Intra-congregational Conflict and the Impacts (or not) on Individuals’ Spiritual Formation

By Jehan Loza

Introduction 

Conflict among God’s people has existed since the beginning of time.

Beginning with the fall and the first conflict between Adam and Eve, the Old Testament is peppered with conflict between Israel and other nations and among the Israelites themselves. Even the New Testament, with its message of hope and love, includes stories of conflict.

The causes and outcomes of intra-congregational conflict

According to Starke and Dyke (1996) intra-congregational conflicts with the greatest consequences are either authority-based or doctrinally-based and certainly the Church of Corinth was suffering from both. Other research has shown that intra-congregational conflict occurs over issues such as worship and ritual, gender and sexuality, church building, generational gaps, liberal and conservatives, individual differences in race or ethnicity (see Grace Chou for a bibliography 2008). Community congregations (those placing emphasis on interpreting and applying shared values on social issues) have twice the number of conflicts as family congregations (those placing emphasis on close knit and supportive relationships) and congregations affected by the charismatic movement are more vulnerable to intra-congregational conflict (Grace Chou 2008). The notion of ‘values issues’ picked up here by Grace Chou is not to be underestimated.

Paton (1996) claims that religious organisations, including Churches, are organisations marked by “value issues”, and, as a result, experience a greater measure of internal conflict. Paton (1996:31) defines value issues as:

 an organisational conflict which reflects emerging or unresolved tensions concerning the implications of a commitment central to the identity or mission of an organisation or between two such commitments, where such tensions are perceived to have a clear ethical dimension.

While value issues often lead to conflict, they have a distinctive attribute and therefore differ from other internal organisational conflicts. Value issues: appeal to and are motivated by higher values, have significance both at the organisational and individual level and carry limited leverage for negotiation. Value issues are more likely to appear in public and voluntary organisations that exist to pursue humanitarian or religious goals and those that exist to bring about change in the wider society. Paton (1006) suggests that because religious organisations are critical of the status quo they are prone to intense disputes over critical tenants and principles.

Picking up a similar theme, Greenwood (2005:3) argues that one of the qualities that make churches vulnerable to intra-congregational conflict is idealism.

Greenwood suggests that members bring to their congregations:heartfelt values and ideals, hopes and dreams, passion and caring, and our families. We invest mind, body, and spirit. We have high expectations that our need for belonging, affirmation, emotional support, unconditional love, meaning, guidance, usefulness, mastery, and power will be fulfilled.  

As a result there is much at stake when conflict erupts. Since church decisions matter, members may lack the grace to accept convictions that differ from their own. Simultaneously, churches will often encourage idealism by building optimism through promoting an ideal of ‘the family of God’ while avoiding conversations around limitations (except those that are financial). Greenwood (2005) argues that this disposition as one towards “a mindset of perfectionism” creates a false hope, camouflaging the reality of humanity’s inclination toward conflict. When values are therefore challenged and expectations are unmet, conflict can emerge. It is for this reason that Greenwood (2005:4) comments that “the very root of the church’s genius – its ability to stir the human heart and to elicit hope and action – is also its vulnerability”.

Yet church conflict is all too common. In their research on conflict with American churches, the organisation Your Church found that nearly all pastors recall experiencing conflict in their church at some point and a staggering one in four are in the midst of conflict in their current church. 93 percent of those surveyed noted several negative effects from conflict (La Rue 2006).

According to La Rue (2006) the damage from conflict is twofold. First, is a wounded pastor and congregation with broken relationships, loss of trust and bitterness. Second, is that people leave the church. In nearly four out of ten cases (38%) pasters reported that they had left their church due to conflict. Church leaders leave a third of the time. And one-third of churches experienced a drop in church attendance compared to only 16% of churches that see attendance growth as the result of conflict.

