There is a common phenomenon in the church today. People get offended, conflict arises and people leave the church. Very often this is a result of miscommunication, or no communication, and when there is a gap in information people fill in the blanks. Oftentimes what they fill the gap with is inaccurate or untrue. I had a pastor recently share about a member who left the church because they didn’t agree with a purchase that was made – a purchase that was approved by the board. The sad thing about it was this church member didn’t confront the pastor or the board about the situation, but shared their displeasure with another church member, who was brave enough to let the pastor know.
Much of the struggle with situations like this, comes from the reality that members pay tithes to support the church and have an interest in what those tithes are spent on. The challenge is to display transparency in every church decision and be diligent with communicating – over, and over, and over again. No one likes conflict, but it does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. It can be a good thing when it is a symptom of discontent and if it ultimately results in a positive change. In this example, the lesson learned was the decision should have been communicated and explained to eliminate the misunderstanding.
3 Ways to Manage Church Conflict
I’m a firm believer that many problems can be avoided by clear, intentional and consistent communication. For church leaders, this means creating a communication process to flow information throughout the organization. One way to do this is, when a decision is made, have a process in place to share that information with employees (staff meeting), volunteers (volunteer meetings or email blast) and church members (church meeting or Sunday announcements).
The goal is to share information before it hits the rumor mill and goes viral. It is much easier to control what is communicated on the front end than cleaning up rumors on the back end. Once the information is shared have a process that addresses any issues or concerns. For example, provide a Q&A after a major announcement is made. This allows people the opportunity to voice concerns or ask questions for clarity. As a caution, think through any anticipated questions so you are prepared to answer them. No one likes to get blindsided and caught off guard by unanticipated concerns – especially publicly!
Most of us don’t enjoy conflict but the best way to deal with it is to confront it head on. There is a theory in conflict resolution that suggests that the longer a conflict festers the less likely there will be a positive outcome. This makes it vital to confront the issues as soon as possible. The unfortunate outcome of some situations is that when a member is upset with something, they often share this discontent with another member and this gossip cycle can be very damaging. It is so fascinating to watch how a very content person can become malcontent when someone engages in negativity and gossip. This is the time to confront the individual and work to clarify information, understanding of the situation and try to resolve the issue.
3. Feedback Process
The challenge for church leaders, in the example above, is it is very difficult to confront an issue if you aren’t even aware of the situation. Create a comfortable feedback process for employees, volunteers and members and make it easy and safe for them to share issues or concerns. An easy process is convenient and a safe environment allows for disagreements to be discussed and debated openly.
Whenever there is more than one person in a room there is the opportunity for conflict. We are all wired differently, and come from different backgrounds, so we will each see things from a unique perspective. Creating systems for communication and transparency in sharing information, can be a first step in developing a culture that seeks not to eliminate conflict, but to manage it.