Struggling with conflict? Let the church help


OK, the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek. I’m not being cynical, but am pointing to the deep irony and failure of a Christian community called to reconciliation by the grace of God at the same time being a place of division, conflict, unforgiveness and hardness of heart.

A friend of mine, Joe Campbell, last year researched and delivered a report to the General Board of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland related to conflict. It’s a public document which can be found here if you dig a bit (p.37 on).  In it Joe talks of the need for honesty and transparency around conflict, so it seems appropriate to talk about it here.

It’s a hard-hitting self-appraisal. Christians need to admit that conflict is endemic within church life and that it is nearly always handled poorly. Too many people I know have been hurt by the fall-out of conflict in church life to ignore the reality.

Some points that stand out to me:

1.Causes of conflict

60 cases of conflict were reviewed that had been referred to a formal conciliation process. (Far more conflict situations are handled locally and others end up in the formal judicial courts of the church). There were a variety of factors that had caused conflict in the 60 cases:

–   35 cases reflected tensions between a minister and some elders. All of these cases had been going on for a long time

– some involved conflict over church property decisions

– some involved mental health issues

– some involved individuals or families within a church congregation

NOT ONE involved points of theology. ALL of them revolved around breakdown in vital relationships

 2. Insights gained from Mediators

Joe talked with those involved in conciliation. Some points highlighted included:

Conflict seems to bring out the worst in the best of people. There is an enormous human cost to badly handled conflicts within Congregations. Spouses and children feel and see the effects’

“Mediators uncovered an attitude within our Church of confrontation, an unforgiving spirit and at times a deep desire among disputants to have their case heard by Commission of Presbytery or Judicial Commission. It seems we are a people more comfortable with rules than relationships.

3. Insights gained from interviewees

He also talked with people in churches. Again some comments that stand out to me:

– Treating conflict in a formal way early on was a typical response via rules and regulations

– None of those interviewed reported on any healthy supportive pastoral support for Ministers or Elders during tense times.

– The church’s systems for handling conflict “seem hidden to most members, overly bureaucratic, involving carefully written submissions even at an early stage of a process, and takes a long time. Several who have experienced commissions spoke of how they are just not user friendly, law based not relational.”

And the strongest finding I think was this one:

 “It seems clear from everyone I spoke to that conflict is viewed as  wrong, even sinful. It is kept hidden, sometimes ignored, spoken of in hushed tones, and too often leaves people feeling helpless, sometimes angry. Some try to spiritualise conflict seeing it as an attack from the forces of evil. A situation where victory must be experienced at all costs since God is on “my” side. We need somehow to see conflict as normal, since God in His great wisdom has made us all different. How we handle it will make it a bad and negative experience or a good and positive one. The establishment of a good and functioning service to help us handle conflict well, should be seen as a sign of health in our Church, rather than the dominant view as sickness. There were no positive experiences spoken, of conflict being handled well, producing change, new growth, more real relationships, and a greater awareness of God’s love and grace.

No positive experiences of conflict – at all – in a national denomination that exists to follow Jesus who happens to have rather a lot to say about love, giving up of rights and forgiveness.

Joe concludes with what is probably an understatement:

It seems clear that we as a Church need to recapture the attitude and skills obvious in several Biblical models of talking, listening, searching for solutions, praying together, and above all loving, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

The report then makes many practical and wise recommendations in light of its serious findings which I hope are ‘owned’ and acted upon with intent.

Some personal comments and questions for discussion if you would like to join in:

– The report is in a context of a historic denomination that has accumulated lots of rules and bureaucracy over centuries. The comments about rules before relationships is fascinating and makes me wonder about the impact of Protestantism’s dominant judicial and abstract understanding of the atonement – but  better leave that for another day.

– Its findings are not surprising – but that in itself is scant comfort. They are shocking – or should be. Christians above all, should be best equipped to handle conflict in a transformative way – yet the complete opposite often appears to be the case. (But it should be said here that untold numbers of acts of grace and forgiveness that lead to healing are by definition ‘invisible’ – we only see the visible damage caused by relational breakdown).

– What do you think lies behind this evident failure to match faith with practice?: to fail to apply and live out the gospel of reconciliation in our relationships?

