How to Deal Effectively with Interpersonal Conflict


In every church that I have belonged to or worked with there has been conflict.  It’s a normal part of life. It happens. More times than not, the conflict was between 2 people but quickly got out of control by people getting involved and taking sides.

A group cannot work together if there is conflict between the individuals who make up the group. So group based consensus must take seriously processes that seek to restore broken relationships between members.

Hurt feelings, a failure to resolve differences directly, and an inability to listen to one another all prevented these conflicts from being dealt with in a timely manner. Conflict not resolved festers and gets out of control in a congregation.

What causes conflict?

Simply put, conflict is when 2 people or ideas try to occupy the same place at the same time. There is a story about a Pastor and Organist who were not getting along. Eventually their tension found its way into a worship service. After a sermon on commitment, the organist played “I Shall Not Be Moved.” After a sermon on gossip, the organist played “I Love To Tell The Story!” Finally, the Pastor announced his resignation; the organist played “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.” Sounds silly, yet most conflict starts as a small fire and grows into a bush fire if not resolved properly.

Where have you experienced conflict in church life?

Perhaps some of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • A church in Pennsylvania voted to discontinue rather than to deal with a bully that liked to dominate decisions. His controlling behavior caused people to leave the church over the years but no one knew how to deal with situation.
  • Two brothers farmed a piece of property together. When the wife of one was diagnosed with cancer, he went to his brother trying to raise money for her care by selling his share. The brother did not have the money and refused to obtain a loan. Lawyers got involved and eventually the entire farm was sold. The brothers never spoke to one another again, which was difficult for their local church as one was the Chair of Finance and the other was the Chair of the Church Council.
  • A Pastor believed that members of the Church Council should attend every meeting without excuse. The Director of Education missed a meeting without notice, which was unusual. The Pastor moved for his dismissal without talking to the man first. Turns out his young daughter had had a serious accident and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

So what to do?

Christians are called to handle disputes with love for one another and with a goal of restoration of their relationship – see Matthew 15-20. This passage gives us a process for dealing with interpersonal conflict.

  1. As soon as possible, acknowledge the conflict. Go speak with the other person in private to reach an understanding. Under no circumstances are we to go to a third party and pour our hearts out. This first step is about listening – it is not about spreading gossip, rumors, or stories about another. A situation can get out of control quickly and escalate when one fails to go directly to the person involved. This step involves:
    1. Be sincere and trying to work out the disagreement directly with the other person involved. Call them and request a meeting.
    2. Be sensitive and open. You may not have all the facts right. Listen.
    3. Use direct communication when speaking to another person. Use “I” statements (I feel…, I observed this …, I was hurt…)
    4. Aim at reconciliation not scoring points. Paraphrase what you hear them say and ask if they feel understood.
  2. Most times, the situation resolves with the first step. If not, get help. Take 1-2 witnesses with you to keep the listening honest. These witnesses should be the only ones who know about the problem.
    1. These individuals should be neutral and want the best for both people. They are not there to take sides or judge the matter. They are there to help communication to be direct and open.
    2. The witnesses should be respected by both parties
  3. If after the last step the situation is not better, take it to your local church for resolution. (The Staff-Parish Relations Committee if the conflict involves staff; The Church Council or Elders if the dispute is between two members.)
    1. The church group should hear the situation from both individuals.
    2. If possible, get the people to agree on mediation as a way to negotiate their differences.
    3. If this does not work, a determination should be made on how best to resolve the matter. Perhaps they cannot serve on a committee together for 3 years. In extreme cases, the offender or negative influence may be asked to step away from membership in the church for a period of time or even for good. You still can love them but realize the conflict is negatively affecting your ministry and must end.

Does it work?

This is hard work yet essential. Most (95%) interpersonal conflict ends with step one when done well. Step 2 may end another 3%. Rarely does the situation get to the Church for resolution. When it does, the church should be prepared. It is very helpful for a congregation to have a written policy on dealing with conflict. Members should be aware of the policy and know how to use it.

Martina McBride, a country singer known for her deep spirituality, recorded a song entitled: “Anyway”. It talks about how when people are illogical and unreasonable – love them anyway. When you do good, people may be suspicious – do good anyway. People may attack you when you try to help – help them anyway. Why? Because it was never about you and them. It’s between you and God anyway.

Say what!! Fish do Consensus !?!


Sometimes I get told that consensus decision-making is a fad. I’m told it is based on the postmodern fallacy that there is no such thing as truth. Therefore, it is said, everyone’s opinion is as good as that of the next person. So consensus approaches supposedly just shake around this ignorance until it settles at the lowest common denominator.

Tell me about the fish!

Fish don’t know about post modernism but they do consensus decision-making. In a fascinating study reported in Current Biology Volume 18, Issue 22, p1773–1777, 25 November 2008 David Sumpter, Jens Krause, et al report on their study about fish. The fish they studied are shown to engage in a series of interactions and observations, which lead them to all take on the same course of action. Following the direction of the majority is the result of sharing information that was not known to all the individuals. Yet when it is brought together it makes sense to follow.

