Eight years ago Holiness Today ran this article on "No One Wins A Church Fight." The words are maybe more timely now than they were then. Stress - physical, economic, spiritual - seems to bring out the worst in people, and this is a time of national stress. I pray that you will read these words and heed the wisdom in them. It is a terrible witness of the body of Christ when Christians engage in this type of activity. It always gets out because people talk, so don't think it can be contained within the walls of the church building. The author gives some very sound advice on how to avoid the situation.
As my wife and I drove away from our church, we promised each other that we would never return. Although both of us were raised in the Church of the Nazarene we concluded that we couldn’t remain where we so strongly disagreed with the pastor. Several other lay families left at the same time. Soon, the pastor left too. The laity who remained behind were left with a small congregation, a large mortgage and the task of convincing another pastor to come be their spiritual leader. My wife and I found another Nazarene church, but after more than 30 years some of the others remain alienated from our denomination.
Unfortunately, this scene is repeated in other Nazarene churches many times every year. When unresolved conflicts exist between the pastor and members of the congregation, the lay members leave the church, the pastor moves or both. Long after the combatants are gone, the scars of battle remain. Many times the innocent bystanders are hurt the most. They are the ones left with the task of helping a wounded church survive. Nobody wins a church fight.
Church fights are avoidable. Over the past 30 years, I have been blessed to belong to stable, growing churches. I have attempted to identify what is different about these churches that never have church fights. This list of “do’s and don’ts” is a summary of my observations. Where pastors and laity act this way, there are no church fights.
Build a relationship of trust. When a pastor has a relationship of trust with the members of his or her congregation, small differences tend to be overlooked and the large ones are resolved more easily.
A relationship of trust is built by doing things together. Worshiping together is important, but simply being in public worship services together isn’t sufficient. Time and energy spent in Christian fellowship is essential. Praying and playing together has lasting benefits. Pastors who become personally involved in the lives of the congregation tend to enjoy enough goodwill to be given the benefit of the doubt when conflicts arise.
The same holds true for laity becoming involved in the life of the pastor. I once heard a layman say, “I don’t get close to my pastors because I know they will be moving in a year or two.” That kind of attitude causes the statement to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
1 Peter 1:22 describes the kind of relationship that should exist between a pastor and members of the church, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.”
People who truly love one another will have differences of opinion, but the relationship of trust helps them find their way past disagreements.
Seek consensus before making changes. Many church fights arise from changes. The Manual establishes the minimum legal requirements for making decisions in the church, but implementing changes with the support of a simple majority is rarely successful. Those who attempt to implement changes in a church without consensus invite conflict.
Consensus means a) that most people support the proposed change, b) those who don’t support the change feel that their views have been fairly considered and c) all are willing to accept the decision of the majority. Changes implemented when even a small minority are strongly opposed are often the cause of long-lasting conflicts.
Pastors and church leaders who learn to seek input from all of those interested in important decisions find that implementation of the changes is much easier. Churches where decisions are made in a secretive way by a small group of people are ripe for conflict.
Sincerely seek to understand others. There is a natural tendency for one to spend energy trying to convince others to understand his position. Throughout the educational process, students are taught to present ideas effectively; however, few have been trained to listen.
When it comes to avoiding or resolving conflicts, energy spent in understanding the views of others is often more productive than energy spent perfecting one’s own arguments. Churches where people sincerely seek to understand one another rarely have unresolved conflicts.
Take the initiative in resolving differences. In Matthew 5:23, Jesus said to take the initiative in resolving differences. He said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
Some have suggested that being the first one to actively seek resolution of a dispute is a sign of weakness. That idea has caused people to fight for years over issues that could have been easily resolved if either of them had been willing to make the first attempt to be reconciled.
Discuss differences face to face. Matt. 18:15, states, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you…” Most people completely ignore “just between the two of you.” It is an essential part of the scripture.
In this day of technology, there is often a temptation to call on the telephone, or send an email. Electronic communication is great for transferring information, but is ineffective when dealing with emotions. Being in the physical presence of another person is still the most effective way to communicate when there is conflict. Making the effort to visit with a person face to face demonstrates that you value them as a person and are sincere in wanting to reach agreement with them. There is no better way to resolve a dispute than to look another person in the eyes and say, “I am here because I want to hear what you have to say.”
Don’t involve others in your conflicts. In addition to the suggestion to meet face-to-face, the “just between the two of you.” language of Matthew 18:15 instructs not to involve additional people in your conflicts until you have made a reasonable effort to seek resolution. The wisdom of not involving additional people in disputes is obvious, but the temptation is strong to seek advice, request special prayer, or just share with a friend. Every time one discusses his or her conflict with another person, the conflict is escalated to another level. Each additional person who becomes aware of the conflict makes resolution more difficult.
Don’t spiritualize differences. There is often a temptation to assume that conflicts are due to the other person’s carnality. While a person may sin as a result of conflict, it is also true that saved and sanctified Christians can have emotion-filled differences of opinion. Assigning evil intent to those who have different opinions is inappropriate. Focus on the merits of the arguments and the importance of the relationship, not on the motives of those who differ with you. Only God knows a person’s heart.
Don’t take extreme positions. Because litigation has become so much a part of society, some people tend to take litigation-like extreme positions. In litigation it is typical for the parties to take extreme positions then bargain back and forth to reach a compromise somewhere between the extreme positions.
Because of the insincerity involved, the back and forth bargaining process doesn’t work well in resolving disputes in the church. Even when involved in a conflict, a Christian should express positions in a sincere and an honest way.
Don’t confuse positions with principles. Many people think they have “principles” while others have “positions.” Positions are subject to change, principles shouldn’t be. One should constantly reexamine his or her positions and change them when there is fresh insight. Compromising one’s position is often wise and appropriate. Those who compromise their principles have no integrity, but those who consider their positions to be beyond compromise are destined to live with conflict all of their lives.
Don’t flee. Several years ago, the Commission on the Call of the Pastor, took a survey of Nazarene pastors. A majority of pastors who answered the survey admitted that they had left at least one pastorate to avoid a conflict.
Fleeing puts distance between the combatants, but it does not resolve the conflict. One who flees without making a sincere attempt to apply the conflict resolution principles described in Matt. 15 leaves a trap of unresolved issues to faced by those who follow. Some Nazarene churches change pastors every year or two over the same unresolved issues. Some laymen move from church to church creating conflicts everywhere they go. When people flee, a church fight may be postponed, but it is rarely permanently avoided.
Churches that have a history of stability and growth are not the ones where people never have differences of opinion. Every church has conflicts. The stable, growing congregations are the ones where the pastor and laity have worked together to prevent their difference from becoming church fights. When conflicts in a church rise to the level of a church fight, no one wins.
Author – J. David McClung, attorney and chairman of Triton Marine Construction Corp., Gig Harbor, WA.