Common barriers to congregational growth: Unresolved conflict


November 18, 2013

As United Methodists, we share a common mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Many of our churches also face common issues that have the potential to hinder this mission. In this series, I address five of the most common barriers to congregational growth in spirituality, number, and community impact. Previously, I addressed lack of vision, waning worship, the challenge of moving beyond welcoming to invitation, and the need for intentional faith formation. This month, I close the series by turning attention to conflict resolution as a means of breaking through barriers to growth.

An age-old playground rhyme goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I’ve often wondered why this adage is so often quoted because, in my experience, broken bones can mend, but the painful cuts from tongue and unresolved disputes open wounds that sometimes never truly heal. When conflict strikes the church, the scars can become immobilizing for a community dependent on the resilience of love and trust.

In a landmark survey of American congregations by Faith Communities Today (FACT), 75 percent of congregations reported some form of conflict in the five years preceding the survey. At any given time, about one-fifth of all congregations are in active conflict. Although conflict is widespread, it’s not to be taken lightly. Twenty-five percent of all congregations report conflict serious enough to have a lasting impact on congregational life. Without intentional, open, and honest efforts at resolution, church conflict doesn’t go away—people do. The most common negative consequences of conflict are members and leaders leaving and money being withheld.

That said, conflict itself is not the problem. Eighty percent of congregations that are considered highly vital experience conflict because of change and differing opinions about mission and ministry. However, they deal with conflict openly and observe some form of “fair fighting” contract, maintaining an attitude of mutual respect, a commitment to active listening to others, and a clear focus on the participants’ interdependence and mutual interests. A valuable summary of research and resources on congregational conflict can be viewed or downloaded at the Faith Communities website.

The results of a Christianity Today poll revealed that 78 percent of churches wait too long to seek outside assistance. When “stewing and brewing” persists without constructive outlets, damage far beyond the presenting problem can occur. In the Minnesota Annual Conference, such painful procrastination need not occur; resources are at our disposal, including a trained conflict transformation team, templates for staff/parish covenants for conduct, and grants to assist with “Rule of Christ” training and circle processes for facilitated, constructive communication. A call to your district superintendent or the office of congregational development can connect you with these valuable tools and support systems.

Kay Roberts, a member of our Minnesota Conference conflict transformation team, reflects on her experience:

I have found that most churches want to get back to ‘being church.’ They just don’t know how to begin talking with one another in ways that move the church toward greater health in order to once again hear God’s call. Learning new methods of resolving conflict can actually strengthen a church and help members grow in their faith by gaining some biblically-based, life-equipping skills. Resolving conflict and finding healthy ways to be the body of Christ is the work of all church members. Making a commitment to God, one another, and yourself to be a reflection of Christ’s love takes effort. Perhaps it’s a good opportunity to remember that ‘speaking our truth—in love’ is a vital part of our faith journey.

As with any adversity, conflict can either make us better or bitter. It’s whether we approach conflict in faith or avoid conflict in fear that determines whether a church is strengthened or shattered. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” Matthew 18:20, CEB.

Dan Johnson is now the Twin Cities District superintendent for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He used to be director of congregational development and Reach • Renew • Rejoice.




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