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Conflict: Good or Bad

In a Defining Moments session, Bill Hybels was asked if he thought that there was too much conflict in churches. His answer caught my attention in that he stated something that I have been feeling for quite some time.

His response was that it wasn’t that there was too much conflict in churches but rather that there wasn’t enough.

He went on to state that in many churches people will do almost everything that they can do to avoid conflict. As a result there are issues that simmer below the surface and never get resolved.

When asked why this is, he responded by saying that it is the result of “Chronic niceness”.

As I mentioned above, I have been feeling that this is the case for quite some time. It was good to hear someone else put my thoughts into words.


Uniformity vs. unity

It is easy to mistake uniformity for unity in our churches.

Uniformity takes place when everyone in a church acts in the same way and says the same things. Uniformity may look like unity from the outside but it is really just problems waiting to boil over.

Unity on the other hand happens when people share the same vision and purpose. It happens when a cause is more important than individual desires.

Patrick Lencioni, in his excellent book The Advantage, describes what is needed for real unity to occur.

“At the heart of vulnerability lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear, to sacrifice their egos for the collective good of the team. While this can be a little threatening and uncomfortable at first, ultimately it becomes liberating for people who are tired of spending time and energy overthinking their actions and managing interpersonal politics at work.”  pp. 27, 28

Uniformity often causes conflict whenever someone steps out of the commonly agreed upon behaviour and dares to suggest something different. At that point the uniformity around which the church has been built is threatened and above all else that threat must be challenged so that uniformity can be restored and the church can continue on as it has always been.

Unity, on the other hand, allows for differences. In fact one might say that it encourages differences. It gives people freedom to be themselves with their own distinct personality and their own likes and dislikes. Real unity exists in the midst of those differences because each person is committed not to common behaviour but to a common cause.


Conflict within unity

Lencioni goes on to talk about the relationship between unity and conflict.

“Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems.

“Of course, the kind of conflict I’m referring to here is not the nasty kind that centers around people or personalities. Rather it is what I call productive ideological conflict, the willingness to disagree, even passionately when necessary, around important issues and decisions that must be made. But this can only happen when there is trust.”  p. 38

Lencioni is not writing for the church but I believe that he has captured an important truth for the church to consider. The right kind of conflict can be and, in fact, probably is a sign of a healthy church. Fear of conflict is a sign that there are problems.

In my experience the nasty kind of conflict that Lencioni refers to usually happens when churches do their best to avoid all conflict. Problems simmer and eventually explode because they have never been dealt with in a context in which personalities have been set aside and the problem has been tackled with a common goal in mind.


Three essentials for productive conflict

1. Trust

Notice that Lencioni states that productive conflict can only occur in an atmosphere of trust.

Trust building takes time.

There are no shortcuts that we can take.

Building trust happens when a group of people work together towards a common vision.

Building trust happens when a group of people allow themselves to be vulnerable and the other people in the group support them.

Building trust happens when a group of people have each other’s backs whatever the impact of their decisions might be.

Building trust happens when people look beyond the immediate disagreement and see into each other’s hearts and realize that even in the strongest of disagreements all the members of the group are working towards the common good.

Building trust happens when the people in the group are there for each other outside of the official meetings.

2. Commitment to the greater good

Nasty conflict happens when the goals of the people involved center around their own needs and wishes. Nasty conflict happens when members of the group lose sight of the fact that they are sinners who could be wrong in their views and motives.

For conflict to be profitable everyone’s eyes must be on the larger goal. Leaders in a church setting should always have as their target, the greater good of the church as a whole.

I recently heard of a church that as a regular part of their board meeting would spend time at the end evaluating whether they had acted in a Christian, loving, truthful way towards each other. They were not a board that avoided conflict but one that constantly asked whether in the midst of conflict did they reflect the life of Jesus Christ.

Were they able to disagree and yet still realize that the other members of the group had the same goal in mind as they had?

In the midst of a disagreement were they able to demonstrate the love of Jesus because they knew that the person with whom they were disagreeing wanted the same thing that they wanted?

They both wanted the greater good. They just disagreed on how to get there.

3. Patience

This kind of trust and commitment doesn’t happen over night. It always takes time to produce lasting change.

What I am suggesting here is not a different set of guidelines for meetings but a different mindset for how a church functions. That takes time.

One of the missing ingredients in seminaries preparing young adults for ministry is a class on patience. As those young perspective pastors move out of the safe environment of the seminary into the wilds of ministry one of the most important tools that they can take with them is a huge dose of patience. Without it they will probably find themselves in serious trouble very early in their pastoral experience.

Church cultures always take a lot of time to change.


The need for conflict

In closing let me quote Lencioni one last time.

“But that’s not to say that even productive conflict isn’t a little uncomfortable. Even among the most trusting team members, there will always be a certain level of discomfort associate with disagreement. But it will be a healthy discomfort, a sign that there is productive tension around an issue that warrants discussion and debate.

“Overcoming the tendency to run from discomfort is one of the most important requirements for any leadership team – in fact, for any leader. Every endeavor of importance in life, whether it is creative, athletic, interpersonal, or academic, brings with it a measure of discomfort, calling to mind the old saying, “No pain, no gain.” And when we avoid necessary pain, we not only fail to experience the gain, we also end up making the pain worse in the long run.”  pp. 38, 39

There will always be conflicts in every church. There will never be a group of people who agree on everything.

Churches can avoid them and pretend that they don’t exist so that there is the appearance of uniformity. When that happens problems simmer below the surface until it can’t resist the pressure any more and an eruption occurs.

Or churches can move ahead in unity dealing with conflict in a Christ-like way so that the pressure is lifted and the church can move on towards its common goal.

Is there too much conflict in our churches? There is too much of the wrong kind of conflict but not enough productive conflict that works through issues in ways that result in healthy churches.

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