By Don Green
I can still remember the nugget of wisdom shared at a minister’s retreat I attended nearly 40 years ago. The speaker was Dr. Bruce Parmenter, a seminary counseling professor who mentored many of us. As he spoke of the challenges that confront ministers, he observed that in marriage and in ministry, one of the primary ways to prevent conflict is to have a carefully negotiated, mutually agreed upon, clearly defined set of expectations.
Although I can appreciate the sentiment of Roger Parrott that “policies are for cowards” (in his book The Longview: Lasting Strategies for Rising Leaders, 82), in my experience a few appropriate policies can serve good purposes, one of which is to prevent conflict. I acknowledge that merely having good policies is no guarantee of healthy relationships, but my experience also teaches me that the absence of any written guidelines, principles, or policies increases the potential for covenant-breaking conflict.
In some ways, drafting policies is like engaging in strategic planning. As important as the outcome is, the process is more important. And so, in like fashion, discussing, debating, and drafting a policy statement may serve a more important purpose than the policy itself. The process is a way to arrive at those carefully negotiated, mutually agreed upon, clearly defined statements that may guide behavior. Policies are designed to promote proactive prevention. They address many potential individual issues ahead of time rather than reacting to issues as they arise and trying to decide about them on a case-by-case basis.
A Biblical Model
Church conflict-resolution experts Tara K. Barthel and David V. Edling use Acts 15 as a biblical model for how churches should respond to conflict in their book Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. In this passage, Luke describes the collective work of the apostles and a body of elders in a meeting commonly referred to as the “council of Jerusalem.” He tells how they worked together to establish guiding principles through a scripturally informed, Spirit-guided, consensus decision-making process of open discussion and debate. As we read this chapter, we see their wise perspective, discernment, and leadership. Ultimately they put the principles in writing and communicated them to the churches.
Those who may think that drafting policies is either unnecessary or unbiblical, should be grateful for this policy decision that was written and communicated widely to Gentile believers. In his commentary on Acts, John R. W. Stott described James’s statement as a policy regarding abstinence for Gentile Christians in four cultural areas. Its wisdom is seen in its ability to promote mutual tolerance and fellowship (see Stott’s The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, 250).
As this policy was read in Antioch (Acts 15:30-35), in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:36-41), and in Galatia (Acts 16:1-6), escalated conflict and division was not only averted, but the brothers and the churches were strengthened (Acts 15:32, 41; 16:5). Stott concludes, “So wise and healthy was the Jerusalem Council’s decision, incorporated in their letter, that wherever its good news went, the churches grew in stability and steadfastness” (255). That is the obvious goal and intended outcome of drafting good policies.
As stated from the outset, one of the most important polices or guiding principles that may prevent conflict is one that clarifies expectations. This should begin with the expectations of the leadership team—what are its norms of behavior for those in leadership?
In his book Governance and Ministry: Rethinking Board Leadership, Dan Hotchkiss of the Alban Institute observes, “Assumptions differ so sharply that each board needs to develop its own covenant of shared behavioral expectations and review it regularly” (123, 124). A resource he recommends to help with this process is Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences by Gil Rendel, also of the Alban Institute. This covenant of expectations should not only address appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, but also clarify under what circumstances a leader might be asked to resign and what process would be followed.
Establishing a covenant of expectations also extends to ministry staff and ministry teams. It includes clearly defining the role of a ministry staff member or a ministry team, clarifying the responsibilities (i.e., what is to be done or what are the expected outcomes or results), and relationships (with whom does this person work to ensure proper communication and collaboration).
An often-overlooked aspect of clarifying expectations is making what I call “the two most important decisions that a group of decision makers will ever make.” The most important decision a group of leaders can make is deciding who decides what, and the second most important is deciding how decisions are made. Although it may seem obvious and unnecessary to put this in writing, failing to do so is the cause of many unnecessary conflicts in churches and Christian organizations.
Clarifying who decides what can help prevent conflict because usually there is no problem in decision making until someone or some group makes a decision that another person or group thinks they should have been involved in making. Spiritual leaders should clearly communicate what decisions God has already made that will never change, what few decisions a congregation should make, such as affirming leaders (usually spelled out in bylaws), what decisions ministry staff and ministry teams may make without seeking approval, and what few decisions elders may make other than policy decisions (typically those that focus on one-time occurrences impacting the whole church, not recurring issues or those limited to a particular area of ministry).
How decisions are made is equally important since decision making isn’t difficult or divisive unless someone disagrees. That is why some process of consensus decision making is more unifying than voting. In consulting with churches experiencing conflict, the cause is often traced back to voting on issues or individuals. Taking the time to discuss these issues and to draft some well-worded policy statements or guiding principles could prevent church conflict.
Clearly communicating expectations of members is also important in conflict prevention. In an article entitled “Lawsuits in the Church,” Ken Sande, founder of Peacemaker Ministries (www.peacemaker.net), observes,
Most churches need to improve their membership policies, a process which usually includes rewriting bylaws and clarifying guidelines on church discipline. By carefully explaining membership privileges and responsibilities to people before they join a church, churches can secure informed consent to their conflict resolution practices, including church discipline. Such consent serves as the best legal protection against future complaints that a church violated a person’s privacy or caused undue emotional distress while dealing with a conflict.
According to Sande, one of the best ways to prevent conflict and keep a ministry out of court is this:
Include conciliation clauses in all of your employee and vendor contracts, as well as your bylaws. These legally enforceable clauses require that if a dispute cannot be resolved through internal means, it must be resolved through biblical mediation or arbitration rather than litigation (www.peacemaker.net).
Closely related to having a policy establishing a reconciliation process is to clearly communicate a process for restoring leaders and members following disciplinary situations. This is a policy church leaders hope and pray will never be necessary. But I have personal experience of working with a church through a restoration process, and I know a more clearly defined process could have prevented some confusion and frustration.
In the event that church discipline should be necessary, the church should have a written policy detailing a thorough, biblically based process of restoration and pastoral response. The policy should address not merely appropriate retribution for an unrepentant believer, but also the redemptive purposes of God for the Christian community.
Two other important areas to address in advance for preventative purposes are a conflict-of-interest policy for those in leadership and a communication strategy for responding to questions and issues raised by those in the congregation. Church leaders who have determined how to respond when issues arise or questions surface can testify how well this prevents expending unnecessary energy trying to put out fires of misunderstanding and miscommunication.
Barthel and Edling speak of “redeeming church conflict” and define this as “intentional dependence on the humbling and heart-changing grace of Christ’s Holy Spirit by turning relational crisis in the church into compassionate care” (Redeeming Church Conflicts, 17).
Perhaps preventing church conflict involves leaders who will write policies demonstrating and depending on that same humbling and heart-changing grace of Christ’s Holy Spirit. They will intentionally and lovingly monitor and maintain healthy relationships within the church through well-reasoned, well-crafted, clearly communicated policy decisions.
Don Green is director and professor of leadership at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.