Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 3



  1. The Perceived Issue

Most of us have heard it said: “The presenting issue is [hardly ever] the real issue.” If that is true what does it mean? As an intentional interim pastor I am called to intervene[1] in the life of a congregation, continually searching for the deeper, truer understandings of what we experience — both in the biblical text and in the sub-text of our congregants’ lives.[2]

Defining conflict…

  • Conflict is when there is a difference, plus tension.
  • Conflict is a dispute between two or more persons over values, goals, processes, and/or facts.
  • Conflict involves uncooperative attitudes and unaccommodating interactions and exchanges.

In a conflicted congregation the goodwill is gone. People can no longer agree to humble, prayerful, and civil dialogue. Poor conflict resolution skills within a congregation are a strong indicator of superficial relationships and struggling marriages. (Keep in mind that like attracts like.)

The Bible indicates that both wisdom and discernment are gifts and ours for the asking. For each there is a caveat that invites our participation (an imperative to the grace indicative). For wisdom the biblical caveat is that it is often found in the context of community – there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors (Pro. 15:22). For discernment the caveat is that it is tied to a growing understanding of biblical truth, which divides between the soulish and the spiritual (Heb. 4:12). With whatever wisdom and discernment are available we must ask God to reveal the “sin beneath the sin,” asking: What is at the root of this current conflict?

  1. Unhealthy Ways People Interact With One Another

We must see, understand, and deal with the unhealthy emotional processes that are at the root of almost every congregational conflict. What we find in the vast majority of N. American and U.K. churches is that emotional health has not been integrated into the discipleship process. As a result there are several unhealthy emotional processes, including: gossip, triangulation[3], resistance to change, compliant behaviors (“yes-man/woman syndrome”), the “sudden” eruption of conflict, the proliferation of “non-issue” issues in conflict (“vitriolic pettiness” defines one congregant I recently had to deal with), unjust projection of blame (usually aimed at the pastor), unwillingness/inability to “own up” to one’s actions, highly reactive and unstable relationships, clergy sexual misconduct, short-term focused, and the inability to build spiritual momentum.

There are (at least) three interlocking emotional systems that fuel congregational conflict:

  • Family of origin issues
  • Nuclear family issues
  • Congregation issues

Unresolved issues in any of these can produce symptoms in the others. This is true for all combatants.[4] Churches, like families, often sweep their issues under the rug. When conflict conflagulates within a congregation it is time to shake the rug.

  1. The Capacity of People To Talk In Non-Distorted and Non-Anxious Ways To Resolve the Root Issue/s

This capacity is called “emotional health” (or EQ/EI). Emotional health is what occurs when our feelings are put under the power of the cross so that they are acknowledged as present (as opposed to denying them), listened to for what they communicate about us, expressed adequately and appropriately to others, and acted upon in ways that are appropriate. They exist, but they don’t dominate our behavior. They are recog­nized and given their rightful place in the course of godly conduct.[5] In too many churches sanctification is only focused on the mind and the will – not the emotions. It’s as if church leaders acknowledge grace for salvation but sanctification is more about gaining knowledge and strengthening the will.

[1] A term coined for the Church by Lyle Schaller. The Interventionist, Abingdon Press 1997.

[2] Adapted from Barnes.

[3] The proliferation of in-direct communication between two principle parties by involving an additional third party to carry the messages between the two principle parties.

[4] Adapted from Friedman: 195.

[5] Miles: 15.5.

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