Other research has noted that severe and unresolved conflict can result in church exit and even for those that remain committed to the church, the conflict can generate crippling emotions that result in a withdrawal from regular participation, activities, social opportunities and even friendships within the church – all important aspects for spiritual formation. For those directly involved in the conflict alienation, mutual recrimination, accusations and, harsh deeds are common place experiences (Becker 1999, Ellison et al 2009).

Drawing on the work of Baumeister (1991), Krause and Wulff (2005) argue that one of the primary functions of religion is to provide a sense of belonging. When individuals encounter interpersonal problems with fellow church members, the effects are likely to be pernicious, since such experiences can destroy deeply held beliefs about the way church members should relate to each other. Church conflict, therefore, can also have negative outcomes on an individual’s psychological wellbeing.

Finally, prolonged and bitter congregational conflict can distract both operations and staff and members from the core mission and purpose of the church such as ministry areas, outreach programs, discipleship training, support and care for members and their families etc. Such conflict, argue Ellison et al (2009:5) has the potential to “suck the air out of” the church community and erode, even diminish, friendship networks, support structures and generate a highly charged and negative environment.

Important to also note is that the inability to address and resolve conflict in a healthy manner not only undermines the mission of the church and its viability but will also stunt the spiritual vitality of the congregation (Greenwood 2005).

The next section presents a personal recollection of two recent church conflicts and their outcomes.

A personal reflection: There is strife in the house

During 2008 and early 2009, my husband and I would often visit my parent’s church. Planted as the first Arabic AOG in Melbourne, this group of 40 adults were on ‘fire’ and the Spirit was moving. The church was growing and was excited to welcome several recently converted Muslims. Every Sunday the congregation ate together and every Wednesday at least half the church met for life group. My parents had been attending the church since 2007. The transformation that we witnessed in my mother, who was once a Coptic, and father, who had not attended church for more than 20 years, was nothing short of incredible. There is more to write though suffice it to say that my husband and I often reflected that this Church did in fact represent an Acts 2 church!

However, in mid-2009, things began to go awry as some of the board members began to question the senior Pastor on financial matters.

The Pastor would not defend himself stating only:

“I can only tell you that I did not do this and God will be my defender.”

This did not placate the board and within a short time, and with an escalating debate, alliances between board members and congregation members were made. The gossip and backbiting increased as members sought the ‘truth’ creating a fertile ground for previous and unresolved offences between members and members and their pastor to be raised and accusations to widen. Those with offense began to accuse him of being too controlling. The Pastor responded with: “I am your Pastor”.  By now, the people were in a frenzy. The more they talked the more things heated. The talking behind closed doors in hushed tones became loud, public declarations. My mother and others pleaded with the board members to tell to give them more information.

She said:

“This man is a good man. Tell me what he had done that is so bad. I do not understand and I am hearing mixed and confused messages.”

Their answers did not satisfy. The conflict continued to escalate and when it became physical, the Pastor and his wife resigned, went home and packed their bags for Egypt. Their plans were stalled when half the congregation knocked on their door and pleaded that they plant a new church.

The church had split. The ramifications were high. Some newly converted (Muslim) members retreated to their homes and many friendships were broken. The Pastors wife needed some serious health care for the stress and my parent’s allegiance was also split. My father stayed in the old church and my mother went with the Pastor to the new church plant. Over several months, my husband and I watched with both amusement and horror my parents throw fierce accusations at each other. The arguments always concluded with one pointing the finger at the other yelling: “you are going to hell!”

Not long after the new church plant, the Pastor of our church at the time invited the Arabic Pastor to use a room in our church for his meetings. It was nice to know my mother and I, though divided by language, were worshipping in the same house. It was nice watching her church grow. And just as we were coming terms with the devastation that we had witnessed in my parents church, a new type of devastation erupted.

