Previous | Next

Fall 1990 · Vol. 19 No. 2 · pp. 65–74 

The Pastor's Role in Managing Church Conflict

Marlin E. Thomas

Pastor Carey dreaded the monthly church council meetings. The rest of his ministry was pure joy. People who were otherwise very nice people subtly changed in dramatic ways when they sat down in their council chairs. Nor was it a change he enjoyed.

“. . . that your . . . soul . . . will be preserved blameless.”

As the second and third years groaned by, he got the very distinct sense that he could almost always count on one or two council members raising objections to most proposals—all proposals, in fact, except those made by three other council members.

Then one or two of the members, who usually voted enthusiastically for his proposals, began stopping by “to see how he was doing.” A few months later these “supportive” members began complaining about how slowly things were moving in council. Pastor Carey defensively said he was doing his best; it was just that there were some on the council that wanted to move more slowly.

That was all it took. Within another half year everything came unglued. Council meetings were unbearable. People stood around in small groups of two or three after church and talked in hushed, and sometimes anguished tones. Worship began to feel flat, and attendance slowly dwindled. At the annual meeting several persons refused to {66} serve in their positions any longer, and a major topic of public conversation was “the need for a revival.”


Among the 350,000 churches in the United States, it is probable that one in ten congregations experience some of the stress described in the case. Often church people have little understanding of the internal dynamics of the conflict.

The Apostle Paul prayed a deeply sensitive prayer that relates eloquently to church conflict. “I pray God,” he said, “that your whole spirit, soul and body will be preserved blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).

Usually churches do quite well with the first third of that prayer. After all, churches are about the business of eternal salvation (salvation of the pneuma). Those churches which provide recreational programs, exercise classes, support groups, and care for the poor and needy also do fairly well with the last third of the prayer (care of the soma). But churches are stymied by the middle part of the prayer—the preservation of the soul, or pseuche.

Without presuming too greatly on philology, we observe that Paul did pray for the psyche, or “inner senses” of the believer. That is what the social scientist is concerned with when he studies human behavior, and it is what the psychologist describes when she discusses human differences. It is reasonable to suggest that to complete Paul’s prayer, the church must better learn how to bring everyone’s distinct feelings and sensitivities “captive to the obedience of Christ.”

The combination of the spiritual ideas latent in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and 2 Corinthians 10:5 provides the paradigm for church conflict resolution which offers hope to churches facing the kind of stagnation Pastor Carey’s congregation faced. The conflict which is in view in the following discussion is conflict where the pastor is not party to the conflict. Where the pastor is party to the conflict, the following discussion is a propos to the pastor also in his relationship within the church. It is also a propos to conference leadership as they seek to help the church in resolving their internal struggle.

Churches are collages of people with different systems of internal wiring, to use a building contractor’s image, and we {67} must recognize those differences if we want people to be whole and at peace with themselves, each other, and with God. That means, in part, that we must find ways to conduct our church activities in such ways that differences are recognized, respected, and resourced, rather than being rejected or destroyed.

There are differences in personality structure, however, but they are not the only cause for misunderstanding and dysfunction in churches. Lack of communication skills between people and divergences in theological priorities are two others. A fourth is the presence of deeply-seated personality disorders—even among Christians. Kenneth Haugk, founder of Stephen Ministries, has done the church a great service in identifying that element of distress in church conflict (1988).


For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his heavenly calling.

Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.” There must be a certain type of good, strong, focused preaching, honest worship, sincere praying, and genuine comfort, but the counseling program and administrative style must change drastically.

Counseling for disordered and under-developed types of people must take place within the context of a deep pastoral understanding of the type of underdevelopment manifested, and also within the context of appropriate biblical mandates. In such cases, the pastor must truly “speak for God,” without usurping his (or her) authority over the lives of people. If possible, people must be gently urged to grow in Christ, without commanding them so strongly that they regress instead.

The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled {68} church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.

Pastors, it seems to me, are generally trained to deal primarily with the first two of the five levels of conflict identified by Speed Leas (1985). At Level One, they can engage almost anyone with the statement, “We have a problem here. Let’s find a solution to it.” At Level Two, they can usually say to another, “This makes me (or someone else) uncomfortable. Let’s make a change, so there is less discomfort here.” But beyond that, when people say, “You’ve got to change, because I won’t,” the pastor’s ministry can very quickly become undermined unless he can move from being a generalist to being a specialist, or is able to secure some sort of knowledgeable, specialized, outside help.


Pastors who are able to move from general ministry to specialization in conflict care, must begin by teaching their people a new way of behaving and communicating.

It is of the first order of importance that church people in conflict learn to listen to each other more objectively. A pastor can help his members learn to listen objectively by first modeling good listening in his conversations with them, and then by helping them learn how to do it with others. In practicing and teaching good listening, the following techniques are helpful:

  • Reduce fear in the other person by legitimizing their right to be heard, and by receiving what they say as validly being their view of things.
  • Practice the art of active listening, by affirming the statements and feelings of the speaker as being their own, and by giving them permission to be vulnerable in the presence of another without being victimized for it. {69}
  • Attend to the thoughts and feelings being spoken, so that the speaker gains a sense of being heard. Do not give the sense of taking sides with or against the speaker, but rather seek clarification both for yourself and for the speaker.

