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When Differences Tear Apart the Body of Christ

By Richard E Rusbuldt.

Remember when church fights used to be over the colour of the new carpet in the sanctuary? Or, whether there could be church suppers to raise money? Or, whether teenagers could dance in the church? In retrospect, those were more like picnics. Most of the `fighters' didn't really want to hurt other persons, or the pastor. All they wanted was to get their own way... and after all, that problem has been around a long time, hasn't it (Genesis 3!)?

And it isn't going to go away. Conflict, within and among human beings, is a normal phenomenon, always present (at least potentially), and something that can be depended upon as a part of every human relationship -both inside and outside the church. Conflict will never disappoint us... its potential is always present. Paul knew what he was talking about in his New Testament letters.

Today, Baptists, by the very nature of their polity, theology and congregational structure are a `magnet' for all kinds of persons, pathological and normal, who `get their kicks' from strong, aggressive leadership, and always being right. This needs to be recognised by all leaders, clergy and lay, as part of the `risk potential' in our types of churches.

However, the `game' of church conflict has changed. Fighting in churches today is far more frequent, complex, and devastating. Particularly vulnerable these days are clergy, clergy families, and those who show degrees of loyalty to them. Yet even more vulnerable is the health and vitality of the living organism, Christ's Body, the Church. Church after church is reeling from minor or major conflict. The call of the church to be a loving, caring community of believers is being muted today. The call for the `unity of the Body' (John 17... yes, unity in the local Body) falls on deaf eats. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, was not the last Christian leader to mourn over the harm done to individuals and to the Body of Christ by division and quarrels (1 Corinthians 1:10-17).

Jesus was often involved in situations filled with tension, especially when he suggested changes for the theological and operational aspects of the temple and its priests. Jesus then had to deal with conflict. He suggested in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 that when you are struck on one cheek, you are to turn the other. Note two things: (a) you are told not to fight back; (b) you are told not to run away or leave the scene. Jesus is suggesting that you consider three things: (i) that you remain with the situation; (b) that you do not hurt or strike out at the other person or party; (c) that you should be willing to run the risk of further hurt to yourself if you do stay in that situation. It behoves us to reflect carefully on Jesus' modelling and teaching.

Over the past 30 years, I have conducted many, many Conflict Management (the term is highly questionable!) seminars. During this time, I studied, read, taught, and experienced conflict at all levels of life. One key observation out of all these experiences is: only a few pastors who attend such seminars go away believing that `it' will happen to them, or in the church. Therefore, whether pressed for time, or for reasons of ego, arrogance or naivete (or all three), only a few pause for introspection, analysis and course corrections. Why is this?

Assumptions. Some of their assumptions include: `It won't happen to me'; `I'm smarter than that'; `God will take care of me'; `I'm in good with key leaders'; `I know how to handle the opposition'. Obviously these are OK assumptions to make as long as they have credibility. However, there is no `guarantee' that what worked yesterday will work today. And the old saying `An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' is still true today.

What follows are some suggestions for pastors (and laity) to consider before conflict is a reality. If you are all ready in serious conflict, little that is shared here will be of much value, other than for Monday-morning quarterbacking. The best way to deal with mild differences or open conflict is to be prepared for such. Please consider the following suggestions... ahead of the fact.

1. The world of the church is significantly different from that of the last ten to forty years

Herb Miller in his February 1993 Net Results stated: `Convictions about basic beliefs and how to run a church are now as diverse within each congregation as they were in the 1950s between denominations'. He describes providing leadership in the following manner: `Church leadership is often like refereeing a football game in which you become the ball.' In every denomination, in every state in the country, a growing number of pastors know the feeling. As mentioned earlier, the `game has changed'. Perhaps the first healthy step a pastor can take is to admit to self that the `game has changed', and that it is wise to read, assess, study and engage in dialogue about his/her church and the society/environment within which ministry is taking place today. An investment of this type now can `pay dividends later'.

2. Know your leadership style

If you are not thoroughly familiar with your leadership style, get tested, and familiarise yourself with your leamings. Your leadership style is one of the keys to how you respond to those who differ with you. Every pastor has a leadership style which is primary (used more frequently than other styles). However, the primary style will not necessarily work with every generational, cultural, economic lifestyle group in the life of the church. Church leaders have primary leadership styles as well. So too does every congregation. Wise is the pastor who recognises that the cross-section of members/visitors, whether for age, history, background or relationship reasons, view his/her leadership quite differently. Wise is the pastor who can quickly utilise appropriate leadership responses when each occasion for such arises. The ability to be flexible is vastly more critical if there is tension, strained relationships or open conflict.

