It’s a reality that we don’t like to talk about—conflict in the church. Ignoring it does not mean that it goes away.
Conflict does not necessarily mean fighting. Even those committed to being disciples of Jesus can have differences, but they can learn to deal with those differences in mature, compassionate ways. If we allow Christ to be the Lord of our lives, we’ll seek to listen to and understand the views of those with whom we disagree and seek fair solutions.
Disciples of Jesus can also have honest differences of opinion that are important enough to cause them to part ways. In Acts 15:36-41, for example, Paul and Barnabas decided to go their separate ways because they couldn’t agree about including John Mark in their mission.
Recently a survey of local Seventh-day Adventist churches in North America asked about conflict, and the results provide some insight. A random sample of pastors and local church officers were asked if during the previous five years their congregation had experienced any conflict in eight specific areas listed. In each case the respondents could indicate various levels of conflict, including severe conflict that resulted in a pastor or staff member leaving, some members leaving or withholding their giving, a moderate level of conflict that was dealt with in some other way, or no conflict.
The survey indicated that the most common area of conflict is the personal behavior of a church member. More than one in four churches reported severe conflict on this topic, and another third reported moderate conflict. Of course, this includes a wide range of items.
Pastors are often the focus of church conflict, sometimes through no fault of their own. One in five churches reported severe conflict about their pastor’s leadership style, and another 14 percent reported moderate conflict. One in seven churches reported severe conflict about a pastor’s personal behavior, and another 7 percent reported moderate conflict.
One in seven churches reported severe conflict about worship style, and another 28 percent reported moderate conflict.
One in 10 churches reported severe conflict about finances or the church budget, and another 24 percent reported moderate conflict. Almost an equal number reported severe conflict about actions of the conference, union conference, or division, and another 18 percent reported moderate conflict regarding some decision, policy, or program of the denomination.
About 5 percent of local churches reported severe conflict over the use of church facilities, and another 22 percent reported moderate conflict. This is often related to a decision to rent church buildings to a congregation of another denomination, a practice that Adventists encourage because we sometimes find it necessary to rent from other faiths.
These data are from the 2010 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey conducted in the Adventist Church by Roger Dudley, director of the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University, and sponsored by the North American Division vice president for strategic planning, Paul Brantley. A similar survey was conducted 10 years earlier, and it appears that conflict in Adventist churches has increased over the past decade. Because of differences in the way the questions were asked, it’s impossible to make a comparison about severe conflict, but the percentages of moderate conflict reported have increased significantly for many of the categories. The exception is conflict focused on pastors, which has declined.
What Do These Data Mean?
There’s a need for pastors, local elders, and church board members to study how to manage conflict in a mature and Christlike manner. If we are serious about the Holy Spirit’s leadership in the church, we will recognize and accept the reality of conflict and try to be prepared to deal with it in a way that honors our Lord.
There are books on the topic of how to manage conflict in the church, as well as trainers and consultants who can assist in this area. For information, contact Plus Line at 800-732-7587.
Monte Sahlin is director of research and special projects for the Ohio Conference and a senior consultant at the Center for Creative Ministry. Questions and suggestions can be sent to him at [email protected]. This article was published April 12, 2012.