You have heard the horror stories: The new pastor comes in and, within a few months, people are already clamoring for his removal. I will not try to tell you this never happens, because it does. While I do believe this happens much more rarely than most people think, I also believe it could and should happen far less than it does.
What causes conflict in the church? How could those pastors and churches who claim to love and follow Jesus engage in such ugly confrontations? Certainly, the fall has a lot to do with it, and as people, even believers, we tend to be very self-centered and stubborn when it comes to what we think is right. I certainly do not claim to have a cure-all for the problem of conflict in our churches, but below are simple reminders when dealing with conflict. They are written from the perspective of the pastor but can be applied to all believers.
- Always carry yourself with humility. We are not the great hero who has come to rescue God’s misguided people. We are to have the heart of Christ and serve always with great humility.
- Remember the qualifications. The language of 1 Timothy 3 describes the qualifications for a pastor as one who is able to walk with temperance, sober-mindedness, not violent, not quarrelsome, but gentle. Titus 1 adds that he is not self-willed or quick-tempered but sober-minded, just, and self-controlled. Much conflict in our churches could be avoided if pastors would just walk in a manner worthy of the qualifications of the office they hold. All Christians should aspire to walk consistently within the qualifications; pastors must be qualified for the office.
- Develop a genuine love for the sheep. Conflict will certainly arise for pastors when they see church members as tools for reaching a goal rather than as sheep whom Jesus genuinely loves and desires to see follow Him. The greatest foundation for handling conflict is that when people genuinely love each other, they will do what it takes to work out their problems. We must also remember that people in churches have REAL problems that they are working through. Some of them are in rebellion against God. Some of them are dealing with the consequences of past sin, even though they have been redeemed. There are some we deal with who act the way they do because they are lost, and they need us to love them enough to show them Jesus.
- Try diligently to see the other side’s perspective. When we are in the midst of a conflict, we often assume the other side is entirely wrong. I have usually found in the midst of conflict that people on both sides could learn from each other if they would just humble themselves and take the time to listen. I have heard it said this way, “Seek to understand, rather than to be understood.” James 1:19 states that “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger.”
- Don’t get overwhelmed by exaggeration of the situation. Do not fall into the hype of a situation. There will be times when you hear something like, “A lot of people are upset about….” Normally, the reality is that the person telling you the information is upset, and perhaps a few of his friends. It may even be that the person sharing the information is not upset, but a few in his circle are, so from his perspective, it truly sounds like a “lot” of people are upset.
- Remember, not everything is worth fighting over. There are some issues for which it is ALWAYS worthwhile to take a stand. The Gospel, the exclusivity of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture are examples. There are some issues that are SOMETIMES worth fighting over, and others that are NEVER worth fighting over. Make sure, if there are going to be arguments, that they are arguments worth having.
If we seek the Lord, walk in humility, remember the qualifications, and genuinely love the sheep, we can, many times, be used as an instrument to avoid conflict altogether or, at the very least, limit the scope and damage of conflict. How we, as believers, respond to potential conflict can play a considerable role in whether it amounts to anything.
Proverbs 15 is one of my favorite passages when it comes to how we can help in the area of conflict management. Verses 1 and 18 are good reminders of the role we play in leading the sheep in harmony:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. … A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute.”