Only a few pastors probe a congregation's leadership style with a Pastoral Search Committee prior to responding to a call. Likewise, rare is the church that asks questions about a potential pastor's leadership style. Even when questions are asked, few committees know how to analyse the information they receive. Neither do most of them know anything about their own leadership styles. When styles don't match at all, or are not complementary, differences of opinion are guaranteed. Throw in a mix on generational differences, hints or open suggestions for change, coupled with a lack of growth or limited financial resources (or both), and there is trouble ahead.

Hidden within the fabric of each pastor's leadership style is his/her `managing differences of opinion'style. When conflict surfaces, some pastors are immediately ready to `fight', while others make preparations for `flight'. Of course, there is plenty of latitude between these two responses! What is said about pastors is identical for the lay leadership in a church, as well. I am finding much more readiness on the part of some `older generation' lay leaders to `fight' or `get rid of the pastor', than to attempt to work through differences. In church fights of a generation ago, `fighters' on neither side planned to leave the church. Often, both `sides' continued to attend, but just wouldn't speak to each other, sit on the same side, etc. Again, the game has changed. The baby-boomer generation isn't that much interested in fighting over church issues. Most of them question all authority figures, both inside and outside of the church. Miller says "If my church does not meet my family's needs, why stay and fight? Fixing things will take a lot of time and energy. Why not switch and fix things instantly?"

Pastors, know your leadership style, and within that context, how you respond to tension or open conflict. Know how you usually respond to pressure, what/who `ticks you off', where you are on the `fight-flight' spectrum, how you feel about not getting your own way, and how much you value where you are and what you are doing. Take the time to `know thyself'.

I contend that pastoral and lay leadership who are able to bring differences into the open and clarify them, who try to understand one another and work together in light of the differences can make significant progress toward the constructive management of conflict. It takes a healthy understanding of leadership to make this happen.

3. Stay awake!

Don't fall asleep at the `relationships' switch. Be aware of what is occurring in the life of your church in the area of relationships. Sharpen your sensitivities to other people's feelings. Consider the following steps through which to increase your awareness of the relationships in your context of ministry:

a. At least once a week, spend an hour alone in introspection regarding the life of your church. Get off alone by yourself and identify and examine every relationship you have with leaders, groups, or the congregation itself. What about relationships between individual leaders, groups, etc.? Is there any tearing of the fabric? Are there any warning signals? Are your feelings towards any persons of a nature that they merit further attention. Make notes about your feelings, hunches, perhaps even suspicions. Date them.

The next week, take another look at those same relationships. Has anything changed? For good? Not so good? Any new relationships? Do you have any reasons for taking a more in-depth look at a particular relationship? If so, do so. As well, is there a need for you to engage in dialogue with a particular leader or leaders regarding some signals you are observing of emerging conflict? If so, do.

b. Identify and recruit a person in the life of the congregation who can serve as a `reality-tester' with and for you regarding relationships. This person should definitely not be your spouse. Choose a person with a gift of common sense, one who is willing to level with you. Test your assumptions. Check out your hunches. Reality-testing can be very beneficial as you seek to become aware of early-alert signals or clues. What at first glance appear to be more than the tip of an ice cube can sometimes turn out to be a huge iceberg! Don't become another Titanic! Remember: every major conflict began as the tip of an ice cube.

c. Do not hesitate to check out your feelings and assumptions with someone totally outside of the church. A peer, a solid support group, a staff person, or perhaps someone in the secular world can offer key objectivity you cannot get any other way. Don't hesitate to reach out for analysis assistance.

d. Don't be naive about church employees, especially church secretaries. Please don't misunderstand me - most church secretaries are wonderful, caring, effective workers on behalf of the church. But there is a generous supply of stories around that indicate, from time to time, the divisive role a secretary can play, especially if there is one of long tenure at the time a new pastor arrives on the scene. Be careful! Listen! Don't immediately make secretary your confidante! Perhaps not later, either. One way more and more churches are dealing with this concern is to employ a secretary who is not related to the congregation. I strongly recommend such.

