Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Conflict In The Church

One of the courses I took at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary was Dr. Daryl (Tony) Everett's Conflict In The Church.  It might have been better titled Conflict in the Congregation beause it was designed for fourth year Master of Divinity students getting ready for their first pastoral assignments.  Dr. Everett has assisted many congregations during difficult and stressful times and has gained significant wisdom from such experiences.

An important issue raised by the subject of church conflict is the question of authority, especially on theological issues.  It may be fine for members to vote on who may be interred in the church cemetery, how large a parking lot to build, or what color carpet to buy, but I have become uncomfortable with the idea of voting on moral and theological issues such as Biblical interpretation or concepts of God.  I don't believe there is any evidence that The Church founded by Our Lord was intended to be or ever functioned as a democracy until recently in the United States.  We are not a social club, a civic club, a neighborhood association, a co-op, a mutual aid society, or any other self-governed entity, nor are we supposed to be worshippers of our wonderful pastors.  We are "The Body of Christ" and subject, I suspect, to the authority established by Jesus in his founding of His Church.

So, with the caveat that important theological truths are not to be arrived at by any congregational negotiations or compromises, I think the principles and processes I learned in Dr. Everett's class are excellent for avoiding and, when necessary, resolving conflict over more secular issues important to the members.  Based on his favorable critique, I think I did a pretty good job of soaking up all he taught and organizing it and feeding it back to him in the paper below.  So, if you are a church member dealing with conflict in your local congregation, maybe you will find some food for thought in this May, 2003, paper.

Pastor-Led Process for Church Growth Following Conflict 
Based on 1 Corinthians 10:1 – 11:1 
Darryl K. Williams – May 5, 2003

Conflict in churches began with the disciples who walked with Jesus arguing over who would be first in the Kingdom of god and has been a constant throughout the centuries. In spite of such problems, the one holy catholic and apostolic church has survived and even prospered and has continued to grow and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ and thereby influence the entire world through its work and through the transformed lives of individual believers. Other world religions notwithstanding, no other organization or institution can point to such a history as that of the Christian Church.

That is the good news on a macro basis. The bad news is that, on a micro basis, individual congregations have suffered and stagnated and sometimes died as a result of conflict poorly managed. Even in the 21st Century, disagreement among church members about matters large and small is a given. We come from various religious, educational, and family backgrounds, and we have differing understandings and priorities about worship, music, Christian education, pastors, stewardship, mission, church architecture, and church management. To top it off, we are in bondage to sin, selfish and self-centered. Individuals have been hurt and have left the church, and pastors have suffered personal stress and failures and have had their careers terminated. Many such bad outcomes could have been prevented by scripturally based, Holy Spirit inspired, pastor led, conflict prevention, management, and resolution processes, tools and skills. It is the purpose of this paper to outline some of those processes, tools, and skills and to consider them in the light of an excerpt from St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians (NRSV).

The Literary Context of 1 Corinthians 10 and the Situation in Corinth
The Corinthian Church had its share of issues, disagreement, and conflict, and the members sent a letter to St. Paul, their founder and organizer, asking for help with some of their questions. We know this because, at the first of Chapter 7, Paul refers to them having written asking about relationships between men and women. Then at the beginning of Chapter 8, he first refers to the issue of concern in 1 Corinthians 10: whether to eat or to reject meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The discussion about the meat beginning with 8:1 and leading up to chapter 10 might be summarized as follows:

8:1-6: We all know there is no such thing as an idol. There is one God.

8:7-13: Well, not all of us. Some still are struggling with the idea of idols.

9:1-27: I, Paul, am free but still consider feelings of others in all that I do.

Then, in the first part of Chapter 10, Paul reminds the Corinthians about the Exodus as a cautionary example for them to follow. He finally gets to the bottom line in the latter part of Chapter 10, reminding them who they are, what they have in common, and how they should behave as a result.

The meat problem faced by the Corinthians was that there was plenty of meat in Corinth, but, unfortunately, there were also lots of idols and lots of idol worshippers. Most of the meat available for sale probably was from animals that had been sacrificed to idols. Some Christians were saying there was no reason not to eat such meat. After all, the idols are not anything at all so what difference does it make if someone in ignorance has sacrificed meat to them? Others were saying that eating such meat was a sin…that it was the same as idol worship. It is not difficult to imagine what kind of internal strife was caused by one group in the church accusing another of idol worship and in turn being characterized as superstitious or ignorant. From Paul’s response to the Corinthians in Chapter 10, key Biblical principles for conflict management, even in the 21st century, can be derived.