On a Saturday night friends of ours met with us to ask if my husband would be one among three men who would meet with our current pastor and ask him to resign. They said, “there is a Jezebel spirit in the house”, that “the Pastor was too controlling over the people”, “the control was not permitting the Spirit to move”, and that in fact, “there was a spirit over the house that needed to be broken”. Horrified, my husband declined their offer and attempted to make clear that this is not something he agreed with. “You do what you feel prompted by the Spirit John and we will do what we feel prompted by the Spirit” was the response.

Six months followed where, within a culture of secrecy of the details of the conflict and its negotiation, new accusations and rumours emerged. While the senior Pastors tried to remain silent for ‘confidentiality reasons’, a couple of board members and some staff members took free reign further fuelling the conflict. “His wife had an affair”, they said. “She has damaged a lot of our members over the years … A lot of people have left because of her”, they accused.

It felt like déjà vu as we watched (sometimes even participated in) several yelling matches after the Sunday services. Friendships were strained, many were broken and more accusations emerged. Finally our Pastor and his wife resigned and left the church. His parting words were, “my family has been brutalised”.

During the interim, my husband was made connections ‘Pastor’. His new role stirred up some unexpected, unbeknown and unresolved issues between him and I. This coupled with the aftermath of pain and devastation I witnessed all done in the name of God and His glory, almost caused me to walk away from church and God.

Our church has now become a Planter Shakers campus. Some people have left, though it is hard to say how many. Many more have come, though it is hard to know from where they have come. The community of which we were a part has been disintegrated as the foyer is now flooded with strange faces, yet we see salvations every week.

My mother’s church is shrinking. There has been more conflict and more members have left. Due to space restrictions, last week they were asked by Planetshakers to leave our building.

I do not know what has happened to my father’s church. His behaviour during that time was so appalling to me that I refused to engage in any conversation with him about either his church, my mother’s church or my church. I do know that they are still seeking a permanent pastor.

Conflict as spiritual formation

Given the negative outcomes of intra-congregational conflict, it would seem that such conflict might have a degree of impact on an individual’s spiritual formation. If as Richards (1975) argues it is the body of Christ, in the ministry of believers to one another that leads to the spiritual transformation of fullness in Christ, what happens when the ministry of believers find themselves in friction or conflict? What are the spiritual formation impacts of this?

This question raises a significant pastoral concern since, as Majerus and Sandage argue (2010), there is a Divine call on Christians to pursue spiritual maturity which sees its full expression when we become in the image of Christ and are able to express unity in the faith and knowledge of Christ becoming mature in Him, attaining to the whole measure and His fullness.

The general admonition of Christian life that positions passivism as a virtue and a condition of conflict avoidance can result in avoidance of conflict at all cost. Those accepting this view, see conflict as anathema to Jesus’ proscription to be selfless and loving (Ennis 2008) and attempt to rid all conflict from their relationships, considering it improper, deviant and ‘unchristian’ to expect conflict to be a plausible condition of the human experience. These individuals, argues Ennis (2008:346), are “avoiding their Christian duty to properly use conflict to achieve positive results” rather than resolving the conflict. The means to escape conflict are denial, flight, or physical suicide and the results end in chaos and even death. The opposite of passivism, direct action as a means to resolve conflict can be just as detrimental. Such a response to conflict can too often lead to litigation, verbal/physical assault and even murder.

What then is the response to conflict that facilitates our Divine call to spiritual maturity?

There is a common perception among Christians that church exit as a result of conflict leads to a loss of faith and at a minimum stunts an individual’s spiritual growth. However, Grace Chou (2008) has highlighted that exit is only one possible outcome of intra-congregational conflict and certainly not the most common outcome. A study conducted by Hibbert (2010) found that church leavers still expressed belief in Jesus and continued to pray regularly. The majority of church leavers were still very positive about Jesus and most indicated that their primary allegiance was to Christ who they had an ongoing relationship with (which included experiences of God speaking to them and acting in their lives (Hibbert, 2010)