4. Truth is often in short supply

The saying `You only hear what you want to hear' is certainly a proven maxim in conflict situations. Am I suggesting that a member of a church board would lie in the heat of conflict? Yes, without a doubt. I imagine pastors can do the same under similar circumstances. It is wise to remember that fighting inside the church differs little from fighting outside the church. The Bible suggests that dealing with differences inside the church should (and could) be different from the secular world, but, unfortunately, the similarities are saddening.

When in the grip of tension and conflict, it is very easy for different perceptions, shadings of truth, and grapevine and rumour-mill communications to mitigate against truth. As the level of intensity increases (see next item), the ability to think and hear clearly diminish measurably. Perceptions not only are often distorted, perceptions (whether right or wrong doesn't matter!) become the reality... and people respond by acting on these perceptions.

5. Learn to assess the level of intensity

Every emerging conflict begins somewhere. There was a sign; there was a moment; there was a clue. This means that at its earliest embryonic moment, it was no more than a 'slight blip on a chart'. When strong tension has surfaced, and significant time goes by without movement in the direction of resolution, the problems quickly become more complex, and the level of intensity increases. If left unchecked, or if totally unmanageable, eventually the `highest point on the Richter Scale' will be reached, which spells total disaster for all. In reaching the greatest level of intensity, large amounts of energy and effort will have been expended, and significant damage will occur (or will already have occurred). Recovery from major conflict takes years, both for pastors and churches. My rule of thumb is that any conflict beyond the simplest levels will cost the church at least ten years before ever recovering its scope and level of ministry at the time the conflict emerged-if it ever does. Pastors (and sometimes their families even more so) suffer significant damage, as well, and some will not be able (or will not want to) continue in pastoral ministry. For the sake of Christ's church and its leaders/constituency, everything should be done that is possible to diminish or prevent the scarring and destruction that takes place in open fighting.

Conflict: Levels of Intensity

Consider these diagrams. For the sake of the illustration, think of church life without major conflict as a level line. Note that at a certain point, the pathway begins to dip. Fortunately, there are some groups and churches quite adept at handling their differences, and the dip into the conflict valley is not a major disaster. Successfully moving through a small valley (diagram A) can provide cause for celebration.

However, when conflict continues unabated, or there is conflict over how to deal with conflict, the decline into the despair of the conflict valley is always painful and harmful (diagram B).

A word of caution to all pastors. Item 3 (above) is suggested in order to provide you with an `early alert' that the possibility of a descent into the conflict valley is about to occur. Above all, it is surely unwise, if not foolish, for pastoral leadership to assume that what appears to be an emerging conflict situation is no more than a level 2 or 3, when in reality the others in the conflict all ready know it is a level 7 or 8, or are determined to make it such. Errors in judgement on the part of a pastor or key lay leaders at this point can be fatal. More and more this is being observed today. Whether a pastor is just plain `scared' of it, or isn't willing to face reality, isn't always clear. Whatever, an error in judgement about the level of intensity can delay or prevent helpful steps from being taken.

Another point to note is that, if you wait too long to seek outside assistance as the level of intensity increases, eventually outside help will not be able to assist you or your church. There will be a point reached that is beyond redemption. If you are open to outside consultant assistance, open the door for that possibility at the earliest opportunity in the conflict. If your situation has moved towards, and the midway point in the descent, outside leadership probably will not be able to provide a helpful intervention. Get help earlier, not later. We also need to be prepared to recognise the fact that some situations will be beyond redemption. As hurtful as it is to realise, some conflict situations will never be resolved without a change in pastoral leadership... and the longer a pastor attempts to persist in an impossible situation, the greater will be the personal/family damage, as well as increasing the severity of damage upon the church.

A likeness with fire prevention can be made. If you see smoke, assume there is a fire, and immediately do something. Get help, call your fire department, get our the hose, yell -whatever. If, however, you delay, the fire will increase in size and intensity. The sooner outside help is brought to the situation, the better are the possibilities that major damage will not occur. Much depends upon how soon you are aware... and get help. And please don't forget - even firefighters know they need help with most fires.

Southern Baptist leaders reported recently that `involuntary terminations' of pastors has escalated 31 % since 1984. Other denominations have had similar experience. Misunderstanding or misreading the level of intensity within a conflict situation looms high on the list of reasons for involuntary termination.

