When Dr. Bill Wilson asked me to join him and others as he was founding the Center for Healthy Churches, he explained that the main focus of our work was to be four-fold: visioning, pastoral transitions, staff development and conflict engagement. While honored by his invitation, I told him I wanted no part of the ‘conflict’ work. He has recruited other folks who do that kind of work, and they do it well. But the truth is that no one of us and no church can escape conflict altogether.
It happens in business when partners disagree. It happens in sports where players and coaches dispute the call of a referee or umpire. It happens in our families when there are misunderstandings. It happens when teachers at school assign a grade someone thinks is unfair. It happens when there is an accident and everyone points at someone else. It happens in Congress when ideologies clash over policy. Much of what takes place in court rooms is born out of conflict, and lawyers are paid large sums to help their clients win a settlement.
With due respect to those who make a living in the practice of law, my dad used to say “If we didn’t have the first lawyer, we would not have needed the second one; but once you get yours, I have to get mine.” What he was saying is that we need someone who knows the system to argue our case for us. No one ever wants to lose in a dispute or conflict.
Our son-in-law practiced law for seventeen years. He did a lot of good things for people and represented his clients well, but he did not enjoy the practice of law. He lamented how adversarial it was. He often referred to the ‘legal’ system, but he was hesitant to call it the ‘justice’ system. For several years he struggled with a sense of call to ministry, and last year he graduated from divinity school and is now the pastor of a church. He is excited about the work of ministry, but I doubt it will take long for him to realize that while he may have escaped the adversarial nature of the courtroom, he will soon realize that conflict lives in the church, too.
Many of us who enter ministry no doubt do so with hopes and dreams of doing good and serving God in an arena where everyone gets along and agrees on everything. In point of fact, a lot of ministry is exactly like that. Words like harmony, teamwork and family are used to describe a church fellowship without conflict. But even in the best of churches conflict can emerge; and because it is the church, it may generate even more pain than in other settings. It has always been this way. Should you doubt that, reread the book of Acts.
To quote my father again, when someone said or did something with which he disagreed or disputed, he would often say “I beg to differ”. As I reflect on dad’s words, they seem so much more civil than much of what we hear in disputes these days. With the anonymity provided by social media and the coarseness of today’s political discourse, people seem more freed up to say whatever they like with no filters in place, not even in the church.
Conflict in the church can get downright ugly. People love their church and want only what is best for it. But when there is conflict over what is actually best, passions run high. We have seen families split apart, friendships destroyed and fellowship broken over church conflict. Words of anger get spoken, sides choose up and the Kingdom suffers. Conflict in the church is inevitable, but it does not have to be personal or ugly. It does not have to create winners and losers. It does not have to be mean. But left untended, conflict can become all of those.
We can quote the Golden Rule and any number of biblical mandates about how we are to treat one another. All of them will serve us well in the face of conflict. However, when we engage conflict, we will do well to recall Paul’s listing of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Practice these, and our conflicts will be fewer, more civil, and less damaging.