Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 6

Two businessmen having a tug of war

A Biblical Response To Each Dimension (2 of 3)

  1. How To Establish Scriptural Guidelines for Healthy Interaction?
  • Your contract needs to stipulate that you will have enough authority to do your job. Having said that, go in listening and build as much relational authority as you can. Exercising positional authority should be the last resort.
  • Teach, train, and model biblical conflict resolution
  • Lovingly but directly confront gossip and triangulation
  • Move congregants to be willing to own their own issues instead of focusing on the issues of those they are in conflict with (see Matthew 7:5). Conducting a Sacred Assembly is often helpful in turning a corner into a new season of fruitful ministry.

The Role of the Sermon In Conflicted Congregations

In an interim context using old sermons is often not helpful because they may fail to address the root or core issues in a conflicted church. The aim of preaching is to be faithful to the text and prophetic to the context.

  • “And so the resident minor poet of a congregation has to be disciplined to take the time necessary not only to dig for the mystery of a God with us, but also to write the poetic sermon in such a way as to invite the congregation to slow down. There is a reason why churches don’t have drive-through windows. No one grabs the Incarnation on the run.”[1]
  • Expository sermon series’ for churches in conflict:
    • Beatitudes/Sermon on the Mount (helps people begin to own their own issues and refocuses on the KOG)
    • Nehemiah (good and clear change-agent taxonomy that begins with humility, confession, prayer, and planning)
    • 1 John (back to basics Christianity after a church split)
    • Philemon (reconciliation)
    • A series on the “one anothers” can also be quite helpful.

[1] Barnes: 134.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 5


A Biblical Response To Each Dimension (1 of 3)

  1. How To Identify and Address the Root Issue?

When Jesus (through John) addresses the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 the overall pattern is to identify the strengths of the churches and then to identify the sinful patterns:

  • Ephesus: “but this I have against you” (Rev 2:4)
  • Smyrna: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:11)
  • Pergamum: “But I have a few things against you” (Rev 2:14)
  • Thyatira: “But I have this against you” (Rev 2:20)
  • Sardis: “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain” (Rev 3:2)
  • Philadelphia: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 3:13)
  • Laodicea: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.” (Rev 3:19)

Catalogue the strengths of a church and then address sins (i.e., conduct a strategic S.W.O.T.). We must identify the core congregational “sins of the fathers” (see Exodus 20:5, 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 1:6). This is particularly true of congregations born out of a split or involved in a prolonged or catastrophic conflict. Churches often face a multi-generational [sin] transmission process that will not be changed by the introduction of “new blood” – either lay or ordained.[1]

The VitalChurch Process


Therefore, it is quite helpful to employ some kind of diagnostic process. Engaging a third party, or as VitalChurch does — bring in a discernment team,  will provide an objective viewpoint as well as help the interim interventionist remain the “good cop.”

  • Our Responsibility: Nehemiah 1:6b – “I and my father’s house have sinned.”
  • Our Objective: 2 Corinthians 5:18 – “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
  • Our Standard: Romans 12:18 – “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all [people].”

A list of corporate sins one church confessed to in a church-wide Sacred Assembly:

  1. Conflict avoidance
  2. Poor processes and communication
  3. Subtle pressure/perceived pressure and unhealthy loyalty by leaders
  4. Lack of clear grievance procedures
  5. Poor discernment
  6. Lack of training for ministry leaders and participants
  7. Gossip and relational triangulation
  8. Moralism


[1] Friedman: 196.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 4

I'm glad we settled our conflict

The Upside of Conflict

The study by Psychometrics Canada, based in Edmonton, Alberta, concludes that conflict can actually benefit an organization when managed properly. The study finds that conflict can be a catalyst for better solutions, major innovations, increased motivation, and other workplace benefits. Specifically, the more than 350 HR professionals across Canada surveyed said conflict can lead to:

  • Better understanding of others (77%)
  • Better solutions to problems and challenges (57%)
  • Higher work-team performance (40%)
  • Increased motivation (31%)
  • Major innovations (21%)

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.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Conflict – Part 2

Path Broken Between People

There are three dimensions of conflict:

  1. The perceived issue
  2. The often unhealthy ways in which people interact with one another
  3. The capacity of people to talk in non-distorted and non-anxious ways to resolve the root issue.

In these posts I will consider a systemic view of conflict and a biblical response to each dimension:

  1. How to identify and address the root issue
  2. How to establish scriptural guidelines for healthy interaction
  3. How to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of conflict to help people listen well and own their own issues.

A Systemic View of Conflict

Systems thinking is a framework for seeing the interrelationships and behavioral patterns within a church or organizational culture rather than (simply) seeing a collection of individuals. A systemic view of conflict (and the goal revitalization) seeks to identify root issues, not just symptoms – and leverage them with well-focused actions and changes that can produce significant and enduring improvements.[1] When the interconnected systems of a human body (e.g., circulatory system, skeletal system, respiratory system, central nervous system, digestive system, etc.) are all working well together we call that health. When these are systems are not working together we call that disease. Organizations are similar; when the interconnected systems are not functioning together it creates dis-ease. Wherever a church experiences dis-ease it is a systems issue.

Congregations are organizations that are multiple, complex families made up of smaller family units. People bring their family problems and backgrounds into the mix of church life. For that reason, everything that happens is related to everything else. When leaders understand this, their perspectives on situations change. They can no longer accept simple, single-answer explanations for church behavior. They must look at the whole and see the parts as affecting the whole. Scripture is replete with examples of family systems issues and patterns of sin that were passed down from generation to generation (Exodus 20:5). For example, Jacob’s sons functioned deceitfully throughout the course of their lives because Jacob himself had been deceitful. Jacob was deceitful because Isaac had been deceitful and Isaac saw deceit first hand in the behavior of his father Abraham (Genesis 13–50).