6. Admit that power is present in your church (every church)

There are some (supposedly pious) church folks who pretend that power isn't an issue in their church. I don't know a church where someone isn't wielding power - rightly, wrongly, or in between. There are different definitions for the word `power', and a simple one is `the ability to make happen what you want (or somebody wants) to happen'. I have always liked Rollo May's definition for power which is `the ability to effect change'. First, have your own definition of the term. Second, know how YOU use power. Third, know how those in leadership use power. Fourth, know how those who are not in leadership use power (for instance, the grapevine, in some churches, is the most powerful network that exists!)

Admit that power is not inherently `dirty'. It isn't power that corrupts; it is the need of powerful people to `win at others' expense' that is corrupt. The end doesn't justify the means. If a pastor is to do much of anything, the issue of power must be addressed. The same is true for lay leadership. It is healthy to understand the term, analyse how it is used within your own sphere of influence, and understand the uses of power by all persons within your church's life. Power, coupled with change (or the lack thereof), most likely causes as much conflict as all of the other ingredients in the life of a church.

7. Leadership neutrality

If differences of opinion and/or position are to be constructively handled, there is a need for objective, trusted, neutral leadership. Early in ministry, each pastor needs to reconcile with self what role he/she wishes to play when differences of opinion surface in the church. If a pastor (or lay leader) is to be constructively involved in a conflict situation, a neutral stance is demanded from the earliest emergence of conflict. Any leader who becomes embedded (this can happen unintentionally also!) in the problem CANNOT be instrumental in facilitating the resolution of the problem. Since pastors and lay leaders have a natural bent to their own points of view, they can become embedded in the problem without even knowing it has happened. When this happens, they are always then a part of the problem, and can provide little, if any, leadership towards a solution.

8. Management of content vs. management of process

It is difficult for most of us when in the heat of a conflict to be able to differentiate between the management of content (what are the issues; what are the points of view?) and the management of process (giving leadership on HOW to manage the process of dealing with the content). When a pastor, for whatever reason, makes a strong (usually public) commitment to content, then it is almost impossible for that pastor to facilitate or guide those involved to a resolution of the matter.

9. Ask questions about winning and losing

ALWAYS ask, if only for your own response, if there is the potential in an emerging set of differences for a win-lose possibility. If so, who may win, and who may lose? (Note: to refer to local church fights as win-lose possibilities is, in reality, a misnomer. There are none of these in the church.) Fighting in the church is either resolved so there is a `win-win' result, or it is unresolved (or unresolvable), and the result is `loselose', not only for the `sides' involved in the fighting, but for the Church of Jesus Christ itself.

When conflict or differences emerge, remember that every vote taken poses a 'lose' for somebody. In other words, if you vote, someone will win and someone will lose, unless there should be a tie, and then who has won? Refrain from all votes until there are no other alternatives. Above all, refrain for as long as you can from taking matters to the congregation for a vote, especially if the issues involved are not clearly known throughout the total congregation's membership. Confine the issues to small groups in the life of your church as long as it is wise (or you are able) to do so. You may be sure that those who wish to vote have only one goal in mind: winning. Their secondary goal is that those opposed to them will lose.

10. Church constitutions - helpful or hurtful?

Every pastor should ask first for a copy of the church constitution before getting very serious about learning more about a potential pastorate. Some of the constitutions I have reviewed over the past four years or so are absolutely illogical, pathetic, misleading, and useless. Recently, after reading a church constitution and not believing what I was reading, I faxed it to a lawyer for his counsel. His response was to the point: it is worthless - throw it in the circular file.

Examine the constitution of a potential church employer before you are hired. Examine your church's constitution right now before trouble surfaces. Especially look at the sections that deal with staffing, employer-employee relationships, hiring and termination agreements, how Be strong, and do not agree differences are dealt with, performance appraisals, the role of the Deacons, the role of the Pastoral Relations Committee, and the ultimate questions:who is in charge? Of what? Significant grief, disgust or dismay can be avoided by simply being knowledgeable in advance of the fact. Be strong, and do not agree to become the pastor of a church which has not taken its own leadership role seriously by being administratively responsible and, therefore, having a helpful constitution, rather than something that is unclear, vague, perhaps hurtful.

11. Ask questions about the disruptiveness of CHANGE!

Although there are some close seconds in the race, probably no other phenomenon in the life of the church today is more disruptive than that of change. Even when changes are agreed upon in advance, peace and harmony cannot necessarily be guaranteed. Older generations, long holding the power reins in churches, will quickly pit themselves against younger generations (if they are lucky enough to have them!) if what they have known and worshipped for decades appears to be threatened. Perhaps this is no more clear than when the possibilities for change occur in the area of worship itself.