Researchers like de Kock (19920 Grace Chou (2008), Hibbert (2010) and others position conflict as a positive force for spiritual formation and transformation. Ennis (2008), for example, asserts that Christian understanding of conflict and its correct resolution is essential to continued spiritual formation and the churches promotion of the Christian faith. In fact, Ennis claims that when it is handled appropriately, conflict can facilitate our growth and strengthen our relationships. Ellison et al (2009) hypothesise that, while conflict may give rise to emotional distress, in the short term it is possible that this may yield cumulative benefits in terms of spiritual growth over a longer period of time. Further, New-Edson (2005) asserts that conflict can allow us to be open to other ways of seeing and understanding situations. Within a congregation, times of conflict provide the Holy Spirit with an opportunity to refine and mature individuals into more Christ-like servants.

In their research, Starke and Dyck (1996), found some surprising positive outcomes for those that had experienced intra-congregational conflict which resulted in a church split. One significant positive outcome of the split was the need for more people to become actively involved in congregational life. That is, many of those who had sat on the sidelines up until the conflict, had to step forward and assume positions of leadership that they would otherwise have assumed. Such participation provided a tangible benefit. Furthermore, congregational splits can result in new congregations that are similar to the diaspora of the early church – that is, as a promulgation of the faith and improvement in the performance of the larger church (Starke and Dyck 1996).

Finally, according to research conducted by the organisation Your Church,  there are many benefits of conflict with those surveyed claiming it was a learning experience, or a spiritual encounter that was necessary to resolve a problem or bring about healing. The overwhelmingly positive outcome of the conflict for more than seven in ten pastors was wisdom. Other top benefits included a purifying process, a better-defined vision for the church, and better communications (La Rue 2006).

A one body: A reconciling spirit

Ackerman notes that if the outcomes of conflict are not positive then there has been a failure among the people to “live by the model of the cross”. According to Ackerman (2005:350):

Any growing group will experience friction as part of the maturing process. If the friction, however, is not filtered by love, the human tendency for self-glorification will contaminate the fellowship, leading to a breakdown of community. 

Ennis (2008) argues that few people have learned that conflict is an opportunity to solve common problems in a way that honours God and, in turn, facilitates the spiritual maturity of others. The problem with the Church at Corinth mentioned earlier, therefore, was not the conflict that was among the believers but that their individualism and lack of love towards each other led to unhealthy friction and a barrier to non-believers.  Their show of gifts did not produce fruits of faith but of alienation and disbelief. Their boasting of speaking in tongues, for example, did not facilitate unity but the alienation of unbelievers. The Corinthians prioritised the temporal, neglecting love which, according to Ackerman (2005) is the sign of the true eschaton.

According to Hybels (1997:26) we should expect disagreements, even strong disagreements, in Christian institutions. Hybels argues that unity is not a word we should use to describe human relationships since the popular notion of unity among Christians being the absence of conflict:

is a fantasy land where disagreements never surface and contrary opinions are never stated with force. Instead of unity, we use the word community. . . . The mark of community—true, biblical unity—is not the absence of conflict. It’s the presence of a reconciling spirit. 

Sande (2000:25) claims that we should view conflict as an opportunity to illuminate the power and presence of God for that is what the Bible teaches us. According to Sande conflict always provides an opportunity to glorify and honour God. It also provides us with the opportunity to demonstrate God’s love for others, that God is loving, and faithful.

It is important to note that Scripture is written to and for groups of people not individuals. For Ennis (2008) learning to read our Bible in this way means rather than asking, ‘What is God saying to me?’ we ask ‘What is God saying to us?’ As Paul noted to the Corinthians, we are a body. As believers, we have the mind of Christ. This means we have a way, by God’s grace, to resolve conflict together. This is the reconciling spirit.

The church and its leaders have a major part to play in this.

