The Pastor and Conflict Resolution
In many congregations, the pastor is looked to as the person to go to in order to resolve conflict between individuals or groups within the church. It reminds me of the judges of the Old Testament—just go to the Pastor and he’ll pronounce who is right and who is wrong. The problem is, in the church, that simply is not the role of the pastor. Or any other staff minister for that matter. At least at first.
Know biblical resolution. It’s surprising how few church members or even staff members know of the biblical method for conflict resolution that Jesus clearly outlined to His disciples. Matthew 18:15-19 is a clear, concise and Christ-given means to resolve any conflict between two Christ-followers. Jesus says “go to your brother or sister… just between the two of you”. Then, if they do not listen, “take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by testimony”. Finally if they still refuse to listen, “tell it to the church”.
Teach biblical resolution. As a pastor, your first order of business with respect to conflict resolution is to teach biblical conflict resolution. Every staff member, deacon, elder and lay leader in your church should know this methodology. Once the church leadership is informed, also teach the congregation. Dr. Merritt recently taught his church the method outlined in Matthew 18. Clearly state to your church, “This is the way we are going to resolve conflict in the body”.
Abide by biblical resolution. We must know and teach biblical conflict resolution before we can abide by it. This is why I know so many churches do not know or teach Matthew 18—because of the constant refrain of drama, factions and angst that spews from many churches. The pastor’s job is not to referee between staff leaders, staff and members or members themselves. I’m convinced that half or more of local church “dramas” between Christ followers would be wiped away if we just practiced Matthew 18.
When anyone approaches the pastor or staff member about a conflict they are having, the first question should be, “Have you been to that person and talked to them?” If the answer is no, then no further conversation on the matter should take place until that happens. To be sure, it’s certainly either party’s option to just drop it, forget it, and move on. Not every conflict must be resolved by direct confrontation—we can always practice forgiveness and overlooking the faults of others. But for those that do require direct confrontation, the Bible is clear that the parties must approach each other directly, privately, first.
Sometimes the refrain might be, “Well, I just have a tough time confronting people”. My answer to that is, “Grow up. That’s what it takes to resolve conflict.” Frankly, a believer does not have a choice in the matter if the offense warrants a confrontation. We are often afraid to risk offending another, or losing a friend. But being an adult, much less a Christ-follower, demands we are willing to talk to another when we have been offended.
The role of the pastor or leader in conflict resolution. Once that first conversation has occurred, if the issue is not yet resolved, then and only then should a pastor or staff member step into the situation, by invitation of one or both parties. Here too we often get it wrong, thinking it is our job to mediate the dispute or determine who was wrong. The goal of conflict resolution in the church is not the same as the goal in a courtroom. It is not the pastor’s job to mediate or judge a dispute between believers. It is his job to help restore their relationship. Going as a friend and fellow believer, the pastor may listen to both sides, keep the tone positive and press for restoration of the relationship.
Pastor, do not take sides. This is a recipe for disaster. People in conflict often manipulate those around them to “gang up” on the other side. If you are tempted to take sides, or are being pressed to resolve an issue now, best to wait and meet the following day, giving time for everyone to reflect first on the purpose of meeting to resolve conflict. Never be afraid to state, “My job is not to take sides. My job is to help restore your relationship.”
Most often in a meeting such as this we find that two parties simply don’t know how to communicate their differences to one another. In this case, the pastor’s strengths as a communicator work to his advantage in helping to restore the relationship. Within the church, it’s not so much important that one person “win the argument” as it is both parties leave the room as reconciled brothers or sisters in Christ.
The brick wall. What if that doesn’t solve the problem? The Bible here is also clear in that the matter should then be brought before the church. In two churches where I have served, the method for this was to bring a matter before the elders or deacons, not publicly at a business meeting. Notice again in Matthew 18 that there is no mention here of the church being a governing body regarding the conflict. Their sole role in this case is to determine if one or both parties must be cast out of the fellowship. If habitual sin is involved, if one or both parties refuse to act in a Christ-like manner, this is clear grounds to protect the reputation of the church by removing a person from the fellowship.
What about… Biblical conflict resolution in this manner is primarily for individual disputes or disagreements between two individuals. Certainly there are many circumstances where this mode of resolution is not to be used. If one party has committed a crime, for instance. If violence is involved, such as between two spouses. These have legal ramifications beyond two people disagreeing on a matter. I would never be shy about calling a Christian attorney into these more serious issues, especially if it involves a staff member, a lay leader with great responsibility, money, moral indiscretion or other grave matters. Many Christian lawyers are members of Peacemaker Ministries (peacemaker.net), which practices biblical conflict resolution, trains others how to, and helps mediate more serious legal conflicts using biblical principles.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt