“Relational conflict is what the Bible calls sin,” reads a discipling manual our consulting team came across at one church. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? But there’s a basic problem with this statement: It’s wrong. While sin does, of course, breed some conflicts, others grow out of nothing more sinister than differences in experience or personality or spiritual gifts.
Not all conflict is bad. Much tension is life-giving–inviting us to grow, learn, or develop intimacy. Churches and people that habitually run from conflict (and many do) don’t just miss out on these growth opportunities; they end up sick.
Chances are, you’ve witnessed firsthand some of the crippling consequences of conflict avoidance.
Making lowest-common-denominator decisions
As one church launched a comprehensive planning process, a member rose and addressed the consultant: “One thing you need to know about this church is that we are very careful to not offend anyone.”
Down this path lies paralysis. Doing nothing until everyone likes it gives the most negative people veto power. It insures that exciting innovations will be rare and practically guarantees that many of the most passionate people will leave. Why? Because by empowering those slowest to embrace change, you are disempowering your most creative leaders. Many will find another church that supports their creativity.
No church can keep everybody happy. Some will leave. But you can choose which group you lose–your most visionary leaders or those most fearful of change.
One Detroit pastor got this right. During a time of vision work that released great energy in the congregation, one member–a major giver–announced that if the church installed theater lighting in the sanctuary he would leave. The pastor’s response: “We’ll miss you, but we can’t hold back the church for one person.” That church was well on its way to getting unstuck.
Settling for shallow relationships
Conflict is essential to intimacy. Until people have gone through conflict together, the relationship is untested. Working through differences constructively forges deep bonds of trust.
In the life cycle of a small group, for example, the first stage of group life is the honeymoon. This is followed by a conflict stage through which most groups pass before reaching the third stage–community. If a group spends too long in the superficial honeymoon stage, a wise group leader will prod the group to surface conflict people have been avoiding so the group can move ahead on the path toward mature community.
In the same way, the strongest marriages are those where the partners have battled their way through some tough issues to achieve hard-won mutual trust. They know that more challenges will come, but that doesn’t scare them. They know they can work through them and be stronger for it because they’ve done it before.
- Have you see conflict avoidance in your church? In your own relationships?
- What negative consequences have you noticed?
- What could have been gained by working through these conflicts rather than avoiding them?
This post adapted with permission from The More-with-Less Church by Eddy Hall, Ray Bowman, and J. Skipp Machmer (Baker 2014).
ANNOUNCEMENT: On April 2 a new book by our own Dr. Mike Hare will be released: WHEN CHURCH CONFLICT HAPPENS. Mike leads Living Stones Associates’ Church Health Consulting Track. You can order the book here.