According to de Kock (1992) if we acknowledge that the church is an ecology of different styles and members at different stages of faith, we come to realise that the response to certain demands placed upon the church might create conflict and that many in the church may not be able to respond adequately. De Kock (1992) claims that the church must provide ways and means for which to deal with conflict creatively. This is not the place to discuss creative means for addressing conflict, though as an entry point, one must understand that Christian action in relation to conflict has a higher purpose than the resolution of the conflict itself (Ennis 2008).

As a pastoral concern issue, the role for the church and its leaders, therefore, is to equip the people for change and conflict. One way of doing this is for church leaders to bring the conflict to light and then to equip the people to better deal with the conflict as an asset, as an important experience for spiritual growth rather than as a negative or a limitation. This in itself is a creative approach and one that I would argue is based on a reconciling spirit. After all, as Greenwood (2005: 4) claims:

If there is any shame, it is in failing to acknowledge our problems and gain the skills necessary to address them in a life-giving way. This journey begins with compassion for our congregations and ourselves, and appreciation for the unique gift the church represents. What other institution attempts to cut across boundaries of class, age, and ethnicity to build a caring, cohesive community with all those who show up, whatever their quirks, dreams, needs? An aversion to conflict deprives churches of the material needed for health and growth, the fresh air that mediates the Spirit’s presence. Conflict, after all, bears potential gifts. Conflict is the engine of change, and always a call to renewal. The very impetus toward a loving, cohesive community becomes our nemesis if not rightly understood. In seeking to emulate the witness of early Christians (“My how they love one another”), we must safeguard our authentic struggles, which serve to deepen our love for one another and God.

On the home front – the good news is that several months ago my parents reconciled and are now talking. A few weeks ago one of the members of my father’s church participated in a social activity in my mother’s church and last week my mother said she might go and visit my father’s church. In our church, broken relationships are being mended, some people who left the church many years back are ‘coming home’ and many are being ‘spiritually awakened’.

For my family and close friends, whether forced into the conflict or entered into it willingly, the trauma they endured, I believe, has paid off. Most of us would say that despite it all, we have come a long way spiritually. I am thankful for the experience. I have learnt so much and have come to understand and experience God more intimately.  While the story ends well (for now at least) I would still argue that both my parents and our church leaders could have played a bigger role during the conflict process. The secrecy that shrouded the conflict and was generated by the leaders of both churches only served to fuel the situation, further creating a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. As a result, our spiritual growth, such as it has been, appears to have occurred at the individual rather than at the corporate/community level – a level  which Greenwood (2005) above notes is so important for one’s spiritual development. Rather than travelling solo on the spiritual formation journey, leaders can be constantly asking “what is God saying to us” and in doing so ensure that congregations in conflict travel as one body in reconciliation – albeit as Paul the Apostle noted – a body with many parts. With such diversity in parts, the journey can only rely on creative methods.

Conclusion

Conflict is an inevitable part of human existence and interaction. It has existed since the beginning of time. Despite the research that claims that intra-congregational conflict has negative outcomes, there is other, more compelling, research that shows that conflict is a necessary requirement, even an asset, for one’s spiritual growth.

Conflict is a positive force for spiritual formation. Rather than a negative, conflict provides an opportunity to glorify and honour God. Church leaders have an important role to play in this. Rather than promoting a culture of secrecy, a culture of false harmony, church leaders must recognise that action for conflict serves a much higher purpose than the resolution of the conflict itself. The role for the church and its leaders, therefore, is to equip the people for change and conflict. Leaders can be constantly asking “what is God saying to us” and in doing so ensure that congregations in conflict travel as one body with many parts and as a body armed with a reconciling spirit.

I am left with some questions: To the present Pastors and those to come: will you bring to light what is your shame and your secrecy? Will you step out and teach your people that conflict is natural, normal and expected? Will you equip your people in the ways of reconciliation, give them the tools, the understanding of doing conflict in love – creatively, doing it with a reconciling spirit? Will you show your people, teach and train them how they can grow, and be transformed through conflict as one body with many parts? Will you?

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References

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