When Conflict Comes Home

By Tom Lawson

So, how do you keep church conflict from impacting your home life?

The short answer is you can’t.

If you’re in church leadership, serious church conflict will, in various ways, impact your family life.

Church leaders, however, are not alone in this. Nearly all employed adults in America experience tensions and conflicts in their workplace that, at times, spill over to impact their home life.

Church conflicts have characteristics of both workplace conflicts and family feuds. They can be conflicts over power, programs, strategic direction, allocation of resources, and dysfunctional patterns of corporate communication. And some church conflicts involve people exhibiting the emotional characteristics of neglected children, abused spouses, jilted lovers, and betrayed friends. These are the dark underside of the tightly connected family-friendly church. Corporate fights might be ugly, but family fights can be downright brutal. And, as is true of family conflict, damage in relationships during church conflicts can take a long time to heal.

The Bible contains ample examples of religious or workplace conflict impacting families. Zipporah was not thrilled when Moses informed her their two sons needed to be circumcised. Saul’s conflicted relationship with David ultimately impacted David’s marriage and his relationship with his best friend. Old man Zebedee was suddenly left short of fishermen. The apostles’ wives are never granted the opportunity to tell us how they felt when their hubbies went gallivanting off on evangelistic tours or mission trips.

So, some impact is unavoidable. If the conflict is serious enough, it is likely that major impact in family life is unavoidable. Nevertheless, there are a few things leaders, together with their spouses, can do that may make the difference between getting squeezed and getting crushed.


Boundary Intrusion

Cameron Lee and Jack Balswick, in Life in a Glass House (Fuller Seminary Press, 2006), point out that an ongoing problem in ministerial family life is boundary intrusion. In simple terms, this means the line between work (church) and family is blurred to a degree not present in families where the parents are schoolteachers or work for an insurance company or deliver floral arrangements.

For many Americans, work is work and home is home, and everyone in the family knows the difference. You leave one to go to the other. In ministry, the distinction is necessarily blurred. A Bible study may meet in your home. Your Saturday evening social event is with a Sunday school class. Since this involves church people, is it just an ordinary social event? What if you didn’t feel like going or had a close friend who wanted to take you to a movie that same night?

Much of ministry defies the simple “at work” or “not at work” dichotomy that many people use to make sense of their lives. Some things are clearly one or the other. But sometimes the boundaries are blurred.

One tactic for the full-time church leader is to choose your terms carefully, especially with your family. Say “I’m going to church” only when you’re attending a worship service or general church meeting. At other times, say you are going “to work.” Hospital calls are “going to work.” A cleanup day in the children’s education wing is “going to work.” An elders’ meeting is “going to work.” A string of difficult discussions or confrontations bring the report of a “tough day at work,” not “the church is full of idiots.”

Life in a Glass House offers a number of other common sense approaches to lowering (but not eliminating) the pressure of boundary intrusion. I highly recommend this book, which combines quality research with down-to-earth advice. The book also dispels a common myth by demonstrating ministry marriages are measurably happier and more stable than the marriages of almost any other vocation.


The Slow Drip of Little Conflicts

People compliment ministers a great deal. At times, it simply may be an expected courtesy. But, more often, the compliments are genuine.

But these compliments quickly fade from memory, and we are not about to go home and list them, one by one, to our families. It would just be awkward, and more than a little immodest. So, we hear them or read them and then just move on. They brighten our day, but not our week.

An angry confrontation, however, marks us like a hot branding iron. We remember the words, the posture, our responses, their responses to our responses, and so forth. It pulls us toward anxiety, and we can’t fully get it out of mind. So, when evening comes, at some point, we pour out the scene for our supportive and concerned spouse. We feel a little better. It’s important that our spouse knows what’s going on. And, it will be a new day tomorrow.

The problem is that our spouse doesn’t hear the whole story. We don’t regularly pass on the compliments. And, being human, we tell about confrontations from our own perspective. We are hurt and we are drawn to garner allies. And, on our list of allies, our spouse is right there at the top.

So, over weeks and months and years, our spouse will tend to be fed a very distorted version of what we experience in day-to-day ministry. We are much more likely to share the painful than to pass on every compliment. We may be receiving one real criticism for every hundred or more compliments. But our spouse may hear that we work for a church that’s negative and critical. This fosters the unfortunate “my wife really hates this church” dilemma. Tragically, some ministers wonder aloud how their sweet wife became so negative toward the church.

When any serious sudden conflict flares up in this kind of environment, expect your spouse to view some people, perhaps even most, in the church as uncaring and unappreciative people out to get you. The framework you have constructed over time makes that perception as predictable as it is inaccurate.


Breaking and Making Triangles

The systems model of how families and groups work is increasingly recognized as one of the greatest insights of the 20th century into how families (and churches) work. The short and very readable How Your Church Family Works by Peter Steinke (Alban, 2006) may be the most important book for church leaders seeking to understand conflict in churches. In it, Steinke unpacks Murray Bowen’s systems theory in ways that serve to explain church conflict and empower church leaders in new and effective approaches at addressing those conflicts.

“Triangling” (as in make triangles) is a centerpiece of all systems theory. People in distress naturally and inevitably seek someone to bring to their side of the conflict. Doing this relieves some of the discomfort, at least temporarily.

The truth is, opening our anger and hurts up to current or potential allies only seems to provide relief. In the long run, restating our own version of the events and re-explaining (with increasing proficiency) our interpretation of what’s going on serve to solidify and often deepen our certainty that we are right and someone else is wrong.

Christian leaders must do three important things to change this pattern, particularly with their family. These changes are neither easy nor natural.

• Say nothing to anyone in the first 48 hours after an unexpected and hurtful conflict. Send no e-mails. Post nothing on Facebook.

• Sit down with another Christian leader who is not in your current church (after 48 hours) and describe (obviously from your own perspective) what has happened. Listen as well as talk.

• Tell your spouse only what he or she needs to know to understand the basics of the conflict, not what he or she needs to know to take your side.


Blessed Be the Tie

An essential resource ministers and ministerial families need is the fellowship of other ministerial families who are not a part of your current church. Investing in long-distance and long-term friendships over the years is a price every ministry couple should pay to maintain that emotional safety net through which God can provide both counsel and healing.

In these kinds of issues, denominational lines and theological camps hardly matter. The Calvinist associate minister in that big Bible church and the Anglican priest in the downtown church face the same stress and handle the same kinds of conflicts that you handle. They bring an outside perspective that is still an inside perspective. Lean on them and, in time, you’ll find they will call you for someone to lean on.


The God of all Comfort

More than half of the Psalms are, in fact, songs of lament. In many cases, the psalmist pours out his troubled heart because of interpersonal issues and conflicts. Jesus’ own inner circle was plagued with repeated squabbles and, ultimately, one of those closest to him turned against him. Moses felt handling Pharaoh was a piece of cake compared with coping with the inconsistent, grumbling, rebellious people of God.

Conflict is the inevitable result of two elements: flawed people and close relationships. The higher the level of togetherness, the greater the severity and emotional intensity of the conflict. The grass is not greener on the other side. It’s just that the blades of the grass may not be as close together.

Veteran preacher Wayne B. Smith, one of the wisest men I’ve ever known, told me that a minister needs the heart of a dove and the skin of a rhinoceros. I’ve often found the image a valuable one. I would simply add—we need to hang up that thick skin by the front door when we come home every night.


Tom Lawson is a professor at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.


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