The `change settings' which produce differences of opinions, tension and conflict are:

1. When change is suggested.

2. When change is taking place.

3. When change is needed and it isn't being suggested or taking place.

A new pastor, who hasn't engaged in sufficient listening and dialogue, can quickly become the primary target if too many changes occur-too soon. Having said that, however, not even listening and dialogue is a guaranteed insulation against becoming the football when change is needed, or takes place. And a pastor who has been around for a while may also quickly discover that suggested changes can quickly erode trust, favour and confidence.

12. Communications are an integral part of conflict situations

Ineffective communication can be a primary source of conflict. Some communication styles can be not only ineffective, but sometimes harmful. A wrong communication methodology, particularly at a wrong time, can deepen the level of intensity.

Perhaps the most important maxim about communication is that `two-way communication is always superior to one-way communication', no matter who or what the problem may be. Pastors and lay leaders need to be willing to go Jesus' extra mile in an effort to be certain full communication is occurring. However, there is a natural tendency when `being shot at' to withdraw somewhat, become a bit secretive in the interests of not being misunderstood, and revert to one-way methods of communication. Sending messages through others to persons who are involved in differences with you, or perhaps in open conflict, is ineffective, not Scriptural (Matthew 18:15-17) and can actually add to misperceptions that most likely already abound.

Going to persons directly who hold different opinions or positions is the beginning of helpful communication which has the potential to move towards understanding and/or reconciliation. Taking this kind of initiative is usually a healthy position from which to speak or move. Assuring yourself that no one is garbling or blocking your message is of vital importance; don't let anyone else try to do that for you. It is your task... it is your opportunity.

13. To the extent possible, keep personalities out of the fray

This may be difficult to do, since some antagonists/fighters delight in striking out at persons. Pastors, in particular, can model good leadership by encouraging the identification of issues that are basic to the tension, regardless of the persons who are currently involved in the situation. The first step in getting to a win-win result is to clarify and understand the differences which exist between persons and groups. Identification of the real problem is the first step to finding a meaningful solution. There is little hope for reconciliation, or at least progress towards such, until the heart of the tension/conflict is clearly understood by all participants. Because many conflict situations are highly complex, this is not an easy task.

14. Don't just sit there...

Do something, before you are in the middle of tension or major conflict. It is highly. acceptable today for pastors to alert, make aware and educate church leaders about how differences of opinion can be dealt with in a Christ-like manner within Christ's Church. Gone are the days of pushing differences of opinion `under the carpet', with the assumption that, if left alone long enough, they will gradually disappear.

They will not; they do not.

What can a pastor do? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Understand the subject of church conflict in today's churches by reading articles ,on the subject, and by discussing it with peers and staff persons.

2. Attend a seminar on conflict. Train yourself to understand conflict.

3. Participate in support group or other conversational settings where the subject of dealing with differences can be openly and honestly discussed.

4. Preach often on the unity of the Body of Christ.

5. Let it be known that differences of opinion are natural, to be expected. Also let it be known that differences of opinion do not need to destroy the church, groups, or individuals.

6. Convince your church's leaders of the need for a short course in understanding how to deal with differences.

7. Follow suggestions 1 through 14 in this article.

In closing, when Jesus said "Take up your cross and follow me", he surely knew what he was talking about regarding misunderstandings, miscommunications, getting one's own way, and the high cost of being a leader. For today's `called out ones', little has changed: Not only is the highway of church leadership becoming more pock-marked with conflict valleys, the competition for resources and success are adding to the possibilities for more conflict.

In the first chapter of the book of Joshua, God commissioned Joshua for the task ahead. God didn't mince any words; it wasn't going to be easy. Three times in Chapter 1, Joshua was admonished `Be strong and courageous' (vs. 6, 9, 18). This could be said to all pastors today. However, the strength behind each command is in words that precede or follow. In verse 5 "...I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you." In verse 9, "...for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go:" In verse 17, "...may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses!" Yes; as Joshua was soon to learn, God would be present with him in his `conflict valleys', and the same promise to Joshua is made to God's leaders today... it won't be easy, be as prepared as you can be, and I will be with you every step of the way.

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You are reading When Differences Tear Apart the Body of Christ by Richard E Rusbuldt, part of Issue 1 of Ministry Today, published in January 1994.

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