desires of those within and not paying enough attention to the concerns and desires of those beyond the group.  

Here are some additional polarities to think about:

Management and Leadership

Thorough Process and Nimble Action

Clergy Leadership and Lay Leadership

Call and Duty