Church Conflict: 3 types of conflict and how to navigate them

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It’s inevitable. Conflict will happen. The question is: will you let conflict sink you? If there’s one mistake we make when leading change, its pretending conflict doesn’t exist. We’d like to think we don’t avoid conflict, but more often than not, we don’t address it. Instead, we make a big deal out of the small stuff and ignore the awkward situations.

Church Conflict

Here’s how I understand conflict, and how I’ve attempted to navigate them:

1. Silly Conflict

Sometimes people are just having a bad day. Someone peed in their cornflakes, if you will. With that, comes short tempers, a lack of patience, and otherwise uncharacteristic actions.

We have to remember, that when we’re dealing with people, there are often private lives that are completely hidden to most of us. Just because Monday was tough, doesn’t mean there’s a big issue at play.

Sometimes the conflict is just simply ‘silly’ and we need to extend a lot of grace and ignore it.

2. Small Conflict

When conflict expands past the one-time situational occurrence and becomes a pattern, it turns into ‘small conflict.’ These moments are usually simple in nature but are awkward enough, that we’d rather not deal with them.

Here’s the problem – we can’t afford to ignore the small conflict.

All conflict is serious, but most conflict can be dealt with before it becomes unbearable.  The key is recognizing when the small conflict arises and dealing with it as soon as possible.

How many times have I heard, ‘If it isn’t a problem, don’t make it a problem’? I agree we can’t look for conflict. But if we pretend the ‘small conflict’ doesn’t exist, then we allow problematic situations to become ‘big conflict.’ More often than not, that ends in unresolvable hurt, pain, and lasting negative emotions.

Which leads to the last type of conflict.

3. Suffocating Conflict

When we ignore the small conflict, issues have a tendency to grow on each other. The more we ignore it, the more tangled the situation becomes. What’s even stranger, is that the conflicting situations don’t even have to be directly connected to each other for them to become tangled.

Before we know it, we have a tangled mess of heated opinions, emotional reactions, and leadership stress.

I call this suffocating conflict because it puts a stop to ALL missional activity within a church, tears people apart, leads to church splits, and resignations of pastors.

Sometimes this level of conflict shows itself as ‘silly conflict.’ You might wonder why someone is really upset because the church changed the colour of the carpet. It may not be ‘silly conflict,’ but rather built up unresolved conflict that is being expressed in frustration.

When we allow conflict to morph into suffocating conflict, it’s almost impossible to navigate without major change and overhaul. At the end of the day, it’s simply not where God wants us to end up.

So, the question is, how do we navigate conflict before it becomes suffocating?

Let me give you a few ways I try to navigate conflict. Hopefully, it helps in your ministry journey.

1. Grace & Understanding

Conflict is often the result of a change. If people have done something the same way for a long period of time, change doesn’t come easy. In fact, it’s quite uncomfortable and it will almost always lead to conflict.

In order to navigate conflict, we need to have grace with those who are concerned about the new venture or ministry. The tension is real and the concern is real. After all, if we’re passionate for the Kingdom, we would only expect people to be concerned for the future. Let’s follow Christ’s example, and extend grace.

We also need to understand that leaders desire to grow the Kingdom, not bulldoze the past. New ideas don’t mean old ideas are wrong, it just means we’re trying to advance the Kingdom. Old ideas were once new ideas that were given the space to become normal. We can’t forget where we came from, but we also can’t stay there either.

2. Passion & Commitment

Passion drives us to make a difference. I love watching new leaders and believers jump into ministry opportunities. They just want to change the world! In the church setting, it often creates conflict because new people don’t know ‘how it was always done.’ Instead of squashing the passion, let the passion drive our ministries.

Commitment drives us to make a difference for the long haul. I talked with a senior couple of our church family a while ago. While they don’t naturally connect, or even agree, with some of our new initiatives, they ensured me that they were still committed to our local Assembly. Their commitment out-weighed their internal conflict.

Passion has to be paired with long-lasting commitment in order for us to navigate conflict, and experience sustained growth.

3. Transparency & Honesty

Transparency is key to navigating conflict. We can fake leadership for a period of time, but lasting influence is driven by transparent leadership. When conflict arises in a transparent environment, ‘small conflict’ doesn’t have a chance to hide. It’s alright to struggle through a situation; it’s not alright to avoid a struggle in order to remain visibly ‘strong.’

Honesty is also key. Leaders can only lead when they have the right information. As a pastor, I am always willing to hear someone’s dilemma and struggle. We may not always see eye to eye, but we can journey together every step of the way! It’s impossible, however, to journey together if we’re not honest with each other.

These two elements work together as we mutually navigate conflict.

Our communion meal had some obvious push-back. Some really weren’t keen on trying something as different as eating a meal instead of having a ‘service.’ Some shared their honest concern, while others didn’t. In the process, I was able to be transparent — the idea was even outside of my comfort zone. We (our board included), however, just knew we needed to pursue this ministry – and I’m so glad we did! God used (and continues to use) that ministry for His glory!

Our Response:

If you’re a leader reading this, you’ll need to figure out ways to show grace, lead with passion and allow for transparency.

If you’re a parishioner reading this, you’ll need to make sure you allow yourself space to understand, stay committed to the Kingdom no matter what, and be respectfully honest with leadership and others.

At some point, we all find ourselves in both of those categories. As long as we remember that it’s not about us, we’ll navigate conflict well. The focus is always Kingdom growth!

Conflict happens, but the goal is to navigate the ‘small conflict’ so it doesn’t turn into ‘suffocating conflict,’ and derail us from moving forward.

If you have other ways that help you navigate conflict, let us know in the comments below!

Andrew currently lives in Winterland, Newfoundland with his wife, Deidre, and two children (Rae and Pierson). He is a graduate of both Memorial University (BBA) and Tyndale Seminary (MTS). His passion is to help people become true disciples of Jesus.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.