Today’s biblical elders must be good conflict managers. One of Satan’s main weapons against the church is creating conflict among its leaders, members, and sometimes those outside the body. He works hard to shatter relationships. He will stir up debilitating levels of anger and bitterness between believers. He wants to devastate the unity of the Spirit that is so necessary for a healthy and fruitful church.
God’s heart is clear about working through and avoiding damaging conflict when it arises. Jesus taught us, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). Paul taught extensively in 1 Corinthians, Romans, and elsewhere that we should “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). God’s heart is for his people to love and serve each other from a spirit of unity and togetherness.
A primary responsibility among leaders should be to successfully handle conflict and the disunity it can so easily create.
Understand the Causes of Conflict
Conflict is not new to God’s people. In Scripture, conflict existed between Cain and Abel, Saul and David, Nehemiah and Sanballat, Jesus and the religious leaders of his day, Paul and Barnabas, Euodia and Syntyche, and a multitude of others. Conflict is prevalent for two key reasons.
First, conflict is inevitable. Conflict originates from the brokenness of man. Adam and Eve ushered in conflict—and its destructive power—through their sin. Struggling, broken people create and endure conflict. It emerges from our sin nature. We are keenly aware that people hold different ideas, interpretations, viewpoints, and opinions on various issues; beyond that, everyone thinks their opinion is right! A church full of multiple viewpoints can be hard to manage if the hearts of the people are not committed to the scriptural teachings of humility, love, and patience. The list of potential divisive issues can include music and worship styles, governance issues, women’s roles, times of services, choice of leaders, the sale of property, a new building project, masks or no masks, and many others.
Second, spiritual warfare in the church is real. Satan hates the church and will do anything he can to ruin relationships and slow or stop the church’s momentum. He will use any person, circumstance, or scheme to damage or inhibit the church’s forward progress. He does not want us to win the lost, nurture the saved, or see the church grow or thrive in any way. Spiritual warfare is a reality we face as the church of Jesus Christ.
Address the Issues
When conflict arises in the church, elders and church staff must step up and quickly address the issue(s) at hand. Putting off the inevitable will only make the situation worse. The primary responsibility of the church’s leadership team is to identify the problem, address it, and work toward a resolution.
Leaders have been called to the spiritual responsibility of guarding the flock of God under their charge. Leaders must not waver, delay, or ignore. They must proactively move toward fruitful solutions by taking action based in prayer, fasting, guidance of the Holy Spirit, and discernment. Managing the health and unity of the church is a most important duty of the leadership team.
Develop a Plan
Leaders must be proactive when facing conflict. Experience teaches us that when leaders ignore, bury, or sidestep problems, those issues always get worse instead of better. Confronting conflict with the mind of Christ moves leaders toward a solution.
Here are five proven steps to manage conflict successfully:
1. Clearly identify the problem. I’ve heard that if you can clearly describe a problem, you are 90 percent of the way toward solving it. So, leaders must first clarify the question, “What exactly is the issue?” Be sure to always look beyond the problem presented to see if there might be a deeper issue that needs to be addressed. Describing the problem in writing can bring clarity.
2. Immerse the issue in prayer and fasting. Difficult issues that arise in church settings typically are deep, intense, and motivated by powerful emotions. These issues, if left unmanaged, can tear a church body apart. These problems can have many “layers.” They should be handled not simply with good intentions, positive approaches, and corrective strategies. Each member of the leadership team, possessing the mind of Christ, should agree to immerse the situation in prayer and fasting, asking our Father through the Holy Spirit to lead them as they seek solutions. Pray fervently for the church’s protection as events unfold.
3. Identify all participants and issues. Ask the following questions:
• Who are the principals in the conflict?
• How did the events/circumstances unfold?
• What was the outcome?
• What are the implications?
• What are the potential outcomes of this set of circumstances?
• What is the potential collateral damage?
4. Communicate with all involved and seek resolution. Depending on the circumstances and people involved, leadership should meet with the principals to discuss the situation and attempt to reach a solution.
The main issues that caused the conflict must be identified, explained, and discussed at that meeting. All involved should work to find a resolution. Communication and clarification are necessary. Everyone should be given an opportunity to share their viewpoint.
A resolution is the desired outcome of such meetings. In many cases, after prayer and discussion, people agree to come together for the sake of the church. This is a time for rejoicing. Other outcomes fall short of that goal. Sometimes a satisfactory resolution can’t be reached even after good-faith efforts. In such cases, the leadership team must decide on a course of action and communicate it to the principals.
5. Consider the need for damage control. Leaders must consider the possible ways the situation and the people involved could damage the church or her reputation. Consider reaching out and making personal visits to defuse problems from worsening.
Leaders might also consider bringing in a qualified, spiritually discerning person to help guide the process.
Elder teams that serve well handle conflict with spirit and wisdom that comes only from the Lord. In patience and love, we manage for restoration and unity. We must protect our congregations and lead effectively when it comes to conflict management.
I recommend three resources for handling conflict: The Peace Maker and Resolving Everyday Conflict, both by Ken Sande; and Firestorm: Preventing and Overcoming Church Conflicts, by Ron Susek.