The second step in developing better communication and group behavior is to help people learn how to clarify perceptions and avoid assumptions. The technique I find most useful is to practice and teach the Report-Repeat-Clarify trio of “shuttle communication.” It can be accomplished in several ways.

  • In dealing with two people, the three steps can be presented, or outlined on a marker board or piece of paper, and the pair can be coached through one or two practice sessions of the technique.
  • In dealing with a small group of people, the steps can, again, be presented by lecture and illustration. People can be paired off for practice sessions, using issues and questions prepared by the pastor-teacher.
  • In dealing with a conflicted group, the pastor (or process leader) can watch for natural pauses in the conversation, and then ask R-R-C questions of the group. For example,

    “Jim, could you say that over again, stating specifically what happened and who said what?”

    “Ann, could you repeat for me exactly what Jim said, to make sure everyone understands it?”

    “Sam, it seems to me in listening to you that you and Herschel have different perceptions of what happened. Can we separate (differentiate between) your views and Herschel’s, so we have a more complete picture of what occurred?”

    “Jayne, it seems to me that your view of what happened is based on the assumption that . . . Is that correct?”

    “Frank, my understanding of what you said is that you want . . . to occur, for the following reasons, and Shane’s opposition comes because of . . . Can you suggest one or two ways that both your goals and his can be met without disappointing either of you?”

A third step to be followed in developing better group behavior is to teach people how better to relate to each other. Biblical statements such as Philippians 2:4, Ephesians 4:26 and 5:21, and Colossians 3:9 and 15 must be presented as absolute rules of Christian behavior, and then explicated carefully and specifically with illustrations and examples. In the last several years I have had countless opportunities to follow {70} this counsel in very dramatic and specific ways, and it works. People really do appreciate that kind of specific help. Ways of implementation include:

  • Teaching people how to let an initial wave of emotion pass without imputing grave sin to the occasion.
  • Helping people understand that feelings are not bad; only bad behavior is bad. Sin is not in the initial thought, it is in the extension of the thought to malicious words and deeds. (I believe that Jesus’ internalization of sin had to do with “dwelling” on the thought, not having the initial thought.)
  • Encouraging people to say something good about another person or event before saying what they don’t like about it. Show that the Apostle Paul generally followed that rule, and then extended it by making critical statements only in constructive and positive ways.
  • Showing people that in the biblical narrative, collaboration was many times more useful than confrontation in resolving differences (Thomas, 1988). This, however, requires that one follow up with teaching on how collaboration works.

A fourth step in developing healthier behavior in church groups is the process of empowering weaker members of the group to act and to speak forth. Empowerment may be either an event or a process, but it must be directed toward the individual who does not feel strong enough to participate in the decision-making process.

Some times empowerment is an event. During a conversation, board or committee meeting, or even a group or congregational meeting, the pastor or group leader may expedite the inclusion of a shy person in the discussion. This may occur either by calling her name, motioning towards him during a pause in the conversation, or asking for “additional comments from those of you who have not spoken yet.”

At other times empowerment may take the form of a process, as the pastor or committed lay leader works with an individual in personal discipleship and sometimes in counseling. The goal should be the development of personal resources together with courage to begin to participate in group process where they have for too long been silent.

Empowerment lies in teaching individuals and the whole group the dynamics of group interaction. The “systems approach” to group dynamics (as well as family functionality) can offer much to the church. Being aware of how people react {71} to words and events, and how the pecking order affects the flow of power in the church are only two examples of the insights which may be provided by systems theory and analysis. Understanding the emotional climate of a group and the impact of different leadership styles upon different people are two others.

Beyond the need to teach persons in conflict better ways of communicating and relating to one another, pastors may also teach people in troubled congregations how to be permission-givers. Many texts of the Bible call believers to maintain the traditional values and teachings “once and for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). Acts 15, however, is the record of a struggle to deal with discontinuity in the midst of continuity. It was an earnest and intense effort to sort out that which was changing from that which should not change. 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14-15 show that the process was not accomplished as easily and with the amount of finality which the church had desired in Acts 15.

Growth in grace and in knowledge does not occur quickly for everyone. Therefore, pastors in troubled churches must model permission-giving, and then teach others to adopt that element of the mind of Christ also. The payoff comes in observing growth and maturity in those who are brought along by Christ who otherwise would not have shown any development (see Phil. 3:15).

Six principles of Christian permission-giving, which allows people to develop at their own rate of internal agility, may be summarized as follows:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.


Once the conflict reaches Stage Three, where some person or group of persons demands satisfaction as a price for their contentment, the pastor who is committed to church ministry rather than conflict therapy is better advised quickly {72} to seek outside help than to try to address the issues himself. Not doing so only saps the energy for ministry and postpones the day of departure from that field.

