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William D. Bontrager, J.D.

1710 C.R. 121, Hesperus, CO. 81326




Just as individuals get into conflicts with one another, so groups of people divide into sub-groups and enter into conflict. This even happens in ministries and churches!

I want to consider some roles of the leaders of organizations relative to conflict within the church or Christian ministry. "Leaders" includes pastors, Chief Executive Officers, Deacons, Elders, Trustees, Members of Boards of Directors, etc. Before doing so, you may want to read Looking at Organizational Conflict and The Path To Reconciliation for some background on institutional conflict and conflict in general.

The first role of leadership is to teach the people the ways of God for dealing with conflict -- Matt. 5:22-26; 18:12-35 -- and the reasons for those ways; otherwise "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."

Second, leadership must listen less and confront more. People walk by and drop morsels into ears of leadership -- but the Bible declares this to be "gossip". Gossip is an act done outside of, and contrary to, God's way of conflict resolution. Gossip needs to be immediately, lovingly, rebuked, followed by instruction on the Lord's processes for dealing with them matter spoken about.

Third, when leaders hear one of these morsels they need to bring about confrontation between the speaker and the one spoken about. Leaders should not investigate -- talking to others in an effort to confirm what is or is not truth. Investigation adds fuel to the fire, puts logs in the eyes of the one being investigated, and logs in the eyes of the investigators. Confrontation -- people face-to-face -- is needed. See Dealing With Gossip and WHAT IS/IS NOT, GODLY INVESTIGATION.

Fourth, when leaders see others in conflict, they need to bring the two together long enough to assist in the process of finding whom God wants to serve as witnesses in the matter -- Mt. 18:16. The leaders should not listen to the offense at this stage, for they will be perceived as judges, and not interested friends. Nor should leaders attempt to order the parties to submit to arbitration unless the Matt. 18:16 stage has already taken place and the issues involve something of commercial nature .

When leaders approach those in conflict, to explain what to do, what is said to them about the process is critical. Do not say: "We will assist you in resolving this conflict," or, "We can mediate this conflict". They will hear "negotiate and compromise". They will believe they have done no wrong, and they will refuse to sit down with the other person to discuss the matter. Leaders merely command that the parties come before "witnesses" (Matt. 18:16).

Fifth, there are times that leaders warn the congregation of divisive, factious people. This assumes that the Matt. 18:15-20 process has been used and this person refuses to quiet down and submit to leadership. I do not believe that it is necessary to evict such a person; just declare him to the congregation and tell them not to hear the gripes and complaints of this one. This allows them to still eat, fish, and otherwise fellowship.

Sixth, leaders can develop a strong prophet streak within them -- boldly proclaiming the Word of God to people who are in conflict.

Seventh, they can begin to gather information from the members about themselves -- motivations, gifts, talents, and life experiences (the valleys of the shadow of death through which they walked, which they can now look back into and see Christ was with them, and into which they can walk to be Christ to another in the valley at this time) so that they can pick good witnesses to use in future conflict settings.

Eighth, they can develop a process whereby people in the church in conflict -- regardless of the nature of the conflict, and regardless of who their adversary is -- can come and receive wise counsel and practical help.

Ninth, they can rethink "confidentiality". Confidentiality must never stand in the way of confronting sin in the Matt. 18 process. Nor can it stand in the way of reporting crime to law enforcement under Rom. 13:1-7 if biblical confrontation produces no fruit. Nor can it stand in the way of sending forth helpers to those who are in need (Matt. 10). [See Confusion in Counseling]

Tenth, they can demonstrate that God's way is the right way by how they deal with their own conflicts and with conflicts which come to them. One classic place to do this is in Board or committee meetings. These meetings begin with the matter of how to do the work at issue. But soon they become personality centered. At that point, someone needs to call a time out, point out that issues are taking a back seat to personalities, and seek to re-focus the meeting. This may take place more than once during any given meeting.

Then, someone must take the initiative to see that everyone, even the silent ones, have a chance to speak. As people begin to re-state the same point for the third time, someone needs to call time out, review the main points offered, check that all have been heard, and ask if anyone has anything new to offer. In other words, seek a closure to the discussion.

Once discussion is closed, there needs to be discussion on whether this is a matter in which unity is important or not. What color to paint the nursery is not something which needs unity -- so vote. Those who lose must learn how to defer in love to those who win. If it is a matter where unity is considered important, try to first determine: (1) do we have to decide today, and, (2) might Scripture offer some insights. If quick decision is not needed, and/or the Scriptures might offer insight, then table this issue until the next meeting, with all to come armed with what they can find in searching the Scriptures. If it is felt that speed is important, then put it to a secret vote, announce the results, and then take a break, asking those in the minority to individually determine if they are able to defer in love to the majority. Come back and vote again -- if one or more still hold out, table the matter to the next meeting. The need for speed should give way to a desire for a unity of Spirit.

Finally, someone needs to end each meeting by checking with everyone that each can hug the other and go fishing with the other tomorrow. If that is missing, everybody gets on the floor on their knees, facing away from one another, and prayer begins -- it is very hard to throw stones from that position!

Eleventh, leaders can schedule periodic talk sessions for the congregation. Yes, these can become gripe sessions, and highly divisive, unless certain precautions are taken in advance, and certain things are understood by all. Pre-planning primarily is the selection of a person to preside over the meeting and to do those things which I just outlined for a Board meeting. Three items bear mentioning:

(1) What needs to be understood by all is that these meetings are not for the purpose of voting on something, nor are they really for massive discussion.

(2) When someone says "there is this need in the church", what they are most often saying is "I once had this need, found it met through Christ and the Body, and want to see others receive that same benefit". Their statement can become the impetus for a new unleashed ministry within the church, led by them!

(3) If a matter is raised which Scripture speaks to, then the matter might be tabled for a period during which a Bible study for those interested in the topic will be held. Then the matter will again come up at one of these talk sessions. Leaders should avoid making "legal rulings" (sermon messages) until people have searched Scripture for themselves, and thrashed out feelings in small groups.

Twelfth, leaders need to get a firm grip on the sovereignty of God, and truly see God as their provider, not the people and their offerings. If this does not happen, leaders will not fully lead, for they will fail to speak candidly and forcibly in fear of loss of salary.

Thirteenth, leaders will, where the right approach has totally failed, sometimes be required to exercise loving discipline (I Cor. 5), while having a process of keeping periodic contact with the one disciplined, still offering love, lest they perish (II Cor. 2:6-8).

And. lastly, there will even be times when the leader will have to leave -- lay down his life for the sheep. Our Lord, our Leader, did that. I have seen many Christians defeated by their conflicts, but I have also seen that when leaders lead, the people will volunteer (Judges 5:2).