The antidote is found in Leviticus 26:40-42:

“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, 41 so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, 42 then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land.”

In his book Making Peace: A Guide To Overcoming Conflict, Jim Van Yperen makes some sweeping statements:

  1. Church conflict is always theological, never merely interpersonal. Efforts to restore and reconcile personal relationships without addressing the underlying systemic and theological roots will always be inadequate.[2]
  2. All church conflict is always about leadership, character, and community. Conflict reveals who we really are. A leader will respond to conflict out of his or her own character far more than knowledge – revealing the true character of the leader.[3]
  3. To be redemptive we have to think and discern systemically. To change the system the underlying structure, or system dynamic must be changed (or leveraged) or the “fix” won’t last[4] – and homeostasis[5] or “snap-back” will occur.

For revitalization to take place (at least) five biblical mandates need to be implemented:[6]

  1. Examine, identify, confess, and repent of past failure/s
  2. Identify root needs, causes, or flaws in character, behavior, or thinking
  3. Through gospel clarity unlearn negative habits and dysfunctional behaviors practiced over time
  4. Through gospel clarity relearn new habits of behavior and thinking
  5. Reconstitute personal character and church culture

A model of organizational change that many have found helpful is the (Kurt) Lewin 3-Stage Model of Change: Unfreezing –> Changing –> Refreezing.

Seven basic family/congregational concepts that have particular relevance:[7]

  1. Resist homeostasis (see footnote #5)
  2. Resist overfunctioning
  3. Become a non-anxious presence
  4. Resist triangulation attempts
  5. Resist becoming the identified patient (i.e., The ‘scapegoat,’ ‘symptom-bearer’ or ‘presenting problem.’ The shame and toxicity of the dysfunctional family system is ‘dumped’ on the identified patient.  An example, on a large scale, would be the Jewish people who became the identified patient of the Nazi regime.)
  6. Resist becoming part of the broken system/s
  7. Expect sabotage

[1] Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday; Rev & Updated ed: 64, 114.

[2] Van Yperen: 24.

[3] Van Yperen: 24-25.

[4] Van Yperen: 38.

[5] The tendency of the body to seek and maintain a condition of balance or equilibrium within its internal environment, even when faced with external changes.

[6] Adapted from Van Yperen: 37-38.

[7] Adapted from Friedman: 202-219.

Addressing the Underlying Causes of Church Conflict – Part 1

church conflict

Last year I led a couple of breakouts sessions at a national pastor’s conference on “Addressing the Underlying Causes of Church Conflict.”  Over the next few days I will pass on the findings from thousands of congregational survey respondents, some startling assessments, and (hopefully) the biblical responses…


My story: A career interventionist serving 11 churches over the the last 19 years after 16-years of pastoral ministry and four years as the director of training for a mission’s organization.  I also lead the Diagnostic Division for VitalChurch and have led or participated in over 70 diagnostics in the US and Europe including two denominational district-wide diagnostics.

Core Passages

“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you…” –Titus 1:5

“Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. 27 For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. 28 Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be on the alert…” –Acts 20:26-31a

At VitalChurch we identify as pastors not consultants.  We want everything we do to be pastoral in both intent and practice.

Diagnostic Survey Results Related to Conflict Resolution

Effective conflict resolution is a serious weakness in the U.S. and U.K. Evangelical Church. In VitalChurch‘s online diagnostic survey we (almost) always ask respondents to consider this statement: “Our church and its leaders are good at resolving conflict.”[1] The responses are sadly enlightening: An average of only 27% of thousands of survey respondents said that this statement is true of their church. In fact, the highest score ever received by a congregation on this question was 53% agreement (anything under 70% should be cause for concern). The second highest score was 51%. The third highest was 41%. Sixty-eight percent (plus or minus a standard deviation) of the scores were between 16% and 38%. Only about one church is six scored themselves higher than 38%. More than 97% (97.7%) of churches that have taken our survey scored less 50% on this question. Wow.

The current most common areas of struggle for U.S. and U.K. churches according to thousands of survey responses are:

  • Poor conflict resolution skills (see above) – consider the difference between peacekeepers and peacemakers. The N. American Church too often settles for the false peace of conflict avoidance.
  • Power issues — the poor use, misuse, non-use, and/or abuse of power.  The alternative is spiritual authority, which is based on character and flows out of deep experiences with God.
  • The theological bar has been lowered significantly – sadly, relatively few Christians have a strong undergirding of biblical theology, experiential theology is currently dominating within the Church.
  • IdolatryRomans 1:18-25 demonstrates that all personal, congregational, and societal breakdowns occur because we’ve worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator (cf. Jeremiah 2:25; Psalm 106:36; Ezekiel 6:9).  Idolatry results when good things become ultimate things. In congregations it can be the place, the past, the pastor, and/or the programs.

[1] Three possible responses: Agree, Disagree, and Not Sure.

People Will See Our Faults Anyway…


Great quote from Practicing the Presence of People[1] by Mike Mason: “How tragic that the very thing that could set us free—playing the fool—is the thing we will not do. When we’re afraid to be fools, we end up afraid to be anything. It becomes easier just to disappear, to fade into the woodwork. We get to thinking that righteousness means hiding our faults, when really the truth is just the opposite. Pride wants to look good, but humility has no fear of looking bad. People will see our faults anyway; like Paul, we should glory in our weakness [see 2 Corinthians 12:9]. Then we’ll be free to have fun.”

[1] WaterBrook, 1999: 107.