It is true that some church lay leadership groups are not quick to seek out the right kind of help, and it is also true that the right kind of help is not always easily found.

The right way to convince reluctant leadership groups to seek outside help is to image for them what Level Three and successively intense and escalating conflicts will do to the church group. Beyond that, the busy pastor, active in general ministry, should refuse to engage in their own private conflict interventions.

The right kind of outside help is help provided by professionals who are not emotionally connected to the outcome of the conflict. Such help could range anywhere from a (local) pastoral colleague to Christian Legal Society interventionists to one of several nationally known church conflict specialists. In any case, however, there must be equal commitment to truth, soul care, objectivity, and fair play. Both the pastor and the polarized groups in the church should equally submit themselves to care, so that the whole work of God might move forward again.

Some people don’t want to change. Some people don’t know how to change. Other people can’t deal with change. In any case they must be helped to change according to their own readiness and willingness, and in keeping with their own personality profile and stage of development in life (McDowell, Fowler). If they are not ready, the church must wait until they are, and they in turn must allow the church to move forward as God leads the church. In such cases persons may be reassigned to places of service where they can be more fully utilized and fulfilled, without butting their heads against the walls of change to their spiritual destruction.

This kind of renegotiation requires strong—and sensitive—pastors. They must be sure that the wagon can bear the freight of such reassignment, and that diffusing potentially explosive situations can happen gradually enough so that more is not lost than gained.

Diffusing conflict in a rigid church system is really not much different than doing so in a dysfunctional family system, except that it takes longer and is far more complex. In recent years this author has successfully diffused several destructive {73} family systems, with the result that the children’s behavior and school performance have both improved. The same can be done in a church system, with the result that the performance of the church greatly increases. But it takes longer, calls for more concentrated conflict management skills, and far more energy than is demanded in circumstances involving smaller groups of people.

In a troubled church, one must take the initial stance that no one is wrong and no one is right. Rather, each individual possesses a sliver of truth, which is often mistaken for the whole truth. The task of the pastor (and the interventionist) in a troubled church is to help each person own each other’s truth, so that eventually they may all claim the whole truth.


Whatever role one plays in encountering conflict in the church, it must be undertaken with a great degree of sanctified professionalism and human dignity. One must know what he is about, and where the resolution project is to go before he starts. Once one is in the midst of the whirlwind, there is no turning back.

In addition, one must be careful to become neither the victim nor the victimizer. It is easy for a pastor to continue to be “a nice caring shepherd” in the midst of conflict, only to be gobbled up by forces he is not prepared to encounter. It is also easy for a pastor—or interventionist—to hasten too quickly into the fray, thus becoming the victimizer of those who in reality seek healing, although they know not how to get it.

Moreover, it is fair to “call time out” occasionally, and it is paramount to develop good teamwork. Pastors encountering Level Two conflict can benefit greatly by developing around them a support group which can help them process the myriad frustrations and complex feelings with which they will be assaulted. Interventionists called in from the outside would profit to consult with former pastors, former lay leaders, district ministers, and others who can provide both insight and support. Above all, it is paramount that only one doctor leads the team. He may call for additional consultative support, but no one else unilaterally should do so.

Finally, everyone involved in dealing with conflict must learn the value of letting their feelings “cycle through” before {74} taking them too seriously. It takes a new feeling from three to eight minutes to finish, and if new feelings of sadness, fear, or anger are not clearly identified and processed “in situ” they will only complicate the healing and developmental process.

It is also useful to share this insight about feelings with people involved in the conflict. To do so is better than merely to encourage them to bridle their feelings. In order to understand the feelings of conflict, and finally to direct them as Christ would teach us, requires that we learn the difference between having emotions, expressing emotions, reporting emotions, and being unnecessarily victimized by the bad effects of emotions.

Closely connected to the erratic way in which emotions work in the midst of conflict are issues of power, control, and feelings of being overwhelmed. The single most important rule to follow is to “slow ’er down.” Some people can handle less pressure than others, and in conflict the pace must move at a rate comfortable to the weakest person, not the strongest.

As the feelings of the pseuche are integrated with the eternal spirit and corporeal body in a practical as well as a theological manner, we will begin to experience in new dimension the holistic salvation that is offered to us by God. Then, indeed, our churches will become whole, and will more fully live out the purpose of salvation to which we are called.


  • Fowler, James W. Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.
  • Haugk, Kenneth C. Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing I louse, 1988.
  • Leas, Speed. Moving Your Church Through Conflict. Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1985.
  • Linn and Fabricant. Healing the Eight Stages of Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.
  • McDowell, Josh. “His Image—My Image” a film series and a book by the same title. San Bernardino, CA: here’s Life Publishers.
  • Thomas, Marlin E. A Study of Conflict in the Bible. Onida, South Dakota (now Ulysses, Kansas): Church Conciliation and Vitalization Ministries, 1988. Available from Kindred Press, Hillsboro, Kansas and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Marlin E. Thomas is pastor of the Ulysses Mennonite Brethren Church, Ulysses, Kansas.

Previous | Next