Why is resolving conflict important?

Conflict not only divides individuals but it can impede the ministry and mission of a congregation. It is expected that their will be some level of conflict within the congregation, in all progress there will be some friction, but when conflict is ignored or people do not feel honored or respected, conflict can grow and become unhealthy. Resolving conflict is essential to healthy relationships and congregations.

What are the five levels of conflict?

Level 1: Problem to Solve
Everyday frustrations and aggravations make up this level, and we experience conflicts as they rise and fall and come and go. At this level, people have different opinions, misunderstanding may have happened, conflicting goals or values may exist, and team members likely feel anxious about the conflict in the air. In most instances, through conversation people can resolve this conflict through conversation and deep listening.

Level 2: Disagreement
At level 2, self-protection becomes as important as solving the problem. Team members distance themselves from one another to ensure they come out OK in the end or to establish a position for compromise they assume will come. They may talk offline with other team members to test strategies or seek advice and support. At this level, good-natured joking moves toward the half-joking barb. Nastiness gets a sugarcoating but still comes across as bitter. Yet, people aren’t hostile, just wary. Their language reflects this as their words move from the specific to the general. Fortifying their walls, they don’t share all they know about the issues. Facts play second fiddle to interpretations and create confusion about what’s really happening. This level of conflict can deescalate by deep listening, compromise and focusing on helping the congregation’s mission forward together rather than focusing on one’s position.

Level 3: Contest
At level 3, the aim is to win. People begin to align themselves with one side or the other. Emotions become tools used to “win” supporters for one’s position. Problems and people become synonymous, opening people up to attack. As team members pay attention to building their cases, their language becomes distorted. They make overgeneralizations: “He always forgets to check in his code” or “You never listen to what I have to say.” They talk about the other side in presumptions: “I know what they think, but they are ignoring the real issue.” When conflict reaches this level, using a neutral person or an outside facilitator may be needed to resolve the conflict or it will worsen.

Level 4: Fight
Team members believe the people on the “other side” of the issues will not change. They may believe the only option is to remove the others from the team or get removed from the team themselves. Factions become entrenched and can even solidify into a pseudo-organizational structure within the team. Identifying with a faction can overshadow identifying with the team as a whole so the team’s identity gets trounced. People and positions are seen as one, opening up people to attack for their affiliations rather than their ideas. These attacks come in the form of language rife with ideology and principles, which becomes the focus of conversation, rather than specific issues and facts. The overall attitude is righteous and punitive. When conflict reaches this level, an outside facilitator is needed.

Level 5: Intractable Situation
“Destroy!” rings out the battle cry at level 5. It’s not enough that one wins; others must lose. “We must make sure this horrible situation does not happen again!” Only one option at level 5 exists: to separate the combatants (aka team members) so that they don’t hurt one another. No constructive outcome can be had. This requires an outside facilitator.

What are biblical and theological foundations for resolving conflict?

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” – Matthew 18: 21-22

Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with stories about conflict between individuals, within groups, between cultures and, yes, even between God and humanity.

Conflict can be a catalyst for renewal, health and change and serve as a mechanism for growth. At other times, however, conflict can be destructive and cause serious dissension. A clear and healthy process for working through conflict empowers a congregation to move forward in the midst of the challenges and increase faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Healthy relationships include communicating honestly, reconciling willingly, and sharing and receiving forgiveness. We honor God when we work to resolve differences, offer forgiveness and reconcile differences within the congregation.

Growing our congregations beyond conflict requires intentionality, hearts for forgiveness and well-trained Staff-Parish Relations Committees (SPRC) and church leaders. We are committed to equipping leaders to lead through conflict.

What are the three steps for resolving conflict?

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. – Matthew 18:15
Begin with prayer for yourself and the people in conflict. Invite God to share wisdom, enable understanding and open communication that resolves differences.
If you have a concern about an action of a pastor, staff member, or parishioner, attempt to work it out directly with the person. Speak to each other face-to-face. Explain how you are affected and provide an opportunity for reconciliation. You are encouraged to start the conversation by saying – “I experienced (describe what you felt or experienced) when you (describe the action of the individual) and I would like to resolve our differences.”

But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. – Matthew 18:16
If your concern is not reasonably resolved by direct communication, speak to a member of the SPRC and ask for help to resolve your concern. The SPRC may take one of several actions.

  • Ask a member of the committee to mediate a conversation between the people in conflict.
  • Have those with concerns meet with the full SPRC and pastor so that they may hear the concerns identified.
  • Connect with an outside resource person if there does not appear to be a path forward to address the concerns. If the conflict involves the pastor, contact the superintendent first.

SPRCs are encouraged to participate in conference training on conflict resolution and to seek consultation about mediating conversations

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. – Matthew 18:17

If you do not believe that the SPRC has adequately addressed the concern or believe that the SPRC has not acted objectively, you may ask the SPRC chairperson to contact the superintendent. The superintendent will further review the concerns and determine if additional steps are warranted. When the conflict arises because of an allegation of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment or sexual abuse, the SPRC chairperson or the pastor should contact the district superintendent immediately (within eight hours) so that the Sexual Misconduct Policy is implemented.

How can our congregation receive support in resolving conflict?

Contact Nicola Mulligan, Assistant to the Bishop at nmulligan@gnjumc.org.