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The Pastor's Role In Managing Conflict
Marlin E. Thomas, Ph.D., Director
Resources For Resolving Conflicts
Pastor Carey dreaded the monthly Council meetings.
The rest of his ministry was pure joy. But otherwise very nice people subtly changed in
dramatic ways when they sat down in their Council chairs. And it wasn't always a change
that he enjoyed.
As the second and third years groaned by, he began to get
the very distinct sense that he could almost surely count on one or two Council members
raising objections to most proposals--all proposals, in fact, except those made by three
other Council members.
Then one or two of the members, who usually voted
enthusiastically for his proposals, began stopping by "to see how he was doing."
A few months later they began complaining about how slowly things were moving in Council.
Pastor Carey defensively said he was doing his best; it was just that there were some on
the Council that wanted to move more slowly.
That was all it took. Within another half year everything
came unglued. Council meetings were unbearable. People stood around in small groups of two
or three after church and talked in hushed, and sometimes anguished tones. Worship began
to feel flat, and attendance slowly dwindled. At the annual meeting several persons
refused to serve in their positions any longer, and a major topic of public conversation
was "the need for a revival."
Healing the Soul of the Church
Among the 350,000 churches in the United States, it is
probable that one in ten congregations is experiencing some element of the stress that
Pastor Carey's church was facing at any one moment in their history. And most of the time
they have very little understanding of the internal dynamics of the conflict.
The Apostle Paul prayed a deeply sensitive prayer, in First
Thessalonians 5:23, that relates eloquently to church conflict. "I pray God," he
said, "that your whole spirit, soul and body will be preserved blameless until the
coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
All things considered, churches do quite well with the
first third of that prayer. After all, churches are about the business of eternal
salvation (salvation of the pneuma). Those churches which provide recreational programs,
exercise classes, support groups, and care for the poor and needy also do fairly well with
the last third of the prayer (care of the soma). But churches are stymied by the middle
part of the prayer--the preservation of the soul, or pseuche.
Without trying to presume too greatly on philology, it
might be observed that Paul did pray for the psyche, or "inner senses" of the
believer. That is what the social scientist is concerned with when he studies human
behavior, and it is what the psychologist describes when she discusses human differences.
It seems reasonable to suggest that to complete the prayer of Paul in First Thessalonians,
the church must learn better how to bring an awareness of everyone's distinct feelings and
sensitivities "captive to the obedience of Christ."
That combination of the spiritual ideas latent in 1
Thessalonians 5:23 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 provides the paradigm for church conflict
resolution which offers hope to churches facing the kind of stagnation which Pastor
Carey's congregation faced.
People Differences In Churches
Churches are collages of people with different systems of
internal wiring, to use a building contractor's image, and we must recognize those
differences if we want people to be whole and at peace with themselves, each other, and
The growing body of research on addictions, for example,
indicates that so far about sixty of the three hundred chemicals and enzymes which
facilitate neural communication through the synapses of the nervous system are known and
to some extent understood. One of them, the THIQ factor, appears to be primarily
responsible for alcoholic addiction, and Patrick Carnes (Out of the Shadows, 1983)
suggests that a genetic deficiency may combine with rigid, dysfunctional parenting to
facilitate sexual addiction in some children of those dysfunctional families.
Or, to view differences in another mode, we sometimes
describe people as being "Type A" compulsives, or more laid back and relaxed
"Type Bs." By now we are also fairly acquainted with the terms Choleric,
Sanquine, Phlegmatic, and Melancholic, and the more recently popularized typologies of the
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. While human beings appropriately reject labeling,
understanding type differences can also help us understand some things about conflict.
Diversity Energizes Differences
In some ways, it would be nice if churches could be made up
of people mostly of one stripe or type, all with compatible energy levels, values and
goals. But God did not design our world (or the church) that way. God desired that there
would be a variety of types, a diversity of energy levels, diversities of gifts, and
sometimes vast differences in the "internal wiring structure" of individuals in
the same church or group.
That means, in part, that we must find ways to conduct our
church activities in such ways that differences are recognized, respected, and resourced,
rather than being rejected or destroyed. That is, incidentally, especially hard for the
Myers-Briggs-defined ISTJ's and ISFJ's, which appear to be found in disproportionately high
numbers in many conservative congregations.
