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We were flying at 30,000 feet above mid-America when my seatmate asked, “So, what will you be doing when you reach your destination?”

I replied, “I will be teaching a seminar on conflict resolution and doing some mediation.”

“What kind of organizations do you work with?” he asked.

I replied, “Mostly churches and Christian organizations.”

I saw a look of curiosity come across his face, and he said, “I would think that churches, of all places, would have no need for your services.”

I said, “You don’t realize it, but you just revealed that you don’t attend church very often.”

Anyone who frequently attends a church knows that conflict regularly raises its ugly head in the church family. It goes all the way back to the New Testament times. Jesus’ own disciples fought over power and position; Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree about John Mark’s qualifications for ministry; and, when writing to the church in Corinth, Paul addressed numerous congregational issues. So, it shouldn’t surprise us that we need peacemaking within congregations today.

Jesus projected the reality of church life in His sermon on the mount when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). If we profess to be children of God, we are expected to be peacemakers. However, because we live in an imperfect world, there will always be conflict in the church, and the Lord needs His people to address it properly.

how we respond to conflict

Fortunately, Jesus gave specific instructions in Matthew 18:15–17 for how we should respond to conflict in the church. He said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church.”

In this passage, Jesus gave the principle of progressive involvement of others when addressing conflict. If we involve others in the issue prematurely, we make it more difficult to find a solution to the problem.

Resolving congregational conflict is challenging because there are often multiple issues, and there are almost always multiple personalities.

people fight, not congregations

Conflict always walks in individual members’ shoes, so you will experience little success until you have brought about personal reconciliation between those who are prominent in the fight.

Experience has shown me that while there are seemingly endless things for congregations to fight about, they can be divided into two basic categories: personal issues and organizational issues.

Personal issues. Issues between individuals should be resolved between the parties involved. Unfortunately, in their need for consolation and support, too often, members will share their issues, and as parties share, sides are taken, and what started out as a personal issue can quickly become a congregational issue. Nevertheless, any attempt at peacemaking needs to begin with the individuals at the heart of the conflict. When they are reconciled, they have the privilege—and the Christian responsibility—to foster unity by sharing with the congregation that they have reconciled and asking their fellow members to cease discussing the issue.

Congregational issues. Addressing congregational issues is similar to fighting with an octopus: you have to decide which arm to grab—that is, which issue to address. Professional mediators know that there is often a difference between the presenting issue and the real issue.

I was called to assist a congregation that was in the final stages of a building project. The building committee was deciding on the finishing touches, but the decisions were made more difficult by the fact that the building fund was nearly depleted.

Prior to the meeting, the treasurer had been approached by a businessman from the community who wished to donate sufficient carpet for the entire project. So, when the subject came up, he joyfully gave the news that the floor covering was resolved with a generous gift of carpet from an anonymous donor. Most of the committee members seemed overjoyed by the news—except “Mr. and Mrs. Church,” who were the patriarch and matriarch founders of the congregation. They wanted tile floors! After several hours of haggling, the committee voted to spend thousands of dollars on tile rather than accept the free gift of carpet.

After the vote, the treasurer angrily slammed his fist on the table, glared at “Mr. and Mrs. Church,” and said, “There’s nothing wrong with this church that my Colt forty-five and a couple of bullets couldn’t take care of!” While it’s true that the Colt .45 was known throughout the old West as the Peacemaker, it certainly is not now, and certainly not within the church!

When I heard this story, including the not-so-veiled threat, I knew that the floor covering was not the issue, because rational people don’t resort to such solutions for that kind of problem. There had to be a deeper issue that needed to be addressed. Time and hours of discussion revealed that the real issue that had upset the treasurer was that “Mr. and Mrs. Church” had been accustomed to getting their way for many years, and the members were afraid to vote against them. It was a classic case of undue power, which is the most difficult issue to resolve in a church. We’ll take a closer look at that later.

When addressing congregational conflicts, there are several issues to consider. The first is to try to reconcile the leaders who have personal differences before attempting to resolve the congregational issues. For example, if leaders have been involved in un-Christlike remarks and behavior, the peacemaker needs to visit with them, help them to recognize their sin, and lead them to the place that they are willing to apologize and confess to the other party. It’s critical that this be done in private conversations. Experience has taught me that it’s rare for a member to acknowledge such behavior and apologize in a group if he hasn’t already done so in private.