Scriptural Principle 1: Remember the Past (10:1-12)
The Jewish people of Jesus’ time already had a long history and apparently knew their history well. Bible scholars believe that, for Jewish people, brief references to incidents in their history called to mind the entire story which was the context of the incident. That is probably why such references are so common in the New Testament writings, both Gospels and epistles. The interesting thing in this passage is that Paul’s audience is primarily Gentile Corinthians. However, even for them, “scripture” would have been the Hebrew writings. So Paul’s words here apparently were powerful reminders, even to gentiles, of past mistakes and warnings about priorities for the present time. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, the Israelites had fallen into idol worship, had been guilty of sexual immorality, had “tested” the Lord (See Exodus 17 for an example), and had grumbled against the Lord and been destroyed by serpents (Numbers 21).

The message in this recounting of history seems to be that the Corinthians needed to remember that God is one God, that they were to avoid idolatry and sexual immorality, probably singled out because they were common practices in Corinth, and that they were to avoid testing the Lord and grumbling against Him.

Scriptural Principle 2: Remember Who and Whose We Are (10:13-23)
Then Paul switches from history to the present. He cautions the Corinthians against overconfidence (So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.)
What he is asking of the Corinthians may seem difficult given the community in which they live, but God will not test them beyond the ability He has given them to endure the testing. God is faithful, and they must be faithful also, fleeing from the worship of idols. He reminds them, using his “one body” metaphor (See Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12), that they are one in Christ, sharing in His body and blood. Because of that difference, and because of the strong symbolism of the sharing of food at the table, the Corinthian believers cannot participate with the idol worshippers in eating the meat that has been sacrificed. Paul distinguishes between such sharing of the “table of demons” and simply eating left over meat from such activities. Strictly speaking, just eating the left-over meat is of no real consequence. Sharing the “table of demons” is in direct conflict with sharing the “table of the Lord.”

Scriptural Principle 3: Remember Others (10:24-30)
Up to this point, Paul’s comments could be taken as directed to the congregation in its entirety. Now he shifts to intrapersonal relationships. For Paul, the final answer does not rest with strict definitions of legality. The believer in Christ must go a step further and put the advantage of others in the church ahead of his or her own advantage. Of course the believer who knows there is no significance to the worship of the false gods is free to buy the left over meat and take it home and fill his or her own belly with it without any guilt at all, unless, as a result, support or encouragement is offered to the worshipper of false gods or unless the church is weakened or some Christians discouraged. If those bad results occur, it would have been better not to have eaten the sacrificed meat.

Scriptural Principle 4: Remember Why We Are Here (10:31-11:1)
Finally, Paul reminds the Corinthians that they do not exist primarily to satisfy their own desires, to look out for themselves, and to seek their own advantages. They exist to glorify God. As was suggested in verse 23, their focus as believers should be not on whether particular practices are lawful but on whether or not they are beneficial and edifying. After all, the purpose of the church is that many might be drawn to Christ and be saved.

Conflict in the Church of the 21st Century
In the secular world, where many successful persons thrive on conflict, where selfishness is acceptable, at least to the point that persons are expected to look out for their own interests, and where efficiency is a key value, it is common for one person to say to another, “If you and I always agree, there is no need for both of us to be here.” In the Church, where we thrive on the Body and Blood of Christ, and where efficiency takes a back seat, we like to fantasize about pews packed with believers in total agreement on all the important issues and totally lost in love of God and each other and our neighbors. It’s not going to happen before the second coming of Christ, but that doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for working toward that end.

Disagreement in the closet may seem harmless, but brought into the open it leads to conflict, and conflict can lead to criticism, negative campaigning, bitterness, hurt feelings, and separation. There are cases in which friendly separation may be an appropriate result of conflict, but these other results are never good outcomes. The important thing is not to deal exclusively with bad outcomes on a crisis basis but rather to manage the disagreement and conflict proactively, using appropriate processes, to prevent the bad outcomes. A fundamental of good management practice in business and industry is that prevention of problems is better than inspection and detection. And, in the case of detection, corrective action is better than compensating action. That same principle applies to life in the church. What are the scriptural principles for conflict management that will most effectively lead to building up rather than destroying the Body of Christ and that seek to bring others into the Body of Christ? They are the same principles just identified in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, and they are just as applicable to the church today as they were in the 1st century.

As spiritual leader of a congregation, it is difficult for the pastor to escape responsibility for conflict management. The pastor who does not know his parishioners and their histories, does not know the history of the congregation, does not properly fulfill his or her own responsibilities and focus the congregation through “paying the rent,” or does not understand how to identify the need for and bring about transformation without disruption and discontent is a pastor likely to cause escalating conflict. How can a pastor apply these four scriptural principles in the 21st century to help a church grow spiritually following conflict on in the face of conflict?

