Great post on how to find a good mediator from Tammy Lenski here.
[This post is a rewrite of a previously-published article.]
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face…” ~Paul, Gal. 2:11
“…for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” ~Paul, 1 Cor. 11:19
““Where two or more are gathered together, there will be conflict.” ~unknown
Contrary to the first few days of the Church, where everyone was “in one accord,” it seems that wherever people make decisions there will eventually be conflict. As the above verses show, the early church—even the apostles—experienced conflict. But, this is not necessarily a bad thing; conflict can be very productive. A part of maturity is learning to deal with conflict, whether it be of the good (productive) or bad (unproductive or even destructive) variety.
Unfortunately, most people and organizations are never taught adequate skills for dealing with conflict. As a result, conflict which is potentially positive turns into the destructive variety far too often.
In a 2000 Faith Communities Today survey of over 14,000 churches, 75% of them reported having some level of conflict in the five years prior, with 25% reporting what they considered to be serious conflict. A follow up study found that over two-thirds of churches experiencing conflict reported a loss of members as a result, and about 25% suffered the loss of a leader as a direct result of the conflict.
I think most people would agree, that’s bad conflict. And, I am guessing that most respondents to the survey didn’t take into consideration the many small, daily conflicts that can be just as destructive to those involved.
While productive conflict has resulted in the preservation and spread of the gospel, as well as in the development of many of our great creeds and theological statements, the “dark side” of conflict is often damaging to both the church and the individuals involved.
However, it often seems the real damage results not from the issue in conflict (which many times could be resolved quite easily), but by how the conflict is handled. As with any adversity, conflict can either make us better or bitter; how we approach conflict may be the factor that determines whether a church is strengthened or shattered.
One of the worst things a pastor or leader can do when he or she recognizes there is discord is to ignore that it exists. Conflict doesn’t just go away—people do. People usually don’t leave churches because they see something they like better; they leave because they are unhappy where they are. And, if those who leave are in close relationship with others in the church, they often aren’t the only ones who leave. Certainly there are people who simply can’t be pleased, and they will come and go. However, discord of any nature can be poison to a church; while we can never agree with everybody, we can at least make sure people are understood, and understand us.
The next worst thing a pastor or leader can do is to take an authoritarian approach, either by “pulling rank” and issuing his verdict on the issue, or by enacting a “don’t talk” rule (labeling any discussion of the issue as “gossip”). Besides being unbiblical, it won’t work for everyone and these attempts to silence the opposition will only add fuel to the fire. Again, unresolved conflict will not simply go away; however, people will go away, and possibly lead others to follow. The only way to deal with discord or conflict in a church is to address it, as Paul said, so “those who are approved may be recognized among you.”
There are obviously other counterproductive ways of dealing with conflict, and they are not by any means unique to churches. See “Ten conflict resolution mistakes to avoid.”)
It is important for churches to recognize that conflict is not put in the same category as sin; many churches err by attempting to be biblical in following the process outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17. Matthew 18 specifically deals with someone who “sins against you,” not someone who simply disagrees with you. Calling on Matthew 18 automatically presumes that one side of a dispute is in sin. That being said, a process that facilitates communication and has reconciliation as its goal is essential.
If two people cannot resolve an issue by themselves, it is wise to suggest the use of a third party to act as a mediator or facilitator. The results of a poll conducted by Christianity Today indicated that of congregations which found themselves in conflict, the vast majority felt they had waited too long to seek outside assistance. Many churches simply don’t recognize the seriousness of the conflict until it erupts. The use of a mediator to work through issues differs significantly from the Matthew 18 approach, which is focused on convincing someone they have sinned and encouraging them to repent. A mediator remains neutral, taking the side of neither party. In both cases, of course, reconciliation is the ultimate goal.
It is essential that a mediator be completely impartial (and remain so), as well as present the appearance of neutrality, which often becomes difficult in church settings, especially if the mediator has some kind of official denominational ties. That doesn’t mean the mediator isn’t to have any opinions; rather, the mediator shouldn’t have a stake in either side of the issue.
