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5 signs you're not taking conflict seriously

| by Margaret Marcuson

It’s possible to take church conflict too seriously—or not seriously enough. Some conflict is a sign of vitality, that the church is moving forward, and there are inevitable disagreements. In other cases, as an inevitable and normal conflict escalates, it’s a sign that people are not able to take responsibility for themselves. Some members of the community blame, incessantly criticize and insist they must have their own way (right up to firing the pastor). 

In the most difficult church conflicts, the pastor and other key leaders must take a stand and say, in essence, “You can’t act like that here.” All too often, church leaders avoid this. Many churches have a culture of niceness where it’s hard to take stand up to difficult people. We think it’s “not Christian” to set limits. In fact, just the opposite is true. Setting boundaries with people who don’t have them is ministry to them, believe it or not. 

Here are five warning signs you might not be taking a church conflict seriously enough. 

1. You think that setting a strong limit with someone is mean (or at least that they will think it is mean). In reality, it is kinder to set limits with those who can’t set them for themselves. This can be a real expression of love. 

2. You think if you ignore it will go away. With minor upsets this can be true, but if you passively ignore a person with no boundaries they will just become more invasive. 

3. You see it as a one-time matter, unrelated to anything else in the past or present. Instead, ask the question, “Why now?” Sometimes a conflict will pop up in one area seemingly unrelated to another. The balance in church life is like a mobile – touch one area and another might start to bounce. For example, a church might make a major change in worship and see upheaval in the youth program.  

4. You think you can handle it alone. Especially if you are the pastor, you must have lay leaders as allies in dealing with the most problematic folks, especially if they are central to congregational life. 

5. You think if you accommodate the difficult people it will solve the problem. Typically, they simply push the boundary further and ask for more. 

I said in my last post on taking conflict too seriously that “seriousness is a sign of anxiety.” But by “serious” here I mean something different:  

• Having the courage to stand up and set boundaries,  

• Being a leader who functions as the immune system for a congregation, 

• Protecting the wider community from the least mature, for the sake of the whole and for the sake of the future.  

These are essential leadership functions, part of the job of the pastor and key lay leaders. While you may not embrace these challenges, don’t avoid them. The ministry depends on you. 

Photo source: istock

Margaret Marcuson

Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources. Margaret is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry and MoneyandYour Ministry: Balance the Books While Keeping Your Balance. She served as a pastor for 15 years.

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