Conflict With Church Members

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A few years into my ministry at South Durham Church, a church member lost her grandfather. The two of them were very close. I was also very close with this member's husband. But, being a new pastor, and very green, I followed up with the church member and her husband, if memory serves, all of one time. Very caring, I know. That brought about one of my first incidences of conflict with church members. After a month or two had passed, they told me they were upset about something and wanted to talk. We did, and they graciously affirmed their love for me, made me aware of my neglectful insensitivity (my words, not theirs!), and by God's grace, we were reconciled.

I wish I could say that was the last time I let a church member down! Part of me also wishes I could say that's the only conflict I've ever had with a church member. They haven't all ended so well.

Sources of Conflict

Conflict with a church member can come from a number of sources.

Maybe someone doesn't like a decision you, or your leadership, made. Your team changed the music, and they're angry. You all spend too much on coffee.

Maybe they don't like something about the church itself, and you get to hear about it. "Pastor, this church isn't friendly enough. Nobody reaches out to me."

Maybe they don't like your doctrine. They drop you an email to let you know they think you're a heretic.

Maybe you let them down or disappointed them in some way. Maybe they've clearly sinned against you.

Conflict comes from many directions, but the important thing to remember is that if church is a family, there's going to be conflict. At least half of Paul's epistles deal with conflict in the churches.

If there's no conflict, either the church is too holy (in a manner of speaking!) and needs to be reaching more lost people, or the church is too superficial.

Principles for Conflict

What should a pastor do when conflict arises with a church member?

Get God's Perspective (as Best You Can)

Jeremiah 17:9 says:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?

Remember that we don't know the other person's heart or our own. [quote]Remember that we don't know the other person's heart or our own.[/quote] Get into the Bible and spend time in prayer to seek God's perspective on the situation.

Your Identity is in Christ (Hopefully!)... Not in What This Person Thinks of You

And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus . . . “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31)

I've been tempted to run from conflict--and I've handled conflict wrongly--because I care more about what the other person thinks of me than the truth of what God thinks about me in Jesus.

The truth is, you're a sinner saved by grace, and this person's opinion of you can't change that. Keep that in mind as you confront whatever the issue is.

The Person's Identity is in Christ (Hopefully!)... Not in What You Think of Them

Likewise, remember that the other person's identity is also in Jesus, and not in what you think of them. This one cuts two ways.

First, this means I don't need to be too timid in addressing the conflict. I'm not their Savior. Jesus still loves them even if I'm mad at them.

Second, this means I don't need to be too harsh in addressing the conflict. This person who's a source of conflict is a sinner saved by grace like me. God sees them as perfect in Jesus. He's already forgiven them whatever sin is here. My role isn't to convict them or change them--that's belongs to the Holy Spirit--I'm just here to communicate as truthfully, honestly, and lovingly as I can.

The Ball is in Your Court

I'm not the first one to point out that when there's conflict, according to Jesus, the ball is in your court.

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23-24)

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. (Matthew 18:15)

Whether you've offended or you've been offended, get in there, have the conflict, and work towards reconciliation.

Leadership (and Love) is Exertion

A Marine buddy once told me, "Leadership is exertion." He's right, and real, biblical love is also exertion.

Having conflict won't be fun. It'll be work--and emotional work at that, something most of us really don't want to do. But the cost of not having conflict is much higher. Get in there.

Repentance is not Weakness

One last principle for conflict: remember that repentance is not weakness as a leader. [quote]Remember that repentance is not weakness as a leader.[/quote] A sincere apology actually builds loyalty, whereas a refusal to acknowledge your guilt in the matter only invites more conflict.

In conflict, usually both sides have some repenting to do. Be honest with God and with yourself, lead by example, and go first.

Some Practical Tips

Here are a few practical tips on this I've picked up. Leave yours in the comments too, because I need to learn from you.

  1. If you know you've offended someone, initiate the meeting and start by listening. Say, "I know I've upset you. Tell me what's on your mind." And then just listen. Without interrupting. Then ask, "What else is on your mind about this?" because they probably didn't feel safe to really tell you everything the first time. While they're talking, if you feel your blood pressure rising, remember, your identity is in Jesus. He loves you. Listen for what He's telling you through them.
  2. If the other person has offended you, tell them you love them, tell them what they did, and then tell them how it made you feel (Say, "...and it frustrated me because..."). Follow up with something like, "I love you and I want to reconcile with you. I know I may have read you wrongly. What do you think about this?"
  3. Make the issue about the issue; not about the people involved. You don't have to fix them and you don't have to be fixed by them. Talk about the issue. If you can't come to an agreement, agree to take it to the Lord in prayer and follow up in a week.
  4. You may not be able to reconcile. You may need to let them leave the church and send them off with love. Conflict with a pastor is usually not grounds for public church discipline.

Before You Go

Proverbs says:

Iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another. (27:17)

We use that as a slogan for rejuvenating men's retreats, but if you think about it, iron sharpening iron is anything but a peaceful process.

Conflict can be very good. In this world, it's way better than the alternative. Go have that conversation you've been putting off, and may Go

ConflictAdam Darnell