DONELSON — Churches are not immune from conflicts, says Bill Northcott, church-minister relations specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Convention.
Speaking at the Middle Tennessee Deacons Conference held Jan. 23-24 at First Baptist Church here, Northcott observed church conflict has been present since the first century church as described in the New Testament.
He described conflict as “the result of a situation in which two or more persons whose desires, needs, interests, goals and/or values at least appear to be mutually exclusive.” Northcott, a former pastor and church staff member, said it is imperative to teach about conflict and how to handle it because conflict “is bound to happen.” What’s more, he observed, most churches do not have a plan to deal with conflict and end up waiting too long before seeking help.
Conflict needs to be managed because it has the potential to harm individuals, the congregation, the church’s reputation and even the cause of Christ, Northcott observed.
He stressed that conflict management is basically “the art of making good decisions.
“When there is unhealthy conflict in the church, it is usually the result of bad decision-making,” he related.
“Mediation and management is the process by which people are helped to make better decisions,” he said.
Northcott observed that there are four general areas where conflict can arise in the local church — between a deacon and pastor, the body of deacons and the pastor, church members and the pastor and church members versus church members.
A deacon and pastor
When the conflict is between one deacon and the pastor, Northcott said the first step is to “let Christian love guide you.” Northcott referred to the love chapter, I Corinthians 13, as a guide for Christian love. Accordingly, the deacon should be patient and kind. He should try to understand his own feelings and put himself in the pastor’s shoes.
The second step, Northcott noted, is to follow Ephesians 4:25-32 and talk to the pastor alone about the conflict. Be open and truthful Northcott said. He noted the deacon should listen to the pastor’s side of the story, look for ways to improve their relationship, and assure the pastor he is not talking about him to others.
The third step is, if the conflict persists, to talk with another deacon who can keep the matter confidential. The two of them should follow the same procedure as in step two.
Finally, if the conflict continues, a small group of deacons should meet with the pastor. If it can’t be settled there, it should be taken to the entire deacon body. If it cannot be settled there, it should then go to the church, but only as a last resort, Northcott said.
Deacons and pastor
When the conflict is between the entire deacon body and the pastor, Northcott cited four principles to be practiced.
(1) Resolve the conflict with the fewest number of people possible. The conflict should be kept within the deacon body if at all possible, he stressed.
(2) Establish guidelines for dealing with the conflict. Set a time for everyone involved in the conflict to meet and give everyone opportunity to speak, Northcott said. He said dialogue should be allowed, but should be carefully monitored by moderator.
(3) Focus on issues, not personalities. Do not allow personal attacks, seek to clarify the real issues and watch for and expose hidden agendas, Northcott said. The pastor and each deacon should be given an opportunity to relate their perceptions and understanding of the conflict issues and cause. Explore together options for addressing and resolving the problems.
(4) Seek the help of a mediator if the conflict persists. Mediators could include the director of missions, another local pastor or a state denominational worker, Northcott said.
Church members and pastor
Northcott noted that most of the time deacons become aware of a problem in the church before the pastor does.
He said deacons should listen to church members’ concerns with respect and interest.
He suggested that deacons try to gain information about the problem or concern and to get examples if possible. Northcott urged deacons not to allow themselves to be manipulated or to allow others to make them a part of the problem.
He also said deacons can help members understand the biblical guidelines for resolving conflict. Suggest that they read Matthew 5:21-24, Matthew 18:15-17 and Ephesians 4:25-32, he said.
Church members and church members
When the conflict is between members, deal with it ASAP, Northcott stressed. Keep the conflict in small numbers — only the principals — and bring the parties together, he suggested. Northcott gave the attendees a model for identifying and responding to conflict issues.
Northcott also urged deacons to model and encourage biblical attitudes/processes, to identify the issues and work toward a plan for resolution. Seek third party mediation if needed, he advised.
When conflicts arise in church, see them as an opportunity to glorify God, to serve other people, and to grow to be like Christ by confessing sin and turning from attitudes that promote conflict, Northcott said.