Handle it: Church and conflict

by the Rev. Phil Hirsch

“It’s not the problem; it’s how you handle it,” my mom always said.

Christians can have a healthy community even when we don’t agree. Christ caused a lot of conflict. At times, he challenged his closest followers and foes in ways that were very direct and confrontational. Christians need not be afraid of difficulties and disagreement, but we should commit to handling these situations well.

According to one study, 75% of congregations have experienced some level of conflict in the last five years, and 25% of congregations reported a serious conflict in that same time span. Some causes:

  • Changes in worship times
  • Differing visions of direction
  • Congregational shifts in age, ethnicity
  • Staffing issues
  • Money (such as capital campaigns and stewardship drives)

1503conflictWhen differences are addressed openly and with appreciation and respect, congregations can use the energy around conflict for constructive purposes. But at our worst, we take things personally and either ignore conflict or allow it to fester until it blows up loudly. Responses include leaving, withholding money, and departure of a church leader.

I know a church where the pastor was not a good match for the congregation. People didn’t like him, and many left. The interim pastor reported that most people who left did so NOT because they were upset with the pastor – but because they were appalled by the way people treated each other.

Scriptures remind us that others will know who we are by the way we treat each other. Here are seven ways to immunize our congregations from unhealthy responses to conflict.

1.    Expect there are going to be problems.

I used to prepare people in New Members classes by saying: “This is not a perfect place. If you find a perfect church, don’t join it because you will ruin it.” Prepare people for when things go bad.

2.    Set a high standard for good behavior.

Two men were overheard arguing in the hallway on Sunday morning by a church leader I know over the way a bathroom looked after an event. The leader stopped them, noted others were listening, and reminded them of their better, Christ-like selves, saying: “We don’t speak to each other that way here, gentlemen.”

3.    As much as possible, deal with conflict openly and honestly, assuming Christian community.

Christian unity is a given for us because of Christ, said Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Love one another enough to challenge them when there is bad behavior in a way that values the relationship. Say: “I value our relationship and this church, and [not BUT] so I have to tell you…”

4.    Preach and teach about the practical aspects of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Don’t expect Sunday School responses from adults. Forgiveness in real life takes time. It is often a process rather than a pronouncement. But forgiveness is letting go of a debt that someone owes you for a wrong that was done against you – think about the cross.

5.    Leaders set the pace and the example.

A leader should stay on top of what’s going on, being ready to talk publicly and use discretion. Remind yourself not to take things personally.

6.    Pray.

Pray for those who hurt you. Pray for wisdom to know what to say, how to say it, and when to keep quiet.

7.    Sometimes, you need external help.

Much like a couple sometimes needs a therapist when they get into cycles they can’t resolve, sometimes congregations need an impartial voice and perspective from someone who has the training and experience to guide them.

Let the Church be a classroom for how to resolve conflict in a better way than the rest of the world. We can learn how to handle conflict better.


EDITOR’S NOTE: These reflections were originally shared by Pr. Hirsch during “Saints & Sinners: Conflict in the Church,” an Adult Forum at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, Virginia.

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