Conflict: Heart and Soul

June 13, 2011

I venture a guess. Your biggest surprise in leading a congregation is the amount of conflict you deal with. After all, isn’t church all about loving each other as God loves us? We quickly discover the cost and difficulty of loving well. We find ourselves leading in the midst of differences that heat up into conflicts. They lie at the “heart and soul” of our ministry. Yes, they tug at our hearts, not just our minds, and, if we allow it, we can find in conflict the energy for the inner soul work of transformation. Conflicts come in various flavors: major staff differences, disgruntled members, marital/partnership conflict, polarities in a committee, congregation, community, and denominations.

This is a tool I found helpful as a pastor: understanding the levels of conflict. As you approach a conflictual situation, by assessing the level of conflict, you might gain a clarity about options, responses, plus have in mind realistic expectations. In other words, it may assist you in being responsive, not reactive — a very difficult thing to do in the midst of conflict.

Dennis R. Maynard in his book on dealing with antagonists in the church, When Sheep Attack, presents five levels to the conflict pyramid. Level one, he labels facts. The need is for verifiable data. Let’s say that a pastor is criticized for not visiting home-bound members. Then, with calendar in hand, the pastor can discuss this concern with leaders. The conflict is resolved through gathering the facts, along with respectful conversation.

The second level is opinion. Here the conflict become more subjective, a matter of opinion. Good listening skills can help the parties come to respect the difference of opinions. Once the parties are heard and understood, perhaps agreement becomes less important. Back to our example, discussing the role of visiting in the pastor’s ministry may either lead to agreement of opinion or the agreement to disagree with mutual respect remaining in tack.

The third level of the pyramid is Innuendo. Here the conflict becomes more personal. The assessment of motive enters the picture. “Visiting, for our pastor, is not a priority.” Or, “she loves younger people more than the aging.” Or, “he seems uncomfortable around the home-bound.” Here, at this level, resolution requires more than understanding. It calls for behavioral change and possible apologies, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Accusation is the fourth level of conflict. Persons are accused, not just their behavior. There is now labeling and name-calling. “Our pastor is just not a pastoral person.” “He doesn’t really care about us.” “She is just using us as a stepping stone to the next, larger church.” Resolution at this level is unlikely unless it can be lowered to the previous level with a focus on behavior, not the character of persons. This fourth level becomes a short-step to the final level, Removal. One side of the conflict withdraws, leaves the conflict, removes themselves or is removed.

One strategy, after you have assessed the level, is to work to move the conflict to lower levels. The lower the level, the deeper level of mutual trust, and more likely a good outcome. When there is willingness to do the hard work in communicating, compromising, confessing, forgiving, reconciling, then relationships often are strengthened. Without this investment, resolution is unlikely.

See this schema as one tool in the toolbox. There are other resources we draw on, such as, prayer; well-honed listening skills; ability to ask curious, open-ended questions; finding the gift/grace/learning whether or not the conflict is resolved; and re-framing issues into relational challenges (erg. from who is right or wrong to, given our differences, how will be in relationship?)

Comments? What tools are in your toolbox?