Curing a Church Conflict Before It Starts

“Whew! Glad that’s over with!”

I’d just come out of a situation that had threatened to undo all the good we’d accomplished in five years of pastoral ministry in that church. At no time had I feared for my job, and I had not seriously anticipated anyone leaving the church. But still, the existence of division within the membership was a matter of great concern. It boded ill for new ministries we planned to do in the near future.

Something about conflict sucks all the air out of the room. It stifles creativity, dampens the joy, weakens the enthusiasm of your best workers, and absorbs all the energies of leaders trying to deal with it. Like the Arizona forest fires, once these infernos build up their own momentum, nothing seems to quench them. So, once you see the smoke rising, you rush to the conflagration and try to put it out before it spreads.

Now it was out. The problem was resolved.

The storm clouds had dissolved, the sun was out, the birds were singing. And the preacher–me–would live to serve another day.

No healthy-minded spiritual leader loves conflict. However, no God-called pastor with an ounce of faith runs from one, either.

The best way to deal with conflict is to head it off before it starts. And the best way to do that is to fortify your people in peaceful times on how to recognize a conflict-in-the-making and neutralize it.

Train them right and you’ll prevent most battles before they get a chance to take root.

Here is my blueprint for preparing your people to stop conflict in its tracks.


Bear in mind, pastor, that this is not a one-time sermon to be preached. It’s not a letter to be sent to your workers and checked off. This is not a single lesson to be taught or a conversation to be held and forgotten. This is an ongoing program for nurturing peace and harmony, courage and health, within a congregation.

1. The goal is church health.

I keep coming back to something Rick Warren teaches in his book, “The Purpose-Driven Church:” The key issue for the church of the 21st century will not be church growth, but church health. A healthy church will grow in a healthy way and will not depend on gimmicks.

So, what does a healthy church look like?

In Christian bookstores, I pick up those volumes that purport to answer this question and tell us how to achieve it. Most are too cumbersome, too fuzzy, for my taste. It’s a far simpler concept than many would have us believe. (Note: I’m under the strong impression that publishers sometimes tell authors, “Okay, you’ve got a nice 20 page pamphlet here and it answers the questions. However, we need 200 pages from you. So pad it!”)

Think of a healthy church as a well-functioning human body. All parts are fulfilling their assigned roles, they work in harmony with one another, and neither is competing with the other. If infection attacks, all parts of the body go into action. The body takes orders from the head. The members of the body appreciate each other. If you get a toothache or ingrown toenail, the rest of the body will stay awake all night commiserating with the hurting portion.

Every pastor loves Romans 12. Commentaries do all kinds of things with it. However, for my money, that chapter is nothing more than a good description of a well-functioning healthy church. Verses 1-2 (“present your bodies”) call for a continuing commitment of each person to the Lord Jesus. Verses 3-8 pictures each one using their spiritual gifts as Christ enables and directs. Verse 9 to the end of the chapter shows how that works out in relationships.

A pastor will want to preach this, teach this, and constantly hold it before the membership as God’s blueprint for a healthy-functioning congregation.

2. A healthy church practices submission.

At a church near a military base, I asked members serving in the Navy why they saluted officers. “Because they are better than you? Stronger? Smarter? Handsomer? Richer?” They laughed.

Two answers were given. 1) “It’s the system. If you were allowed to pick and choose which officers you respected and obeyed, the military system would break down and you would not be adequately prepared when the time came to face your enemy.”

2) “It’s for the higher good. Everything in the Navy works better when the chain of command is in play.”

My working definition of submission in the church is simple: “Give in to the other fellow.” You and he disagree on a matter. It threatens to grow into a larger issue. But you give in. “Let’s do it your way.” And that ends the matter.

Inside the church, when God’s people are able practitioners of the submissive art–stay with me here–a number of good things occur: The Father is glorified, the Lord Jesus is honored, and the Holy Spirit is empowered (for want of a better word) to do good things. The devil is infuriated–he really wanted to start a war and you’ve stopped it in its tracks–the enemies are puzzled, and the critics of the church are silenced. The church itself is strengthened, fellow church members going through similar situations are instructed on how to handle conflict, and outsiders–unbelievers and the unchurched–are attracted by the sweetness of the harmony.

“Able practitioners of the submissive art.” I’m smiling just imagining how some will read this. Submissiveness is not a good word in much of the religious world. It smacks of brow-beaten, whipped wives cowering before domineering husbands. It dredges up images of mentally deranged dictators in the pulpit forcing their will upon sickly, timid church members.

Those are the caricatures the enemy would have us associate with submissiveness.

Submission is a wonderful concept. Submission is an activity only the strongest can practice. Submission is one of the keys toward heading off church wars while they are nothing but a verbal disagreement.

…be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)

3. A healthy church is a unified congregation.

Some concepts are so basic, so elementary, so simple, that one wonders why we never hear them mentioned in churches. “Unity” is one of the noblest ideals of the Lord for His people, one of the most practical helps, one of the rarest of traits, and yet it’s rarely mentioned in any literature we read on church leadership.

