Conflict Resolution

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20, NRSV). This verse from the gospel of Matthew is often quoted to defend a small crowd at worship. In the context of its use in Matthew, it has nothing to do with a crowd size at all. It is really about conflict in the church. Here is the rest of the passage:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:15–20, NRSV)

These verses include some very basic advice about dealing with a personal conflict in a community of faith. The first step is to deal with the conflict one on one in private. If that doesn’t work, invite others in to help you. And if that doesn’t work, go to the leaders of the church.

The primary point, though, is that whether you are talking one on one or with a group, Jesus is there with you. That alone should affect your attitude in the conversation and hopefully the words themselves. Striving to maintain the peace, unity, and purity of a congregation is not just a human task, it is a spiritual task also. There are four actions that can help achieve conflict resolution. They are:

  • To listen
  • To learn
  • To love
  • To lead

To Listen

Whether a conflict in a congregation is between two persons or two groups, the most important first step is listening. If a person does not feel heard, they are not apt to listen as the conversation continues. Be patient and take note of different perspectives. Avoid looking for the holes in the story. We are all sinners, and, in a conflict, there will rarely be saints without some defects. When people are passionate, they can emphasize minor hurts and miss their own place in the conflict. Listen for the real pain or argument. Listen for the remedy sought. Most of all, listen to what the Holy Spirit may be saying in the conversation. Practice discernment by actively seeking insight from the Holy Spirit. These are God’s children talking and God’s children seeking reconciliation and healing. Jesus has promised to be there with all involved.

To Learn

Enter into a conversation about a conflict as a learner. Some key facts will be missed if, from the very beginning, there are assumptions of fault based on previous encounters. In fact, what God is trying to teach in this conflict may be missed. It is a cliché to say we learn from our mistakes. We can learn from others’ mistakes too. Reflect on Paul’s letters to the various churches. What can be learned from those letters that could help with this conflict? Pay attention to your own responses as you listen to the conversation. What words are “pushing your buttons” and why? How is the congregation responding to this conflict? What could the congregation learn about its tolerance of conflict? As a church leader what are you learning that will be part of your discernment about where God is calling the congregation?

To Love

While people may love their point of view or love the sound of their own voice, the word love is not usually associated with a church conflict. As a ruling elder or deacon seeking a way forward, remind those involved how much God loves all of us. Congregations have a tendency to punish people who upset the balance or create tension. In these situations, the word “unity” can become a weapon to stifle all hard discussions. It will be important to look inwardly and be honest about our feelings toward the people in the conflict. Remember that God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to find all of us prodigal sons and daughters and bring us home. Prayerfully consider how the people in the conversation can be helped to find their way home too.

To Lead

It would be ideal if every church conflict could end with satisfaction on all sides but that will not always the case. Our quest for peace dictates that people who cause harm to others must be stopped. Our quest for purity finds some boundaries in the understanding of faith. There was a session that spent a whole Saturday wrestling with a decision. The decision was announced on Sunday and created a great uproar. The next Sunday after worship the session sat facing the congregation and let everyone in the congregation have their say. The session remained resolute and united in their decision but they had given the congregation an opportunity to vent. That was leadership.

Leadership is not about being a bully. It is recognizing that decisions have to be made. Decisions can only be made on the information the session has at the time. People are too quick to fault sessions for making decisions that are seen differently at a later date. No session has a crystal ball. If you have listened carefully, learned all you can, and acted out of your love for God and your congregation, then you have done all you can to provide leadership. That will help nurture the peace, unity, and purity of your church.

For Reflection and Discussion:

Use the four points of conflict resolution to develop a strategy to resolve this challenge:

The new Friendship Adult Study Class has outgrown the room where they meet each week. The long-standing Fellowship Adult Class has a few remaining members but meets in a room that is much too large for their needs.