Differences in personality structure, however, are not the
only cause for misunderstanding and dysfunction in churches. Lack of communication skills
between people and divergences in theological priorities are two others. A fourth is the
presence of deeply-seated personality disorders--even among Christians.
founder of Stephen Ministries, has done the church a great service in identifying that
element of distress in church conflict, in Antagonists In the Church: How to Identify and
Deal with Destructive Conflict (1988).
Conflict Care is
For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed
as "business as usual." Troubled people cannot be related to as fully-rational
beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems
cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are, they will only become less
healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly
fail in his heavenly calling.
Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves
as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, "soul-ish"
needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely "conduct church as usual." There
must be a certain type of good, strong, focused preaching, honest worship, sincere
praying, and genuine comfort, but the counseling program and administrative style must
Counseling, for disordered and under-developed types of
people, must take place within the context of a deep pastoral understanding of the type of
underdevelopment manifested, and within the boundaries of appropriate biblical mandates.
In such cases, the pastor must truly "speak for God," without usurping his (or
her) authority over the lives of people. If possible, people must be gently commanded to
grow in Christ, without commanding them so strongly that they regress instead.
The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a
troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer
boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of
their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can't get along
very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be
more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only
God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive,
skilled human agents in that effort.
Pastors Aren't Specialists At All
Pastors, it seems to me, are generally trained to deal
primarily with the first two (of the five) levels of conflict identified by Speed Leas in Moving
Your Congregation Through Conflict (Alban Institute, 1985).
At Level One, they can engage almost anyone with the
statement, "We have a problem here. Let's find a solution to it." At Level Two,
they can usually say to another, "This makes me (or someone else) uncomfortable.
Let's make a change, so there is less discomfort here."
But beyond these two levels when people say, "You've
got to change, because I won't," the pastor's ministry can very quickly
become undermined unless he can move from being a generalist to being a specialist, or is
able to secure some sort of knowledgeable, specialized, outside help.
Begin By Teaching Conflict Management
Pastors who are able to move from general ministry to
specialization in conflict care, must begin by teaching their people a new way of behaving
- The first thing church people in conflict must learn to do
differently (and better) is to listen to each other more objectively. A pastor can help
his members learn to listen objectively by first modeling good listening in his
conversations with them, and then by helping them learn how to do it with others.
- In practicing and teaching good listening, the following
techniques are helpful:
1. Reduce fear in the other person by legitimizing
their right to be heard, and by receiving what they say as validly being their view of
- 2. Practice the art of active listening, by affirming the
statements and feelings of the speaker as being their own, and by giving them permission
to be vulnerable in the presence of another without being victimized for it.
- 3. Attend to the thoughts and feelings being spoken, so
that the speaker gains a sense of being heard. Do not give the sense of taking sides with
or against the speaker, but rather seek clarification both for yourself and for the
The second step in developing better communication and
group behavior is to help people learn how to clarify perceptions and avoid assumptions.
The technique I find most useful is to practice and teach the Report-Repeat-Clarify trio
of "shuttle communication." It can be accomplished in several ways.
1. In dealing with two people, the three steps can be
presented, or outlined on a marker board or piece of paper, and the pair can be coached
through one or two practice sessions of the technique.
- 2. In dealing with a small group of people, the steps can,
again, be presented by presentation and illustration. People can be paired off for
practice sessions, using issues and questions prepared by the pastor-teacher.
- 3. In dealing with a conflicted group, the pastor (or
process leader) can watch for natural pauses in the conversation, and then ask R-R-C
questions of the group. For example,
* "Jim, could you say that over again, stating specifically
what happened and who said what?"
* "Ann, could you repeat for me exactly what Jim said, to make sure everyone
* "Sam, it seems to me in listening to you that you and Herschel have different
perceptions of what happened. Can we separate (differentiate between) your views and
Herschel's, so we have a more complete picture of what occurred?"
* "Jayne, it seems to me that your view of what happened is based on the
assumption that . . . . Is that correct?"
* "Frank, my understanding of what you said is that you want . . . to occur,
for the following reasons . . , and Shane's opposition comes because of . . . . Can you
suggest one or two ways that both your goals and his can be met without disappointing
either of you?"
- A third step to be followed in developing better group
behavior is to teach people how to relate better to each other. Biblical statements such
as Philippians 2:4, Ephesians 4:26 and 5:21, and Colossians 3:9,15 must be presented as
absolute rules of Christian behavior, and then explicated carefully and specifically with
illustrations and examples.
