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.

10 Questions for Navigating Life’s Transitions


Transitions seem to come more often than they used to — or is it just me? This invites thoughtful reflection to be built into our lives. Reflection can be difficult. Waiting is hard. Here’s how I said it in a recent sermon: “Not only do we want to read the Bible but we also want the Bible to read us.” This involves thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Consistent reflection invites us to regularly “check in” on the state of our spiritual and emotional lives. It’s an honest look at ourselves to consider both our strengths and giftings as well as our growth areas and strongest temptations. The Latin phrase for living in God’s presence is coram Deo, which is translated “in the presence of God” and summarizes the idea of Christians living in the presence of, under the authority of, and to the honor and glory of God. Reflection makes room for us to be on the lookout for God — in our own lives, in the lives of those around us (Christian or not), in our church, and in our world. Reflecting on who we are, who God is making us to be, how God is working in us, and how God is working around us will allow us to live more fully thoughtful and focused lives.

Reflecting means that for the moment we turn from reading to understand to asking questions to understand. One set of questions that I have returned to through the years are the following ten. Consider taking some time in the next few days to get alone with God and reflect honestly and pray through them.

I adapted this exercise from an interview H.B. London conducted with Bobb Biehl. The interview was on the topic of leadership. Biehl described a leader as one who knows three things:

  1. What to do next? (What do you need to do next?)
  2. Why it is important? (Why do you need to do that?)
  3. How to appropriate the resources to bear on the need at hand? (What will it cost? Hint: It’s not always about the money.)

Reflect in the following ways:

Stage one: Write down everything you know you need to accomplish in the next 3-6 months. Make two lists, combining work and personal objectives.

Stage two: Ask yourself, “What brings me joy?”  There are big joys and there are small joys.  What are those — big and small?  Add joy to your schedule.

Stage three: Walk through these questions prayerfully and with determination. Ask for input from trusted friends as/if needed.

  1. What is my single greatest strength? What do I do best? What is that one thing?
  2. What three (upcoming) decisions are causing me the greatest stress?
  3. What tends to overwhelm me? (Be specific)
  4. What seemingly impassable roadblock has me stuck?
  5. If I could only do three things in my lifetime (Either three goals I wish to accomplish or three problem’s I’d like to solve), what three things would I do?
  6. Is there anything that I need to stop doing or resign from? (Remember the definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the result to be different each time.) Remember, knowing what NOT to do is just as important as knowing what TO do!
  7. What may need to be postponed? The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty. –Proverbs 21:5
  8. What things on my to do list could others do 80% as well? Let them do it.
  9. What are the elephants in the room? Either at work or at home, what are we not talking about that needs to be addressed? Addressing these issues will take some thoughtful and careful planning. Communicate your desire and go into the meeting with a humble heart and listening ear. Seek first to understand and then to be understood.
  10. What are the three things I could do in the next sixty days to make a 50% difference?

Reflect, pray, plan, pray, and lovingly lead your life.

[God], You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.  –Psalm 16:11

To him [God] who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.  –Jude 1:2-5

Relax, God’s got this.

The Church I Would Join: Implicit Values From Acts 1-2



When VitalChurch Ministry has the opportunity to come alongside a church, one of the things we almost always do is conduct a series of all-church workshops to help a church reaffirm their values, mission, and vision. In the last several years we have also seen the need for a church to clarify their theological stances, particularly on secondary issues.  The workshops generally seek to accomplish three things:

  1. To help a church look back and ask, what have we done well? As well as ask what could we have done better?
  2. To help a church embrace their current reality. Think of Revelation 2-3, where Jesus addresses seven churches. There is both affirmation and rebuke in His diagnostic of each church. Churches need to ask, what would Jesus affirm at this church? What would He rebuke?
  3. To look forward. I would say that for the vast majority of churches, their best days are ahead of them IF they’re honest, humble, and open to God’s leading.

