Conflict in the Church

Distancing, denial and duking it out aren’t counter to the gospel, but it’s possible to ‘fight’ and still keep the faith. Discover ways to transform conflict.

By: Thomas Porter and Mark Mancao (this article originally appeared in the Interpreter Magazine, January 2003)

Dueling committees. A showdown between the treasurer and the church council chairwoman about funding a new ministry. Youth and young adults threatening a walkout because they feel ignored and undervalued in the church. Discord in Bible study about the rightness of possible war with Iraq. Battles over what the Bible says about homosexuality.
These issues challenge the ideal of “one body in Christ” and God’s call for the church to be an agent of reconciliation and peace.

On one hand, most of us haven’t been taught that conflict need not be feared or avoided, that it is often needed and healthy for a family or congregation. On the other hand, in a society where winning is everything, we often can’t find alternatives to choosing sides, backbiting, beating the opponent into submission or walking away.

Enter JustPeace, the Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation in Evanston, Ill. Related to The United Methodist Church’s General Council on Finance and Administration, it offers multiple resources to help churches and other Christian communities engage in a biblically grounded process for addressing and resolving conflicts.

Early in the life of JustPeace, a layperson called with a story about a potentially destructive dispute brewing in his church. The congregation had split into camps. Members had drawn the battle lines in parking lots, over the phone and via the Internet. Personal attacks were common. The pastor was caught in the middle.

Church leaders decided the congregation needed a covenant on how members should treat one another, even in the face of discord. They started with a study on Matthew 18 and Jesus’ advice on how to deal with another who harms or sins against us.

Next, they explored the parable of the lost sheep and God’s call for us to seek and restore those who are alienated from the community, not to attack and abuse them.
From their Bible study and reflection, church members developed a relational covenant.
And, in living out that covenant, the layperson reports, members of that church are now being constructively engaged.

Developing and living out a shared relational covenant is the most important work we can do to prevent destructive conflict in the church. Covenants are mutual agreements that bind people together. They involve honoring other parties and require mutual accountability and responsibility.

Relational covenants express the shared expectations and aspirations of a community or group about how each member wants to be treated. Such covenants define and reflect what you want your Christian community to be.

To begin the covenant process, gather church leaders (for example the church council), begin the work and then extend it to as many members as possible. Or start with small groups in the church, youth and adult, and develop ideas for the covenant that are then improved and approved as the circles come together.

Worship and Bible study set the proper context and substance for these discussions. Consider the following questions when creating your church’s relational covenant:

• How would you like to be treated, including when a conflict arises?

• How should members of the Body of Christ be treated?

• What is the vision of the Body of Christ in the Bible?

• How do we create respect for each person as a child of God?

• How do we create safety for each member of our community?

• What should we specifically do in order to listen for understanding, speak the truth in love, use our imaginations and be forgiving?

• How are we going to make decisions so that members feel the process was fair and respected each person’s voice?

• How will we deal with confidential information and still value openness?

• How will we deal with accountability to the covenant?

• How will we maintain an openness to revise the covenant as needed?

–The Rev. Thomas Porter is executive director of JustPeace, and Mark Mancao is administrative director of JustPeace. They authored Engage Conflict Well: A Guide to Prepare Yourself and Engage Others in Conflict Transformation.


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