Ten Things You Need to Know About Churches and Conflict

Ever watch a church in conflict? More often than not, it’s not a pretty sight. Rather than love, joy, and peace, you see sharp elbows, crass comments, and character assassination. And while I have no easy solutions, here are ten things you need to know about conflict and churches.

  1. Conflict is inevitable. Yup, just like birth, death, and taxes. Show me a church that has no conflict and I guarantee — scratch the surface, and you’ll find it right behind the scenes.
  2. Conflict has no moral value. Conflict, of itself, is neither good nor bad. It just is. Yet wander into some churches and you’d think that, if conflict does rear its ugly head, the roof will fall in and the gates of hell open wide. 
  3. Conflict makes many Christians nervous. See above. Christians somehow feel that if they wind up in conflict they’ll have committed some great sin. But again–conflict, of itself, has no moral value, either for good or evil.
  4. Christians don’t know how to deal with conflict. Too often, Christians view conflict through the dualistic lens of fight or flight. But there is a third, more Christian way to deal with conflict, which is by leaning into it. What does that mean? It means being non-anxious, embracing it, and respecting the dignity of every human being. If all sides do these things, it is very likely that the ultimate outcome will be okay.
  5. Some clergy engender conflict. If you encounter a church that’s deeply mired in conflict, look to the clergy or other leaders as a possible source. Particularly if your priest or pastor suffers from narcissistic personality disorder — quite common among clergy — you’ll see that their focus is on meeting their own need for adulation and attention, while displaying no empathy for others. Yes, they’ll often be verbally facile, but there is no substance to it. In those cases, churches will typically be hotbeds of bullying and intrigue.
  6. Conflict ignored is conflict multiplied. Many clergy are conflict-avoidant, and will use the so-called logical fallacy of illicit transference to avoid addressing conflict. Simply put, they argue that because they can’t fix all conflict, they will fix no conflict. This becomes an excuse. But who was the first person to pass by in the tale of the Good Samaritan? A priest. So while it is true that not all the ills of the world can be fixed, we are still called to try.
  7. Clergy are responsible for church culture. If your church has a culture that responds badly to conflict, your priest is largely responsible if she has been there for any length of time. “But I don’t get involved in stuff like that,” some priests will argue. But they’re still responsible, because they either create culture, or they allow its creation.  
  8. Bad behavior never helps. I have seen churches where people, even clergy, try to deal with conflict by attacking the other side, accusing them of misconduct, or ignoring them. These tactics don’t help, but instead ensure that the conflict will continue and expand.
  9. Conflict, handled correctly, may be good. The Holy Spirit does its work every day, breathing life and renewal into the church. But nowhere are we promised that with change won’t come conflict. Once we recognize and embrace that concept, we find that the tension that comes with conflict eases. And consider the possibility that, in cases of injustice and oppression, we may be called to be in conflict with the oppressor.
  10. Conflict is often easily resolved. As humans, we are experts at piling all sorts of baggage on even the smallest conflicts. Yet very often, all the other side wants is an apology. Just ask lawyers how many times they’ve seen cases go to court simply because someone wouldn’t apologize.

About Eric Bonetti

I’m a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids’ cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I’m also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.

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