Helping the Congregation Remember The Past
It has often been said that those who do not study the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them. Certainly the Church has a history, one that is littered with huge mistakes and the high prices that have been paid for those mistakes. Possibly the greatest price that has been paid is the splintering that has resulted in hundreds of groups around the world today calling themselves Christians but not communing together or agreeing on essentials of the Christian faith.

Any congregation, especially one that is decades old, also has a history, and the pastor must know and understand that history to be able to lead successfully. Because of its history, any church will have in place a system, consisting of invisible processes and sets of relationships, that determines which issues are raised and how things are done. The same is true for companies and other institutions, but the church is different and much more like a family because many persons come into the church as children and grow up in it. That results in a different mode of operation than for institutions which persons enter as adults. Because so many enter as children, early childhood emotions are easily carried over to influence the behaviors of adults decades later. Tradition also is particularly strong, especially in multi-generational churches, and strong feelings of parents and grand parents and great grand parents may surface from time to time in the words of current members without the current members being aware of the source.

The new pastor entering such a church must intentionally join the system over a period of time and earn the confidence of the congregation. That can best be done by leading the members to share with each other and the pastor their faith stories and the stories of the congregation. Through sharing and discussion of such stories, the pastor will get to know the people and the history and the systems in place, and the members will be able to reflect on their own pasts and better understand the sources of their current beliefs and practices. They may also be able to laugh about or repent for past mistakes that have been made and then use those mistakes as warnings for the future just as Paul suggested to the Corinthians. The pastor, as a new person on the scene, has the perfect rationale for leading such a sharing effort.

It might also be pointed out at this point that a Pastor who does not know and love and care for and enjoy talking to the members of the congregation will probably not be successful in entering the system. Just as the love of St. Paul for his churches and the people in them was evident, so must the love of the 21st century pastor for his or her flock be evident and freely expressed if he or she is to be able to successfully lead. There is an old saying: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That is particularly appropriate for a person in a caring job. Step one in letting the parishioners know how much their pastor cares is for the pastor to quickly learn all the names.

Helping the Congregation Remember Who and Whose They Are
All that story telling and sharing must happen within a context of the key things a pastor is called to do: Proclaiming the gospel, administering the sacraments, teaching the Bible, visiting the sick, and challenging the members to faithful worship and service. The focus of that ministry must be the same as the focal point of the 1 Corinthians pericope as outlined above:
…the church is one body sharing the Body and Blood of Christ (14-17)
     a. The cup of blessing is a sharing in the blood of Christ
     b. The bread we break is a sharing in the body of Christ
     c. Therefore, we who are many are one body

Such “paying the rent,” so to speak, keeps the congregation centered and focused on the essentials and helps avoid destructive controversy over issues that are not critical in view of those essentials. St. Paul seemed to never miss a chance to remind his churches who they were and to call them back to the center. He began this letter to the Corinthians with such a gentle reminder.

NRS 1 Corinthians 1:2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Helping the Congregation Remember Others (In the Church)
Within the congregation there are persons at all stages of spiritual development, with various interests and emphases, and with various skills and abilities and knowledge levels. It cannot be expected that all will react in the same way to issues that arise or that all will experience God’s presence in exactly the same way for any given worship style or practice. For example, those who experience God in Bach and Beethoven and those who thrill to I’ll Fly Away and When the Roll is Called Up Yonder may want to attend different worship services, but must refrain from criticizing each other and calling each other names.

Helping the Congregation Remember Why They Are Here
It is the responsibility of the pastor to remind the members that the congregation does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of others. That can be done through emphasis on the commandments to love God and neighbor and the command of Jesus to baptize and teach. A congregation focused on such ministry will be less likely to get bogged down in internal controversial issues of less importance.

An important part of helping the members of the congregation remember why they are in the church is for the pastor to keep a clear sense of priorities and to be objective. The answer to the question, “Why?” has to do with purpose and purpose has to do with plans and plans require broad support, careful formulation and diligent execution. A pastor who sees any criticism or question as a challenge, who routinely catastrophizes issues, or who is unable to follow through on projects will cause confusion and lack of direction and fire fighting among the congregation.

Summary of Practical Suggestions For Conflict Management, Now
(Most of the information in this section is from Class Notes from Dr. Tony Everett’s spring 2003 Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary Class, Conflict in the Church.)

There are some simple guidelines, including those practiced expertly by St. Paul and buried in the previous sections of this paper, which can be put into checklist form and used to avoid escalation of church conflicts beyond the healthy and helpful problem solving stage.

1. Get to know and love the congregation members, including their names, and make sure they know you know and love them.

2. Learn the history of the church and its members.

3. Learn how the church operates and join the existing system before trying to change it. Only by so doing will the new Pastor convert authority to real power.

4. Keep a focus on preaching, administration of sacraments, teaching, and visitation and, by so doing, make it clear to the members of the congregation who their pastor is and what their pastor believes in and stands for.

5. Don’t take positions on theologically non-critical issues. Instead, serve as a teacher and facilitator in order to help the church explore the various alternatives objectively and make a choice all the members can accept. To get people thinking, make observations and ask “magic” questions from the list at the end of this paper. Don’t make suggestions. Then, for such non-critical issues, be willing to accept the decision of the congregation.

6. Always help the congregation put issues in proper historical context, both for the congregation and for the church as a whole. Try to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

7. For any major issue, whether theologically significant or not, take the time to try to figure out who really cares about the outcome. Is it just a few key players with the rest of the congregation on the sidelines or taking sides? Or, are almost all members developing strong opinions?

8. Establish a process for exploration and resolution that is agreeable to all sides. The process must be judged as fair and open.

9. Be a calming influence on the congregation throughout the process of resolution. In the words of Dr. Everett, “Reduce the fear!”

10. Don’t set unrealistic time goals. Be willing to wander with the congregation in the wilderness believing that God will find you in due time.

11. Anytime a conflict has the potential to move beyond the problem solving stage, ask for expert or experienced help. Prevention is better than detection.

12. Remember that, over time, transformation of the congregation and its members and pastor from what they are to what they can be is the goal.

Dr. Everett's Magic Questions

1. Has anything like this ever happened before?

2. What did you do then?

3. Was there a peacemaker?

4. How long has this been going on?

5. Where does it hurt the most?

6. Who will be hurt if we face this issue head on?

7. What would you like to see happen?

8. What will it look like in 3 to 5 years if we do or don’t do this?

9. What has happened to cause this to come up now?

10. What will happen if we don’t do anything?

11. Have any norms for the congregation been transgressed?

12. Who, what, where, when, why?


Cosgrove, Charles and Hatfield, Dennis. Church Conflict: The Hidden Systems Behind the Fights. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Leas, Speed B. Discover Your Conflict Management Style. The Alban Institute, 1997.

Rediger, G. Lloyd. Clergy Killers. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

Richardson, Ronald W. Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1996.

Schrock-Shenk, Carolyn and Ressler, Lawrence. Making Peace With Conflict: Practical Skills for Conflict Transformation. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1999.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Rivers Move Me

Congaree River looking north from the Blossom Street Bridge, Columbia, SC.  We live at the east end of the Gervais Street Bridge seen in the distance.

Rivers have always had an emotional hold on me. Maybe it started when I was a kid in an old wooden boat on river shoals during the night with my granddaddy or uncle checking a trotline for catfish surrounded by the dark and the sounds of the river moving over rocks and rubbing against the boat. It’s enough to get a kid’s adrenalin flowing.

With their constant movement and varying depths and currents, rivers are like the passing of time and like life experiences. I can throw out an anchor and stay in one spot, but the river, or life, will still keep delivering new challenges from upstream. I can cut loose and just flow with the river and try to be prepared to deal with the surprises around each new bend. Or I can manage and navigate the river, adding speed in the slow spots and steering to the safer, or the most dangerous, passages through rapids, keeping the boat properly aligned. I can burn a lot of gas or calories moving upstream to enjoy the float back down later. Or I can just sit on the bank and watch everything go by though, even then, there is the danger of flood waters.

There is a cleansing aspect to rivers. They can become filthy with human or industrial waste, but, leave them alone for a time, and they clean themselves. Maybe that is why the preference in the early church was for baptism in “living” or moving waters and why Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.

A lot of stuff is readily visible on the surface of a river, but underneath are dark mysteries, things from the past and living creatures of various types and sizes. Do I stay on the bank or float enclosed in the safety of the boat, or do I take a swim or do some wading? I can spend my time speculating about such things as how long it will take for a single molecule of water passing by to come this way again. Or I can catch a catfish and have it for breakfast the next morning. The possibilities are limitless.

I live overlooking the Congaree River in Columbia, SC. I can put a boat in and go a few miles south and see the same view that Catawba Indians floating the river five hundred years ago would have seen, the only man-made items in sight being the boat I am sitting in and its contents. And right in the city, I can walk our dog by the river and listen to its calming gurgling whisper.

The incredible timelessness and infinity and variability of a good river are insignificant compared to the attributes of God, but, perhaps observing and experiencing rivers can give us a glimpse of The Creator.