(This article is in the most recent issue of the PNCUCC News. Check it out! Since it invites feedback, I'm publishing it here, too.)
As you can imagine, a good bit of my time is spent learning about churches in conflicts of one sort or another. I've been involved in regional church work for about 10 years now, and - for better and for worse - this means I've seen, heard or been involved in a pretty wide spectrum of what church conflicts can be.
Church conflicts are not getting easier. Church conflicts have never been simple because of the personal nature of faith, traditions and the sense of ownership many have about their churches but in the last 10 year I've been doing this work church conflicts have become meaner and more entrenched (and, as I mentioned in a previous article, one of the primary reasons people are distancing themselves from churches). The style of church fights seem to be more and more influenced by the style of our political fights than any of the ideals laid out in the gospels or the epistles. Instead of our churches seeking to model healthy conflict for the world, we seem to model more and more of our conflicts after the most dysfunctional, messy conflicts that are tearing the world apart.
We can do better. We need to do better. So, let me throw out five things that I think would help.
1. Get to know each other. I know this might be self evident and most church communities think they're friendly but being friendly and knowing each other are not the same thing. Many churches end up moving in to conflict because folks don't have the relational base to solve disagreements in better ways. That time of coffee after church? Committee meetings? Volunteer opportunities? Mission trips? Retreats? Faith formation classes? Bible study? These aren't just central to church life because of the content of these activities but because of how these activities help build relationships and community. As these activities decrease, more difficult conflicts increase or, just as worse, apathy settles in and smothers congregations.
2. Pray for each other and with each other... especially if you're in conflict. What is your community being called to do? What is your church's vocation? Prayer is weird and beautiful and I really don't understand it and I know that doing it makes a difference. If you're courageous, specifically ask those you disagree with to pray for you. Which reminds me...
3. Be courageous. Yep. Every conflict, every single one, requires courage. Every conflict, every single one, is just as much about what people aren't saying as what they are saying. Folks hold back about what something means to them or what their stake in a decision is. Sometimes, the main reason people are involved in a conflict is because a person they consider to be their friend is involved and they're taking sides (see #1 and #2). Be courageous enough to disagree with your friends and name what is true for you. Otherwise, conflicts will just get bigger and bigger and encourage people to take sides when compromise might have been possible.
4. If money is not the issue, do not make money the issue. This is huge. I can understand people being hesitant to give financially to a community if the stewardship of that money is the primary concern. There is some logic in that. But, withholding monies or offering monies to try and manipulate the mission of a church is a betrayal of the whole community and a form of hostage taking or bribery. The community discerns what their call is and choosing to be part of a community means that you do not always get what you want. Belonging to a church means sharing what you can. If you can no longer do this because you are not called to the same mission the rest of the church is called to, you need to seriously consider seeking out a new church community; graciously and kindly. If there are folks in your church doing this, listen to them, pray with and for them and - if it becomes clear that their vocation and the vocation of the church are incompatible - except their resignation graciously and kindly.
5. Make. A. Decision. In the end, we can't do everything and can't make everyone 100% happy. Churches' tortured decision making processes are what makes many conflicts so painful. The majority of church conflicts aren't because the church can't make a decision but because they won't. Read #1-#4 one more time, please. Its not difficult to find resources that might be helpful, here. Carefully consider if some of the same resources you use in your family or work life to manage conflict might apply.
What are some other things you'd add? I'm going to be posting this article to my blog (http://thoughtsandprayers-mike.blogspot.com/) and on our conference Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/pncucc?ref=hl). Feel free to add your own suggestions, there.