- I have had countless opportunities to practice that in the
last several years in very dramatic and specific ways, and it works. People really do
appreciate that kind of specific help. Ways to do that include:
1. Teaching people how to let an initial wave of
emotion pass without imputing grave sin to the occasion.
- 2. Helping people understand that feelings are not bad;
only bad behavior is bad. Sin is not in the initial thought, it is in the extension of the
thought to malicious words and deeds. (I believe that Jesus' internalization of sin had to
do with "dwelling" on the thought, not having the initial thought.)
- 3. Encouraging people to say something good about another
person or event before saying what they don't like about it. Show that the Apostle Paul
generally followed that rule, and then extended it by making critical statements only in
constructive and positive ways.
- 4. Showing people that in the biblical narrative
collaboration was many times more useful than confrontation in resolving differences (see
my "A Study of Conflict in the Bible" (1988), distr. by Resources for
Resolving Conflict). This, however, requires that one follow up with teaching on how
- A fourth step in developing healthier behavior in church
groups is the process of empowering weaker members of the group to act and to speak forth.
Empowerment may be either an event or a process, but it must be directed toward the
individual who does not feel strong enough to participate in the decision-making process.
1. Sometimes empowerment is an event. During a
conversation, board or committee meeting, or even a group or congregational meeting, the
pastor or group leader may expedite the inclusion of a shy person in the discussion. This
may occur either by calling her name, motioning towards him during a pause in the
conversation, or asking for "additional comments from those of you who have not
- 2. Other times empowerment may take the form of a process,
as the pastor or committed lay leader works with an individual in personal discipleship
and sometimes in counseling. The goal should be the development of their own resources and
personal courage to begin to participate in group process where they have for too long
- 3. A third element of empowerment lies in teaching
individuals and the whole group the dynamics of group interaction. The "systems
approach" to group dynamics (as well as family functionality) can offer much to the
- Being aware of how people react to words and events,
and how the pecking order affects the flow of power in the church are only two examples of
the insights which may be provided by systems theory and analysis. Understanding the
emotional climate of a group and the impact of different leadership styles upon different
people are two others.
- Pastor: Teacher of Permission-Giving
- Beyond the need to teach persons in conflict better ways of
communicating and relating to one another, pastors may also teach people in troubled
congregations how to be permission-givers.
- Many texts of the Bible call believers to maintain the
traditional values and teachings "once and for all delivered unto the saints"
(Jude 3). Acts 15, however, is the record of a struggle to deal with discontinuity in the
midst of continuity. It was an earnest and intense effort to sort out that which was
changing from that which should not change. 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14-15 show that the
process was not accomplished as easily and with the amount of finality which the church
had desired in Acts 15.
- Growth in grace and in knowledge does not occur quickly for
everyone. Therefore, pastors in troubled churches must model permission-giving, and then
teach others to adopt that element of the mind of Christ also. The payoff comes in
observing growth and maturity in those who are brought along by Christ who otherwise would
not have shown any development (see Phil. 3:15).
- A statement of six principles of Christian permission
giving, which allows people to develop at their own rate of internal agility, may be
- 1. Give life permission to be the way it is, until
Christ changes it.
- 2. Be who you are--responsibly.
- 3. Let others be who they are--caringly.
- 4. Be willing to say "where" you are--kindly.
- 5. Let others say "where" they are--acceptingly.
- 6. Care about your sister or brother--appropriately.
- When Conflict Gets Out of Hand
- Once the conflict reaches Stage Three, where some person or
group of persons demands satisfaction as a price for their contentment, the pastor who is
committed to church ministry rather than conflict therapy is better advised quickly to
seek outside help than to try to address the issues himself. Not doing so only saps the
energy for ministry and postpones the day of departure from that field.
- It is true that some church lay leadership groups are not
quick to seek out the right kind of help, and it is also true that the right kind of help
is not always easily found.
- Seek Outside Help
- The right way to convince reluctant leadership groups to
seek outside help is to image for them what Level Three and successively intense and
escalating conflicts will do to the church group. Beyond that, the busy pastor, active in
general ministry, should refuse to engage in their own private conflict interventions.
- The right kind of outside help is help provided by
professionals who are not emotionally connected to the outcome of the conflict. Such help
could range anywhere from a (local) pastoral colleague to Christian Legal Society
interventionists to one of several nationally known church conflict specialists.