Consider these three texts…

Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3)

Above all these things, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Colossians 3:14)

I pray that they may all be one….that the world may believe that Thou didst send me. (John 17:21)

Is it a stretch to believe that God wants His church unified? ( I am not addressing the larger issue of division within the worldwide fellowship of believers. At this point, we’re referring only to your local church.)

Hardly.

It is an established fact that the devil wants the church divided. The congregation that spends its energies and resources warring among itself will mount no evangelism efforts, send out no missionaries, have no heart for worship or prayer, and will drag the name of Christ in the gutter in that community.

The wise pastor will scare his people to death with the dangers of conflict. Only by seriously considering what division can do within their fellowship will mature members step up and be willing to exercise courage in dealing with threats.

4. A healthy church chooses solid leaders and supports them.

A sick church will almost always select poor leaders, then devote itself to undercutting them. But when they do choose well and bring in a healthy confident shepherd, some in the church will devote themselves to destroying his effectiveness.

As a veteran pastor and retired director of missions, and with friends far and wide in the Lord’s work, I receive notes and calls from pastors every week telling what they are enduring from some in their churches. The constant harassment, the slanderous attacks, the jealousy, the rebellion, the resentment, the opposition–for some of God’s finest, these are daily realities.

My heart grieves. I’ve shed tears with some who are victims of this kind of treatment.

I’m not sure how the process works, but I’m confident it’s possible for a congregation to have an infection or a disease. Pastor after pastor comes to that church and within a couple of years, resign and walk away, with a spirit of defeat hovering over them like a dark cloud. That sick church destroyed another good man’s spirit. In discouraging him, they also damaged his wife, hurt his children, and betrayed everyone in the community looking for hope in that church.

If I could organize the leadership of all our churches, one policy I would institute is that we quit recommending preachers to some churches. There are sick, diseased congregations that need to die. However, by recommending yet another good man to that pulpit (“Well, he needed a place to preach”), we postpone the funeral the Holy Spirit has planned for that church.

When I hear of a church that loves its spiritual leaders and follows them, that honors them and encourages them, that deals with rebellious attacks upon them quickly, my heart rejoices. That church is going to flourish and not continue sitting there through the decades never accomplishing anything for the Lord except to meet.

The best thing that can happen to a pastor-under-attack is for a godly man or woman to be willing to publicly speak out on his behalf.

To speak up and speak out when he/she hears someone begin to berate his ministry or criticize his sermons.

This man or woman will not sit back and wish “others” would come to his defense, but will do so promptly and strongly.

It takes courage. And a love for the Lord and His church that is all-encompassing.

It’s possible to do this in such a way–with such love and power–that the attack is stopped dead in its tracks.

The time for a church to be taught this, for leaders to discuss this, for members to know this, is in peacetime.

It’s impossible to do a repair job on a 747 in flight. The time to make changes is when it’s in the hangar at the airport and not going anywhere.

The time to fix a church is before the problem starts. During good times. People are happy, some are joining the church, missionaries are being sent out, the lost are being reached, the congregation loves its ministers….and the preacher says, “Today, we’re going to talk about how to stop people from destroying this church.”

I can hear it now. “Pastor, you trying to stir up trouble?” “Uh, preacher, don’t rock the boat.” “Leave well enough alone, Reverend.”

Don’t do it, preacher.

Never leave ‘well enough’ alone. Go for the gold. Aim for the bigger prize of a strong healthy church doing great work for the Lord Jesus.

5. A healthy church will go forward on its knees.

“Pray or quit.” That line from Luke 18:1 pretty well sums it up. We will abide in the strength and wisdom and power of the Lord or we’re not going to make it.

A pastor who does powerful things in the service of the Lord will be a man of prayer. The congregation that gets it right will be a people of prayer.

The pastor must model this. In the privacy of his car and office and home, in one-on-ones with friends and members and leaders, and in his larger roles before groups of all sizes, he gives priority to the Father’s presence and His will. He prays and insists that his people pray.

Church conflicts that blossom into warfare feed off the flesh. (The image of some 1950-ish sci-fi movie comes to mind.) If we abide in the Spirit, that conflict will find no flesh to devour. The Holy Spirit will drive a stake through that little skirmish before it spreads.

Pray for unity. Pray for the power to submit. Pray for the wisdom and creative ways to teach unity and encourage submission as ways of building a healthy church.

That is the only kind of church that will achieve God’s plan in this world.

I keep thinking of something a pastor friend told me. A few weeks after a certain fellow joined his church, Pastor Richard discovered he was considered a trouble-maker by his former pastor. “We’ll keep an eye on him,” Richard said.

For a year, the man laid low, biding his time. One day, he approached a deacon intending to strike a match and start a forest fire within the congregation.

“What are we going to do about Pastor Richard?” he asked. The deacon smiled. “Not a thing. He’s doing a great job and we are blessed to have such a godly man for our church.”

That ended it. Nothing more was heard out of the fellow. He had come up against a group of godly leaders who were prepared to face just such instruments of the enemy.

1 thought on “Curing a Church Conflict Before It Starts

  1. Excellent article! Thank you for giving me some great things to think and pray about. How to handle church conflict well is a topic that I want to learn more about and mature in.

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