What are your reflections on church conflict and how it is dealt with?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “Struggling with conflict? Let the church help

  1. Thanks a lot for this post. Isn’t that really the one of the core purpose of the church? It’s easy to be strong and support each other in faith if everything is smooth. If live is not runnig so smooth right now, it’s not that easy at all. Being in trouble because of conflicts in the church is a very ironic augmentation of that.

    I often think of that issue in connection of Jesus’ parable about the three groups of seeds (on hart ground, twined in between weed and growing). Where do these people fit? But that’s maybe something for another post or a different discussion.

    My observation is that in general we have poor problem solving skills. Often we wait too long before we start to solve a problem or start too early. Either we are afraid to cause trouble or afraid of trouble arising in the future. Too often we don’t distinguish between criticizing actions vs people. I see that outside church a lot. Loving our neighbor, forgiving other peoples transgressions and being self reflective is certainly not part of our every day lives. Maybe we offer these courtesies towards family and friends but not strangers.

    The fact that this problem is present also outside church is not an excuse for the church! I think quite the opposite. Why do churches not offer help to earn problem solving skills? Given that conflict is part of everybody’s live anyway, wouldn’t that be a good service to the public?

    There is another issue: It’s much easier to learn and to discuss problem and conflict solving skills when you don’t need them at that very moment. Once people are in any sort of conflict, their ability to listen to others and change their behavior might reduce.

    So, after all that waffling around, I guess my final statement is: the church should seek not only to solve conflicts the way Jesus has taught us but also should look after helping people to learn these skills before there is even trouble. Sadly, I haven’t seen that at all yet.

  2. Hi Steffi. good ‘waffling around’! As you say, all areas of life have conflict. The world of work for many can be a hard place of power games and politics – lots of people I have talked to recently seem to be having that experience.

    if the report shows one thing, it is the human brokenness we all live with and we should not be surprised when conflict happens. It’s a question of how we handle it. The depressing thing about the report is how badly it is done in the PCI – and how institutional and legal the bureaucracy is.

    I believe that the gospel is powerful. And therefore is it not just idealism that a Christian community should be counter-cultural in how it handles conflict, not least since it is to be a place of grace, love and forgiveness. Certainly a church needs to get its ‘own house in order’ if it is to be able with integrity help others outside.

  3. My own reading of PCI history has come across some curious things at the formation of our first proto-presbyteries.
    Two things are germane.
    Firstly the theological disputes in the Scotland- from where all of our ministers came from, were causing a lot of division. The synod did not think that ulster was big enough to sustain itself should similar divisions happen. Secondly ulster was in deep strife, though the church had been given the freedom to be Presbyterian (we are talking about the time after Cromwell and before the return of the King) the countryside was still recovering from the uprising in 1641, the civil war in England and Ireland, and Cromwell’s conquest. BOTH of these things together meant that both the ministers meetings (proto-presbyteries) and the synod rather self-consciously conducted their meetings with a very high degree of formality *so as to help shape and assert its identity and stabilize that identity as much as possible* . Meetings rigorously excluded the impressionistic. Those last two sentences are paraphrases from a book on our early church history i’ve been reading called ” the minutes of the Antrim ministers meeting 1654-8.” Alls that to say : I wonder if our genesis has passed on an assumed code of conduct -which stayed away from a more humane and interactive way of doing official business that was helpful once… a long long time ago and is need of change ?

    • fascinating Richie – sounds like a bit of light bedtime reading! I’m sure you are on to something significant. The level of conflict in subsequent centuries around Arianism, ‘Old Light’ and ‘New Light’, subscription to the Westminster Confession etc must also have left its mark on structures. Is the irony that a long-established Reformed church becomes harder and harder to reform the more it becomes emeshed in law, policy, codes and precedent etc that, while designed to give stability in structure and doctrine can stifle and confine and marginalise real people.

      To loosely apply Paul, the law kills but the Spirit gives life … It seems to me that the Spirit works and transforms people primarily in and through relationships within the body of Christ. Therefore, relationships are not marginal or secondary. Reform of structures should recognise this … and put bureaucracy and law in its proper place.

      Best wishes for a joyful Easter

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