We need to follow the steps laid out in the bylaws and procedures of the congregation. I had invited the leader of an internationally known peacemaking ministry to make a presentation to a group of pastors of my Seventh-day Adventist denomination. In preparing for his presentation, he read our Church Manual, which delineates the operating guidelines for our churches. Just prior to his presentation, he complimented the excellent manual our denomination has developed and then asked, “Do the pastors follow it?” I suggested that he ask the pastors that question.

Not only did he ask the question, but he also gave a short speech about why they should be careful to follow the Church Manual.

Occasionally a congregation will choose to leave their denomination and organize an independent church because they want to be free from the boundaries and guidelines of their denomination. Sometimes, that same congregation will become embroiled in conflict because they have not adopted sufficient guidelines when establishing their own church. A congregation can avoid many conflicts by being wise in formulating their bylaws.

Nothing can bring on allegations of power and control quicker than leaders who step outside the boundaries and bylaws of their organization. Because of the nature of congregational issues, a different approach is needed to bring lasting resolution. The following steps will be helpful:

set up a focus group

  • Reconciliation of congregational issues is nearly impossible if the leaders are still embroiled in personal conflict. Therefore, do your best to establish personal peace among the leaders involved in the issues at hand.
  • Ask the governing body of the church to form a focus group to search for solutions to the issues. The task of the focus group is to develop recommendations for the governing body to consider.
  • It’s important to have the primary parties involved in the fight in the focus group. It’s also important to involve several members who are neutral to the issues and who are perceived by the congregation as having the gift of wisdom.
  • The makeup of the focus group should be one-third party A, one-third party B, and one-third neutral members.
  • By adopting a rule of needing a supermajority to pass a recommendation, neither party can outvote the others. They have to reach a consensus in order to pass a recommendation to the governing body.

strive for unity, not uniformity

The subject of unity is commonly misunderstood. Some people think that if others do not agree with them on an issue, the congregation is not in unity. But that would not be unity; it would be uniformity.

In one of his most common passages on unity, Paul compared the church with the human body and the concept that different parts are necessary for the body to function. The differing members of the congregation are what make the congregation strong. They keep the congregation in balance. The task facing the church is not to bring everyone into the same position but to learn how to work in harmony by including the strengths brought to the group by a variety of its members.

The exception to this is in addressing moral and theological issues. Every church must have their core beliefs because those core beliefs give them their identity. They serve as an appropriate boundary to protect the identity of the church. Therefore, conformity to the core beliefs and practices is necessary for the preservation of the congregation.

If a member finds that he or she no longer believes what the church teaches, they have the freedom to go elsewhere, but Christian unity does not give them the freedom to fight against the basic beliefs of the church.

we may need to get help

One of the key principles in peacemaking is that the mediator must be neutral and extend Christian love and understanding to all the parties involved. And it’s critical that the mediator be perceived as neutral by the parties. Therefore, it’s possible that only someone from outside the congregation can serve effectivel­y. It’s a humbling experience for a congregation to ask for help, but that may be just what’s necessary in order for them to understand where the needed change lies. A search for help should include leaders of the denomination, or, in the case of an independent church, a search on the internet should provide ministries that are available to work with them.

The work of a peacemaker with a congregation can be very discouraging, because members have the right to exercise their freedom of choice, and it’s possible that no amount of peacemaking will change their minds. When I get discouraged because I don’t see results in my peacekeeping efforts, I keep in mind that a major conflict was addressed by the three best Mediators possible, and there was no peace. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit endeavored long and hard to reconcile with Lucifer and his angels, but They failed. So, we should not be surprised if our best efforts sometimes fail to resolve a particular conflict.

Our task is to be true to the peacemaking principles found in the Bible. We must prayerfully try to practice them and leave the results with God.

We can take comfort in the fact the church belongs to God, and we must trust Him for the future. Romans 8:28 gives us that comfort: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God has the ability to cause very bad situations to eventually turn around in ways that serve His purpose. Our job is to trust Him.

Charles Brown is the founder of Christian Reconciliation Services, which he has operated since 1999. He does personal, congregational, and business mediation. He also served as a Seventh-day Adventist pastor for 20 years. He lives with his wife, Marjorie, in Canby, Oregon.

How to Deal With Church Conflict

by Charles Brown
From the February 2021 Signs