A Theology and Framework for Conflict within Church Community



With such a heady title, you'd think I was going to attempt to write a dissertation. I am not. But, I think this is an appropriate title as I think through the development (or lack thereof) of my framework for conflict. In this article, I hope to highlight God's faithfulness and the path of maturation that He's lovingly called me to walk as well as inspire others to re-align their view or perspective of conflict, specfically within church communities. 


I usually tell people that my first encounter with the 'dark side of (pastoral) leadership' came when I was in college. It involved dealing with depression, navigating discord and trying to lead in a group that was splintering on more than one fault line, if you will. But as I think back to my time with my therapist (to which I'm thankful to God for, and consider a grace), it goes back to being a child and watching the pastor of my church get voted out (in a surprise turn of events) at what was supposed to be a mundane membership meeting. On a sad note, he actually moved out of his office that very day - and my parents consoled him while he packed his possessions in the back of his run-down car.

I share part of my story, because I think that aspects of it (those shared above, and many more) had shaped my theology of conflict more than I knew or would ever let on. 

In fact, it wasn't until years later that I discovered (in Scripture, and in experience) that tension and conflict - when done in a healthy manner, cane leave everyone better and cause personal growth and even, God to receive additional glory. 


Now, having been in full-time ministry for eight years, six of which are in the same location/community and organization, I don't feel like an expert but instead, like someone transitioning out of 'rookie' status. 

And I've both experienced and been in relationship with those that have experienced conflict, that managed it (and viewed it) in a vastly different way than I did. 

They struggled and it caused pain, yes. But they didn't view it (or the people bringing it about) as the enemy. But instead, as instrument of growth. 

It was a mentor that told me that conflict, like money, is ammoral. It's what you do with it that counts. 

Now, as someone leading and living with an anxiety disorder, I find this very hard to live out 24/7  but true, nonetheless. 

As I recently took a course in Conflict Management, and had several intentional conversations with older pastors (who'd been serving their local churches for at least two decades), I've come to realize a fact that I still categorize as scary. I'll never be smart enough or a clear enough communicator to 'work' my way out of conflict or disagreement. I've tried to, but I can't. And when I've played the appeasement game, the results are often disastrous (either internally or externally or both). 


I think that one way this course helped me, is that it forced me to look at the reality of the landscape in our country and how people's (changing) attitude towards pastors/clergy impacts the tone and relationship between conflict and authority. Additionally, the statistics provided and various studies shared, gave me a logical understanding as to what obstacles and opportunities lie ahead, as well as a third-person perspective on the role that conflict can play, in a positive way, if we allow it. And that we do that, though both strategic means and spiritual practices, of prayer and unity. 

Much of the material and sociological content, forced me to re-evaluate my own view of conflict and the role that my family of origin (FOO), culture and past experiences play in terms of shaping it. Additionally, it gave me a heart and lens by which to view people that are 'causing' conflict, in a Kingdom-way. 

In short, I've come to realize that conflict isn't sin and it isn't always unhealthy, that God will use it to grow people, that it's natural and that I may always be, in my flesh, opposed to it in all forms. And that, if I trust God, His purposes and intents will be made know. In doing so, then, it is not my role to change people's behavior, but to model (even, and especially, when they aren't listening to me). 


Briefly, here's what I wish someone had told me as a child, or in college, as I experienced the 'other side' of leading people: 

  • You are responsible to people but not for people. 
  • Not everyone will 'be on board' 100% of the time, that's expected. 
  • Don't fear conflict, but find people that 'do it well'. 
  • Never lead so that you don't get hurt, but also, don't lead in a way that your identity is wrapped up in people's relationship to you. 
  • Know yourself, and have a vision for people beyond one misunderstanding or agreement. 
  • Realize, as the course said, we are open and prone to criticizing because it's literally our job as pastors to help immature people become maturing followers of Jesus. 

Looking back, the course itself brought up experiences, anxiety and fear. But I don't have to live with that spirit as the leader. Why? 

2 Timothy 1:7 (KJV)
For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

I may never run towards conflict, but my prayer is that I can be so close to God (and have such a heart for His church, like Paul), that I'd willingly engage in it for the sake of others and for God's glory.