Managing Church Conflict
Conflict within Churches continues to be a problem (Tony Cartledge 2001), and it shows little sign of abating. In fact, the opposite could be much closer to the truth. Perhaps this is why so many in the ministry turn to the writings of Hugh Halverstgadt (2002), a ministry professor from Chicago. In the introduction to his book “Managing Church Conflicts”, Halverstgadt analyzes the personal and congregational reasons that provide the root causes, which can lead from minor disagreements to outright conflict.
His book develops the theme that, as in many areas of life, to sensibly address these problems, ministries and churches globally need to institute a system of conflict management. Leading the reader through a step-by-step conflict management strategy, covering a wide range of typical scenarios, Halverstgadt leads us to his image of peace in churches based upon the notion of Shalom, which promotes the “right harmonious relationships to other human beings,” (Nicholas Wolterstorff, 1983). The real question is whether the views held, and the solutions that Halverstgadt promotes to resolve conflict, address the situation.
Halverstgadt’s preface asks the question “can Church conflict be Christian?” and argues that where it degenerates into a “dirty fighting” scenario, which is not uncommon, this is perhaps not the case. To address this he suggests that ways of turning such disputes into a “fair” Christian fight need to be found. However, he accepts that there is no need for the Church to fear conflict, provided it is engaged in a manner of fairness.
He provides an insight into the reasons conflicts, identifying that essentially the foundation for all conflict is power and that power turns to conflict once its balance is disturbed. Such disturbances can one sector seeks to promote its power in a way that other may perceive would result in a weakening, and therefore limiting or reducing, the power that they think they should enjoy.
As, in the case of the Church, most conflicts are deemed centered round power battles within the congregation itself, the book promotes the theory that it falls to the pastor or minister to take on the mantle of conflict manager. It suggests that to successfully take on and execute the role, the manager will needs to reassess their own ideas and beliefs in terms of conflict and their reactions to a situation that arises. In effect, Halverstgadt is looking to the conflict managers to retrain themselves into this new role so that their approach will lead to a solution to the issue that will be acceptable to all of the parties concerned.
He acknowledges that the force nature of such a role may be alien to the person, but counsels that as long as they approach it from a position of self-worth, a knowledge that one is a loved member of God’s and the communities family, others will respond positively to them. Part two of “Managing Church Conflicts” concentrates on the understanding of the issues that have given rise to the conflict, and analyzing these issues and the parties involved into their component parts.
One of the first steps advocated is to set rules for the discussion of the conflict, which may mean reorganizing the current ways that existing systems of debates within the Church and its congregation are managed. Often, in conflict situations, both the root causes and indeed the participants in the dispute are not easily identifiable. Therefore, the book suggests that there is a need for the conflict manager to move between the disputing parties and draw them together in conversation that is open and productive.
One of the first, and most important, steps in this process includes ensuring that the disagreements move from a “dirty fighting” stance, which is characterized by its personal direction and content, to an open discussion based upon the foundation of Christian ethics. Haverstadt suggests that it is only once all of these issues have been addressed that the ministry or pastor can move onto the next step, which is the task of managing the conflict and bringing about a resolution that is just, fair and brings about unity once again.
Haverstadt further recognizes that managing a conflict situation is no easy task, even for the most experienced conflict manager, and that is has certain limitations. Therefore, in the second part of his book, he sets out a straightforward systematic process for the church mediator to follow. How they can avoid damaging exchanges between the parties, partially by using the interpretations of faith on the issues, and seeking calmer methods of controlling the discussions.
He further discusses ways in which this process should not be limited to just the main protagonists as this could bring about the arising of new conflicts, but include the Church community, so that everyone understands where the process is heading. Furthermore, recognizing that there are issues within the individuals involved that might be better served in private, he suggests that the using of a mentor, or coach, may be beneficial. This gives the individuals the opportunity to discuss those feelings on a personal basis, and to receive comfort and counseling from those appointed to assist them. The desire is that this will lead to a situation where parties can put forward the basis of their strategies and arguments in a positive and clearly defined manner.
In the relative calmness of discussion that these moves are hoped to produce, Haverstadt’s book then attempts to deal with the subject of resolution itself, outlining the strengths and weakness of the possibility of trying to reunite the differences or achieving a negotiated settlement acceptable to all.
The whole focus or aim of the procedures that Haverstadt’s book promotes is the perception that, by following the guidelines outlined, a position of shalom will be reached. Shalom, in the biblical understanding of the term, a vision which emphasizes the notion of a united, just community bound in pleasant relationships. Although this may seem to exclude discord and diverse viewpoints, as Haverstadt explains, this is not the case.
Diversity in the vision of shalom is realized and accepted within an enthusiastic wish to maintain and restore relationships with others using the one abiding link between the congregation, namely their belief in God and the trilogy. Differences in this situation become part of the core strength of the community, rather than the influence that tears the community apart.
To the extent that the focus of Halverstgadt’s interpretation that the causes of Church conflict are produced by a clashing of power bases, there is little evidence to argue against his findings. If one looks at the development of the Christian Church over the centuries since it’s birth with the death of Christ, the power theory is evidently supported. From a that one focus, Christianity, one has seen it develop into a multi-faceted structure, with the only link, and that somewhat precarious, being the core belief in the trilogy.
Catholic, Anglican, Baptist and Methodist, amongst a host of Churches, ostensibly promote the same message, all offering the same vision for the salvation of the human being. Yet, when reflecting about each other, the divisions are obvious, sometimes almost vitriolic in their expression. Historically, it is clearly demonstrated that these divisions resulted from a conflict of power. A typical example is the way in which the King of England separated the Anglican Church from the Church of Rome.
Halverstgadt’s promotion of the use of conflict management in an effort to resolve Church conflicts, by providing a calm and common sense vehicle through which issues can be identified and resolved is laudable. Such systems have been used as an integral part of human resource management in business for a number of years, often with much success. However, like all strategies, it has its limitations. Successful conflict management in a community relies upon all the protagonists having the same goals.
Business is possibly unique, in that all involved have a tangible focus for conflict management, the business itself. The difference with Church conflicts is that although much of the dispute is about power, it also rests in emotions and non-tangible ideas and beliefs. For example, some of the congregation would promote the idea that the Church should accumulate wealth, so that it can promote its message from a position of strength, others promote the idea that strength of message is better served and more honest from a position of meekness.
My opinion of this book is that it will serve as a good foundation for dealing with Church conflicts in a number of instances, the main areas to benefit from this good will be concentrated on a parochial basis. At the level where major conflicts occur, as identified in the example of conflict between King of England and the Church of Rome, the power driven differences are too embedded within the psyche of the dominators of the various factions for mediation to be truly successful.
In addition, whilst the vision of Shalom is a worthy target for all communities, particularly in Churches, such is the nature of the Human Being that it is unlikely the culmination of this vision will come to fruition. My conclusion therefore is that, whilst the book provides valuable direction from which the Church, its concentration and examples are too localized to make a significant impact upon the area where it is needed most, namely the hierarchy of the various religious sects themselves.
Halverstgadt, Hugh. F. (1992). Managing Church Conflict. Westminster/John Knox Press. U.S.
Cartledge, Tony. W. ed. (2001). Church conflict a common problem. Biblical Recorder. North Carolina. U.S.A.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1983). Until Justice and Peace Embrace Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. p 70.