By Wade Paris
In school, Pastor Plodder was seldom at the head of the class. In fact, he often regarded himself as one of the dummies. In all probability his teachers regarded him similarly. In life, especially in the churches he served, he fared as well or better than his straight-A colleagues.
Pastor Plodder often reminded himself that in the Bible God succeeded with less than perfect servants. Like Pastor Plodder, most pastors are not Phi Beta Kappas. They are just average people God has called to serve in a particular church; hence the title of this series — “Prevention: Conflict resolution for dummies.”
Pastors and churches everywhere are struggling with conflict. It is not limited to a given area or denomination but seems to run the gamut.
Hopefully, these homespun words of wisdom will be helpful. The premise of this work is simple: It is better to prevent a fight than to win one.
This is not an academic work. It is a practical search for ways to do God’s work in the church without wounding His children.
Most of the wisdom of this series was gleaned through years of pastoral ministry. Some content is intuitive knowledge, which everyone has but sometimes fails to use. For example, Rev. Sample was no dummy. He scored high in the study of logic in college. Yet at church he continually acted illogically. For instance, he could not understand why people got upset when he removed them from long-held positions of service in the church.
The material in this series was gathered primarily from colleagues, college and seminary classrooms, seminars and many wise laypersons. Where possible, credit is given to the sources of information. However, much of it was gleaned in the “battle” and is impossible to reference.
Some content comes under the heading of “What should have been said or done.” It is easier to see one’s mistakes from the perspective of retirement. In the midst of the conflict, it is difficult to see the forest for all the trees.
This work is what country folk call horse sense and what urbanites refer to as street smarts. In most instances, it is simply God-given common sense.
During the last half-century, several disciplines have emerged in the church. They are not new, but the methodology for approaching each has been spelled out with such detail they can now be referred to as a science, or at least an art. Church growth is one of these disciplines. Another is conflict management, or conflict resolution. The latter discipline is the subject here.
Conflict management seems a less-than-worthy goal for a pastor and church. At best, conflict management is second-best.
In conflict management, the conflict remains. The church may continue about its business, but the problems are left to simmer and are likely to resurface at any time. Even if they do not resurface, unresolved conflict retards the participation of the parishioners.
Conflict resolution is a far better goal for both pastor and church. Christians should seek the healing of wounds, not management of them; the restoration of genuine fellowship, not the limitation of casualties. Admittedly, this is more difficult; but, since it is common to fall short of one’s goals, one should never aim low.
If a church’s goal is simply management of conflict, it may soon find itself in more serious difficulty. Remember, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
In his work Moving Your Church Through Conflict (Alban Institute, 1998), Speed Leas identifies five levels of church conflict:
1. Problems to solve. At this level parties have differences but are amicably searching for solutions.
2. Disagreement. Here the disagreements intensify, and a new concern enters — myself.
3. Contest. The win/lose spirit develops. Sides begin to develop.
4. Fight/flight. Parties switch from wanting to win to wanting to hurt and/or get rid of the others.
5. Intractable situations. Conflict is out of the control of participants. It is conflict run amok.
The pastor’s and church’s aim should be to keep conflict at Level 1.
Having set high goals, the following installments give attention to using God-given common sense in the church.
All the examples cited in this series are true. However, for the sake of anonymity, all names have been changed.