Every family has dysfunctions. Social scientists tell us that approximately 96% of all families suffer from mild to severe dysfunction. Churches are extended families and suffer from various dysfunctions as well.  Will a church be able to “fix” all of their dysfunctions? Heavens no. But once we’re aware of them we can make adjustments more quickly.  For instance, one of my dysfunctions is that I am a reactor on a lifelong journey to become a responder. I know I need accountability in this area and I have grown enough to understand when I’m more prone to react.

A few years ago I began to ask the question, “What were the core values of the first church that launched in the Book of Acts? What are the underlying concepts, or principles that fostered this NT Church to be successfully launched and to flourish?” That is what I’d like to consider in this article.

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Strategic Success Factors For Organizational Excellence


A critical success factor is a performance area of crucial importance in achieving organizational excellence. There are at least two broad categories of critical success factors that are common to virtually all organizations: 1) systems processes, and 2) human processes. The focus of this post is on the human process areas, yet this is not to imply that they are more important than the systems processes. Both are essential to building great organizations.

To a large extent, every human process issue is a critical success factor. Every person has been important since people first formed organizations to accomplish tasks too big to be performed by individuals working alone—and every person will continue to present unique challenges as long as people work together. The shape each person takes is constantly evolving to fit changing circumstances, but every once in awhile, major shifts occur which dramatically change what’s required in each of these critical areas. We’re experiencing such a shift right now—moving deeper into a knowledge-based economy.

Globalization and information technology are placing different, challenging demands on leaders and organizations in virtually every performance area. Following are some highlights of these changes…

  1. Leadership/Management: “Command and control” leadership carried many organizations to very high levels of financial performance during periods when competition was not so great and things didn’t change very fast, but its time has passed. The demands on the total organization are too great for a few people at the top to call all the shots.
  2. Communication: In most organizations, there have been 3 pervasive patterns that will no longer work in knowledge-based organizations: a) the primary flow of information was vertical — within departmental walls that were often impermeable, b) information was hoarded and used as a source of power over others, and c) people at the top often withheld crucial strategic information from those lower in the organization in the belief they couldn’t handle it.
  3. Teamwork: Teamwork is more crucial to producing results today than ever before, and at the same time, the very nature of teams and their functions are changing rapidly. In the past it was typical to go for long periods — even an entire career — as the member of one functional team. Today, membership on more than one team is the norm, and it is unlikely that anyone entering the workforce will remain on the first team they join for more than a year at most.
  4. Alignment: Process reengineering and systems thinking are moving strategic alignment back to the top of many organizational agendas. It has become crystal clear that many of the greatest opportunities for productivity improvement lie at the interfaces of the processes used to achieve organizational goals — and it is fruitless to excel in one process while lagging in others.
  5. Conflict Management: The new economy increases the potential for conflict in virtually every area of organizational life. Stakeholders are more informed and frequently more demanding. Staff are being asked to do more with less — without the promise of job security that existed in the past; aligning self-interests with corporate interests is not as simple as it used to be. Different cultures are constantly being reintroduced and set the stage for major internal conflicts and power struggles. Developing good conflict resolution skills needs to be high on everyone’s personal and corporate agendas.
  6. Embracing Change: Individuals and organizations that change before they have to will be the winners in this new organizational season. People vary a lot in their tolerance of change and in the degree to which they actively seek change in their lives. It is difficult to grasp the potential for the continuing acceleration of change on a global scale. With more people having more access to information, it is reasonable to expect more innovation and more competition on a daily basis. Merely accepting change and learning to tolerate it will not be enough to successfully engage the opportunities that present themselves. We must become eager seekers of change.
  7. Organizational Learning (Life-long Development): Leaders and managers have always given lip service to the notion of people being their most important asset and to the need for continuous training and development. In most organizations, however, it has been no more than a notion. Most have not been consistent in this crucial area. The same organization that will spend $5,000 a year to maintain a copy machine will not spend $500 to develop a staff member. Of all the key success areas, this one is changing the most. The future belongs to learners — to individuals that take responsibility for updating their skills and knowledge, to teams that consciously develop the deep dialogue that enables team members to learn from one another, and to organizations that continuously improve their ability to transform data into value-added, actionable information to serve stakeholders.