Patrick Lencioni notes, “Organizational health trumps everything.” 

Healthy churches do conflict well.

The number two factor as to whether or not a church is healthy and growing is how they handle conflict (in case you are wondering, being a praying church is number 1).

Luckily, Jesus gave us specific instructions for dealing with conflict, hurt, and even sin in the church. Often, especially as Americans, we like lists and instructions, so we are fortunate to have this rare instance where Jesus gives us specific steps. Unfortunately, churches mostly ignore these instructions, and they pay the price. Conflict not handled in a biblical way is a major reason for the decline of churches and our failure to reach a whole generation.

Conflict not done well is one of three common diseases in the church and is like the flu. If you have ever had the flu, you know it is not fun. When the flu hits, everything else stops. You feel utter helplessness as you have no control over your body. Unresolved conflict as well as conflict handled in an unbiblical way is the flu of the church. The good news is that most often it is preventable by its own flu shot, Matthew 18. Jesus gives us specific instructions on how to deal with conflict, and in dealing with it in the way that Jesus has instructed, we are able to avoid the additional suffering that comes with this virus of the church. Every church should have a conflict covenant based on Matthew 18 and that conflict covenant is more important than the church constitution or any policy or procedure the church might have.

So what does doing conflict well look like? 

It is simple. All we have to do is look to Matthew 18:15-20. It includes four steps:

  1. Go to the person directly
  • Talk to the person, not about the person.
    • Talking about people instead of to them is gossip. Gossip is a sin. It is cancer to the church, or as one pastor says, gossip stunts growth.
  • If it’s a personal offense or hurt, it’s obvious whom to talk to. If it’s the way something is done in the church, it’s not always obvious, but in most cases it is the pastor. Rarely does it or should it start with the board/council/elders. In some cases it might be another staff member or lay leader.

If that does not resolve it….

  1. Bring in a third person.
  • This should be a neutral party who is focused on restoring relationship, not on deciding who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong.’
  • They often act as a translator or buffer.
  • In a church, this could be a pastor (unless it involves a pastor) or someone from the board/elders/council if it does involve the pastor.
  • It is actually good to set up a team that does this and to utilize someone from this team. In addition to helping resolve conflict, the team can also help encourage and support the staff and their families.

If that does not resolve it….

  1. Get a group involved.
  • In churches, it is best to have a team that does this and to not have staff or elders/council/board members participate.
  • The job of the team is to bring resolution and restore relationship, not to act as judge or jury.

If that does not resolve it….

  1. Take it to the church.
  • Bring the issue to the larger body for resolution. Understand that this is messy and is the last resort. It is almost unheard of for someone to get to this step.

If that does not resolve it….

  1. Help someone transition out of the relationship.
  • This means helping someone find a new church home in the case of churches. Again, it is almost unheard of for a church or person to get to this point if all the other steps have been followed.

In helping and seeing churches do this, I have only once seen it go to step 3 and never beyond.

Conflict matters and Jesus gave us the model. Conflict, while hard is not bad. Often God uses it to bring restoration and healing. God also uses it to make all of us and the church better.

Rev. Dr. Marcus J. Carlson, Executive Director


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