By Barney Wells
In the middle of the 20th century, the United States Department of Agriculture undertook one of the grandest efforts at mass change ever attempted. It set out to convince the nation’s corn farmers to switch from planting open-pollinated corn to hybrid seed corn. To accomplish this task it trained an army of “county agents” and sent them into corn-producing counties. These county agents had been trained to know all the benefits of hybrid seed and effective methods for growing the corn. They could explain every reason a farmer should switch, but just by talking they could convince only a few.
Then they hit on an idea. Instead of trying to persuade the remaining farmers, they simply waited until after harvest, and took them to visit the farms of the few who had planted the new hybrid seed. Those farmers were delighted with the results, and their reports of success were far more persuasive than anything the county agent could say. By bringing together those who needed to make a change and those who had successfully made it, the agents greatly increased the acceptance of the new idea.
At Walnut Grove, the same principle worked. When considering adding a second service, leaders talked with other similar churches who had already made the change. When considering adding an elevator to the building, they did the same thing. Hearing the satisfaction and encouragement of others who had done what they were considering significantly reduced the level of anxiety, and therefore the possibility of conflict.
“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). Sometimes, when a situation holds real potential for conflict, a brief word aptly spoken can bring things together. Such a situation existed at Walnut Grove Christian Church as the congregation met to vote on a proposed building addition.
The leadership had endorsed the plan to build, but the $80,000 price tag was the biggest thing the church had ever attempted, and as the congregation met, the outcome of the meeting was in doubt. Throughout the meeting some spoke in favor of adding the educational wing while others expressed considerable reservations about the project. For more than an hour the discussion flowed back and forth, with no real consensus. Then Mary Katherine spoke.
Mary Katherine was in her 70s, retired from her job as a nurse in the town doctor’s office. She didn’t make it to church much because on Sunday mornings she looked after her aged mother and aunt so their regular caregiver could take the day off. She hadn’t come to a congregational meeting in over a decade, but this night she came. She always carried a bag of yarn and crochet hooks, and during all the discussion she sat quietly crocheting.
When the discussion tapered off and it seemed there was nothing else to say and the issue still seemed very much undecided, Mary Katherine laid aside her yarn and hooks, stood up, and said, “I don’t get to church as much as I used to, and I don’t teach Sunday school any more, but I’ve taught a lot of you, and we need these classrooms.” She sat back down and resumed her crocheting. The proposition to build passed unanimously.
You cannot arrange for people like Mary Katherine to speak. God will raise them up when needed. There are in every congregation those who seem to be peacemakers, ambassadors to a certain age group or constituency of the church, who can smooth ruffled feathers and explain positions in ways that most cannot. Rarely is the preacher one of these people; nor will most of the elders fill this role. But these people are there by God’s design, and they are of great value in preventing conflict.
How to Intervene
No matter how careful church leaders may be, conflict will still happen from time to time. It may arise within the church, as a reaction to decisions the leaders have made or to an inappropriate and unsanctioned action by some church member. It may also come into the church from the outside, as a result of business or family conflicts between two or more church households.
Usually such conflict is so quietly held and quickly resolved the leaders never know about it. Now and then, however, every church will experience the kind of conflict where the resolution does not come about quickly and spontaneously. The conflict remains and may even grow. Those situations require intervention.
While not specifically about intervention in church conflict, Matthew 5:21-24 and 18:15-17 provide a good framework for conflict intervention. Here are some principles for conflict intervention we have learned from these passages.
Do it now! When a conflict in the church requires intervention, don’t wait. The sooner the intervention takes place, the less damage the conflict will do. It is a natural human tendency to avoid conflict situations. Most church leaders don’t want to be involved in conflict, so we tend to look the other way and hope the conflict goes away on its own. It rarely does. An early intervention has the best chance of success and results in the least amount of emotional baggage.
Keep the discussions focused on issues, not people or personalities. Each party in a church conflict may see the other as a “fool” or evil, or both. Rarely is either the case. Sometimes either or both parties may misapply Scripture to support their case, thereby enhancing the “evil” status of the other party.
Near the end of the Cold War, one small congregation was conflicted about the morality of smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union. One of the prosmuggling group cited Paul’s escape from Damascus by being “smuggled” out in a basket as scriptural proof that God was on the prosmuggling side. He may have been, but that passage didn’t prove it.
By encouraging conflicted church members to focus on the issues and respect each other as believers who are loved by Christ, relationships can be restored and maintained while issues are resolved. Sometimes just valuing the individual resolves the issue.
Involve as few people as possible in the intervention. Matthew 18 says it is best if only the people actually conflicted are involved. As soon as they realize a conflict exists, they should work it out. If they did so, no intervention would be needed. Again our natural tendencies get in the way of our Christian life. When a church leader becomes aware that one member has a conflict with another, the first response should be to encourage the two to talk and involve no one else. What often happens, however, is that the leader contacts a few other leaders and soon there is much concern but no action toward reconciliation. The farther the story of the conflict spreads, the more distorted it becomes, the more people take one side or the other, and the harder it is to resolve.
If the parties in conflict will not or cannot work through the issue themselves, it may be necessary to mediate. Again, involve no more in this process than it takes to get the job done.
Conflicts happen between real people, brothers and sisters in Christ. One of the first and best decisions the elders at Walnut Grove made in regard to conflict intervention was that “‘Somebody’ doesn’t go to church here.” Anonymous complaints are not brought to meetings. If someone has an issue with a person, action, or decision, the elders are glad to listen, but the “someone” has to be named.
We cannot resolve conflicts with unnamed parties. These are our brothers and sisters in Christ. If there is a conflict with one or more of them, we should deal with it personally, and we can only do that if the person has a name.
No matter how hard you work to prevent conflict, it will come. Expect it. Prepare for it. When it comes, intervene quickly and with as few people as possible.
Barney Wells ministers with the Walnut Grove Christian Church in Arcola, Illinois, and serves as adjunct professor with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. His articles in this issue are adapted from a chapter in the new book Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church. Order number 40035 from Standard Publishing or your local supplier.