Levels of Conflict Work in Congregations

The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives without forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Years ago, I wrote an article and argued that there was no such thing as conflict resolution. Our focus should be not to resolve, but to learn to live in a responsible way with the tension that is always part of community life. Since then, I have adjusted my position. I have come to believe/see that conflict has multiple levels, and all levels are important. It is important for you and me as leaders to be aware of the level at which we are working when helping individuals or groups move through conflict. And the work at each level differs, but it is still important. This article offers clarity on each of those levels as we move toward peace. The four levels are: conflict management, conflict resolution, conflict transformation and reconciliation. This article offers explanation and description on each of these levels of working from anxiety and conflict to peace.

Conflict Management

Speaking in generalities, most approaches to conflict can be characterized either as conflict management or conflict resolution. Politics would be a quintessential example of a conflict management context. Unfortunately, many churches have adopted this way. The currents of conflict are a given. The parties simply try to flow within those currents in a way that keeps the situation manageable. A conflict specialist or leader/minister attempting to help parties in a conflict management situation essentially steps between the parties and attempts to stop the conflict from spiraling out of control. For the most part, the underlying issues of the conflict are not addressed.

An example of conflict management from family life — Your two children are fighting. They are persistently at each other and the anger is growing. You cannot think clearly about how to resolve it, or you need more time, or you need to speak with some people to reach into the creative pool of options, thus, you send both children to their rooms, apart. You have managed the conflict by separating the two until some deeper solutions put into place or options explored and implemented. This is conflict management, and there is a place for it in congregational life, as long as it does not stop there. Management gets a bad name when people mistake management for deeper resolution, transformation or reconciliation.

Conflict Resolution

In conflict resolution situations, a professional leader or minister would address the positions, interests and behaviors of parties in ways that help people find solutions to the problems that they face. A negotiation in a legal setting could be an example of this. This is an effective approach when the conflict is finite and narrowly defined and/or when the parties will not have a significant ongoing relationship after a resolution is reached.

An example of conflict resolution from family life—I use to say there was no such thing as conflict resolution, and it is not what we are after. As I have worked with conflict through the years, my opinion has changed. For certain conflicts, there are resolutions. For example, to stay with the family metaphor, after sending the boys to their rooms to cool off and to give my wife and I time to think about solutions, we call them to the kitchen table. As we are seated, we say, “As we hear you, the problem is around whose turn it is to take the trash out to the curb. Both of you say it is the other’s turn, right?” They agree with grumblings. “Well, we ask, how can we resolve this, so it want happen again? How can we develop a way to remember whose turn it is?”

Together we come up with the options of posting a schedule on the refrigerator door. “After one takes out the trash, he initials by the date. You check it each morning. Will that work?” They both agree, and one more conflict is subverted. It is resolved, until the next one arises.

Sometimes church conflict needs simple resolutions just as it did in the family context. But often, the real issues are deeper. Or maybe some action takes care of the technical challenge, but the real or deeper issues are personal, emotional, and systemic or could be called adaptive issues. As such, to stop at the resolution and not go to the next level is like putting a band-aid on a deep wound. It might help temporarily, but it will not last. Often, it feels good for a short period for time, but it returns in the future, even with different faces but the same issue(s)

Conflict Transformation

However, in situations where relationships will continue in some way, or where the resolution or management of one conflict or even a group of conflicts between the parties leaves the underlying cause of the trouble unresolved, conflict management and conflict resolution approaches (as we have defined them here) are insufficient. What is needed is an intervention that addresses the root causes and establishes lasing solutions that not only resolve the conflict at hand but that lay a foundation for coming together in deep ways that help things go right over time. We call this process of effecting deep, and lasting change “conflict transformation.”

Transformation is about the deeper, second level change. It is deeper than management, deeper than resolution. This is the change that takes place in the soul of people and congregations/organizations.

When people are in conflict and I am invited to work with them, this is the core of my work with congregations and intervention. Some get frustrated because this work is slower and painful, but it is the place the work has to happen for it to have a chance of being lasting. The transformation work I do with congregations begin with a circle.

In calling the circle, we are creating a sacred space. I like to think of the circle as creating a container, a safe space for conversations to happen, the heat to increase and understanding to increase. It is the container that holds in the heat–like a caldron or alchemist flask—the heat, when held, God uses to transform people, like heat transforms chemicals in the laboratory. But if the container is not strong enough, rather than holding in the heat and transforming people, it will blow apart, which is an apt description of many conflicts in congregations.

When the container is able to hold, it not only changes the outer form, but the deeper way of the soul, who we are as individuals and who we are as a living body, a living organism.

An example or word image—I am working in the garden. Weeds are all around the desired plants. The difference between conflict management and transformation is that in management, mow or I simply trim over the weeds, so they are out of the way, but the root system is still underground working. In transformation, I go to the trouble of pulling up the weeds, roots and all. Even though I often prefer more organic methods, for the use of this limping analogy, I might even use chemicals to help move into the soils depths.


The deepest level that many businesses, organizations or congregations do not get to but that I believe is the deepest level of conflict in our tradition is reconciliation. The story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis is one of the best examples of this level of peace. As I read it, this is what Matthew 18 is after—not just management or resolution but it opens and holds the space for reconciliation to happen if the parties are open and desire it.

This is the level of deepest conflict work. It is where the scripture calls us—be ye reconciled to one another. In The Journey Toward Reconciliation, John Paul Lederach comments, “. . .reconciliation is about the transformation of people and their relationships. It means change, moving from isolation, distance, pain, and fear toward restoration, understanding and growth. As shown in the Bible story, the basic purpose of God acting in history is reconciliation.” The challenge is that reconciliation is more of a journey, not a simple destination or a one-time act. It is like Jacob and Esau.(Genesis (25 – 33) —it begins with an act, they separate and move away from each other, then, in time and through much pain, they reconnect, but not without a limp and some lasting marks to carry. It was a journey, whose culmination involved a specific geographical place. But it is an ongoing, painful journey, not a one-time event. And it is difficult and frightening as with Jacob, wrestling in the night because it involved facing himself, facing his deepest fears and facing God.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of any help we as leaders give will depend on our way of being, the way of our hearts and souls toward the people with whom and to whom we minister. To the extent we can see the people in our lives and those we are trying to help as people of worth and value, as people made in the image of God, we can offer a powerful invitation to change.

I hope this offers you a way to think about conflict in your church, community or organization and to consciously choose at which stage you are working as you work with yourself and others caught in this cycle.


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