A mediator should not come in any position of authority – not even a hint of it. A mediator’s job is not to “fix” the problem or decide who is right or wrong; a mediator is a servant, whose job is to facilitate communication, resolution and reconciliation. There are church consultants/mediators who will issue their “findings,” acting more as an arbitrator or judge. This may resolve the issue, but it likely won’t result in reconciliation. Rather, the “losing” side will likely leave, or just “smolder” within the congregation, poisoning those around them.
I can’t emphasize enough the principle that reconciliation—restoring understanding between people in disagreement—should be the goal in resolving any dispute between Christians. As Paul wrote in II Cor. 5:16-19:
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
I know countless people for whom reconciliation has never happened. I find it difficult to understand how churches can continue where there are unresolved issues, especially when the wounded are left behind as some sort of “spiritual roadkill.” The reality is, many of these people end up leaving the church, and give up church involvement altogether. And, 38% of the pastors involved in a conflict eventually leave the church.
Church conflict is a fact of life, whether resulting from sin or simply from differing viewpoints. While conflict has the enormous potential to cause damage if ignored or handled improperly, often conflict can be converted into a positive force, resulting in new ideas, new directions, and improved relationships.
“You think you’re being a leader, but you’re probably being a manager.”
I’ve written before about the differences between leadership and management. And, being a bit of a Seth Godin fan, I do like when he addresses the same topic. He has a slightly different take on the subject than I do, but that’s okay. He is, after all, Seth Godin.
But, he echoes my sentiments regarding the servant aspect of leadership. He suggests judging yourself as a leader on whether or not you helped someone achieve something today. All too often, leaders judge themselves on how far they’ve gone, not whether those following them are any better off.
It’s worth 7 minutes of your life to watch this. Seriously.
What I’ve been talking about in several of my recent posts is what is known as Servant Leadership, a term coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay called The Servant as Leader. In that essay he contrasted the Servant Leader, one who desires to serve first and leads in order to serve, with someone who leads with other purposes in mind.
Of course, the concept of servant leadership was best modeled nearly 2,000 years earlier. Laurie Beth Jones writes in Jesus, CEO: using ancient wisdom for visionary leadership:
The principle of service is what separates true leaders from glory seekers. Jesus, the leader, served his people.
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, put it this way:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant… (Phil. 2:3-7)
Paul, here, gives what turns out to be exceptional advice for leaders of every stripe, whether a corporate CEO or someone starting out in the mailroom. A successful leader serves.
You get my drift, I’m sure.
At the moment, the world is in turmoil because of leaders who have failed to serve their people, choosing instead power and glory. The people are “mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.” History is full of such examples. History also tells of those who are remembered as heroes for their service, people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Servant leadership may be a recently-coined term, but the concept has been around for thousands of years. In my opinion, it is the only way to truly be a leader. Sure, you can sometimes force people to follow you, but then, you’re really just a manager—someone whose job it is to keep people in line. If you want people to follow you by choice, learn how to serve them.
Every once in a while I take a look at the stats for this site, just to see who’s reading, and why. First, I noticed that traffic is way up, a steady increase over the past few months. Thank you!
The other interesting thing I noticed was that 5 of the top 10 searches that led you to the site involved church conflict. 50%! As I know from experience, boards—of any type—by nature involve conflict. And, for a number of reasons, many church people are uncomfortable with that. Which can create more conflict.
For some, it’s the belief that the “meek”—the future inheritors of the world—should never become involved in conflict. Then there’s that “peacemakers” thing. For others, it’s that their church operates under a legalistic, unhealthy system where it’s considered wrong to go against the flow (the flow being whatever the pastor believes).
Conflict is not necessarily bad, as I’ve said before. It’s often uncomfortable, but so what? Speaking the truth—or what we believe to be the truth—is risky business. We may find out we’re wrong, but again, so what? We gain either way: Either we bring truth, or we become educated ourselves.
Knowing how to work with conflict is the difference between destructive conflict, and constructive conflict. And it’s easier if the whole board or committee understands the dynamics of conflict, and has the tools to function in conflict situations.
The result? Everybody wins.