- In any case, however, there must be equal commitment to
truth, soul care, objectivity, and fair play. Both the pastor and the polarized groups in
the church should equally submit themselves to care, so that the whole work of God might
move forward again.
- Reluctance to Change
- Some people don't want to change. Some people don't know
how to change. Other people can't deal with change. In any case they must be helped to
change according to their own readiness and willingness, and in keeping with their own
personality profile and stage of development in life.
- If they are not ready, the church must wait until they are,
and they in turn must allow the church to move forward as God leads the church. In such
cases persons may be reassigned to places of service where they can be more fully utilized
and fulfilled, without butting their heads against the walls of change to their spiritual
- This kind of renegotiation requires strong--and
sensitive--pastors. They must be sure that the wagon can bear the freight of such
reassignment, and that diffusing potentially-explosive situations can happen gradually
enough so that more is not lost than gained.
- De-Fusing Conflict
- De-fusing conflict in a rigid church system is
really not much different than doing so in a dysfunctional family system, except that it
does take longer and is far more complex.
- In recent years this author has successfully diffused
several destructive family systems, with the result that the children's behavior and
school performance have both improved. The same can be done in a church system, with the
result that the performance of the church greatly increases. But it takes longer, calls
for more- concentrated conflict management skills, and far more energy than is demanded in
circumstances involving smaller groups of people.
- In a troubled church one must take the initial stance that
no one is wrong, and no one is right. Rather, each individual possesses a sliver of truth,
which they often mistake for the whole truth. The task of the pastor (and the
interventionist) in a troubled church is to help each person own each other's truth, so
that eventually they may all claim the whole truth.
Some Final Words
Firstly, whatever role one plays in
encountering conflict in the church, it must be undertaken with the greatest degree of
sanctified professionalism and human dignity. One must know what he is about, and where
the resolution project is to go before he starts. Once one is in the midst of the
whirlwind there is no turning back. Only damage can result from that.
- Additionally, one must be careful to become
neither the victim nor the victimizer. It is easy for a pastor to continue to be "a
nice caring shepherd" in the midst of conflict, only to be gobbled up by forces he is
not prepared to encounter. It is also easy for a pastor--or interventionist--to
"hasten too quickly to the kill," to use a hunting metaphor, thus becoming the
victimizer of those who in reality seek healing, although they know not how to get it.
Thirdly, it is fair to "call time
out" occasionally, and it is paramount to develop good teamwork. Pastors encountering
Level Three (or higher) conflict can benefit greatly by developing around them a support
group which can help them process the myriad frustrations and complex feelings with which
they will be assaulted.
Fourthly, interventionists called in from
the outside would profit to intentionally consult with former pastors, former lay leaders,
district ministers, and others who can provide both insight and support. Above all, it is
paramount that only one doctor leads the team. He may call for additional consultative
support, but no one else unilaterally should do so.
- Finally, everyone involved in dealing with
conflict must learn the value of letting their feelings "cycle through" before
taking them too seriously. It takes a new feeling from three to eight minutes to finish,
and if new feelings of sadness, fear, or anger are not clearly identified and processed
"in situ" they will only complicate the healing and developmental process.
- Teach The Conflict Parties, Too!
- It is also useful to teach this truth to people involved in
the conflict, and is in fact far better than merely encouraging them to bridle their
feelings. In order to understand the feelings of conflict, and finally to direct them as
Christ would teach us requires that we learn the difference between having emotions,
expressing emotions, reporting emotions, and being unnecessarily victimized by the bad
effects of emotions.
- Closely connected to the erratic way in which emotions work
in the midst of conflict are issues of power, control, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
The single most important rule to follow is to "slow 'er down." Some people can
handle less pressure than others, and in conflict the pace must move at a rate comfortable
to the weakest vessel, not the strongest.
As the feelings of the psyche are integrated with
the eternal spirit and corporeal body in a practical as well as a theological manner, we
will begin to experience in new dimension the holistic salvation that is offered to us by
God. Then, indeed, our churches will become whole, and more fully live out the purpose of
salvation unto which we are called.
- Dr. Marlin Thomas
This article was written by Dr.
Marlin Thomas, and first published in Direction, Fall 1990. It has been edited slightly for this publication and
is reprinted in Ministry Health by
Dr. Marlin Thomas. All copyright rights are reserved by Dr. Thomas and All copyright rights are reserved by Dr. Thomas and
You may contact the author for reprint permission by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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was revised on:
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