Consensus in Nature

There are many examples in the animal kingdom where consensus makes sense and is seen in the practice of animals.

David Sumpter and Stephen Pratt in Quorum responses and consensus decision-making; published 27 March 2009 in Royal Society Publishing observe that for many social insects, the survival of the colony depends on them remaining together and making a good decision about where to live.

For example honeybee emigration. After settling in a densely-packed swarm several hundred scout bees fly out to search for a new home. Successful scouts use the waggle dance to recruit fellow scouts to the sites they have found. Recruited bees may in turn dance for a site, creating a positive feedback loop that drives up the population of scouts visiting a site. Bees tune their dancing to the quality of the site they are advertising. Hence better sites enjoy more effective recruitment and faster population growth. Scouts periodically return to the site they are advertising and somehow assess its population. Once this exceeds a threshold value, or quorum, they return to the swarm to perform a behaviour called piping.

This process unfolds over one to several days. During this time a large number of sites are found and advertized by at least a few bees. Usually, only one site reaches quorum and induces swarm lift off. Rare split decisions have been observed. Then bees engage in an aerial tug-of-war as rival groups of scouts attempt to lead the swarm in different directions. In these cases, the bees are forced to re-settle and begin the process again.

Why consensus matters

In their article Consensus decision making in animals reported in Cell, Larissa Conradt and Timothy Roper observe that in social species many critical decisions need to be made jointly because the group will split apart unless a consensus is reached.

They look at:

  • conflict of interest between group members
  • whether they involve either local or global communication
  • different categories of consensus decision
  • who makes the decision
  • what are the underlying mechanisms
  • what are the functional consequences.

They conclude

  • consensus decision-making is common in non-human animals
  • cooperation between group members in the decision-making process is likely to be the norm
  • this is so even when the decision involves significant conflict of interest.

All the researchers acknowledge that group actions occasionally lead to incorrect decisions. However the studies show that decisions reached through consensus are often more accurate, enhance information exchange, and on average allow greater accuracy than do complete independence or weak responses to the behaviour of others.

Consensus is natural and good

Consensus building is not a fad. Deeply implanted in creation is a sense of community, and acknowledgement that we need each other. Perhaps it is the pride of Adam that keeps people wanting to play God and not work in community (which ironically is the opposite of what God does). Clearly the animal kingdom doesn’t seem to have this fault.

Consensus building is effective, efficient, natural, and the most common way decisions are made on the planet. Humans are the odd one’s out and the influence of Western individualism has only made it worse. It is time to get back to our roots and work together.

A Case Study on Denominational Division

In our book The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017)  we have a number of case studies about how churches have used, or not used, consensus-building processes in a positive way. (Purchase the book here.) One of the disappointing stories is from the 2016 United Methodist General Conference. Its theme was “Therefore, Go!” A focus on mission was overshadowed by a painful struggle to deal with a hot issue in the church: homosexuality and leadership. This debate highlighted the division in the church. Many delegates were relieved to “go” and leave the experience behind.

Practices Creating Division


  • the General Conference continued deepening patterns of creating “losers” in the way people talked about one another and dug lines in the sand
  • important issues were defeated with little conversation by using delaying tactics such as numerous Points of Order and Calling for the Question to kill discussion
  • petitions were defeated or supported in Committee sub-groups with low numbers deciding (i.e. 20-9)
  • valuable time and resources were squandered
  • people were exhausted and frustrated
  • division was hardened

Robert’s Rules of Order

Our observation is that Robert’s Rules of Order created chaos and confusion, and reinforced the divisions among the delegates. It did not provide a way forward. It’s time to do something different that actually works.

When a matter is simple and put before the body to decide, Robert’s Rules adequately guides the process. The idea is seconded, discussed, possibly amended (improved), and voted yes or no. However, when a matter is complex or the group has more fear than faith then the process is very unhelpful. It can be manipulated, misinformation sown that cannot be challenged, people damaged, division hardened and confusion flourishes.

This is what happened in Portland.

Alternatives are available

Another process (Rule 44) would have allowed delegates to use an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order. It offered delegates the opportunity to

  • convene in small groups for prayer, conversation and discernment
  • understand the reasons for division and build respect and understanding
  • provide feedback to a drafting group that would take their insights and provide recommendations for the next stage
  • hear a report of their deliberations and seek the creative movement of the Holy Spirit
  • discuss / discern further and decide the matter with a traditional vote.

Simple. The actual process takes far less time than it took to defeat it.

Are you up for the challenge?

We are challenging denominations to use another process to Robert’s Rules to make decisions. The Church Guide For Making Decisions Together (Abingdon, 2017) provides such a process and is available at Cokesbury or at Amazon. We invite you to use it in your church, Annual Conference and perhaps some day it will also be used at the General Conference.

Helpful practices for avoiding division

This new resource explains the process and how to use it successfully. The process can be tailored to fit any size group and address any topic. It is written to support leaders as they make a shift in their current way of making important choices. The aim is to exchange entrenched division with consensus-building discernment. It is designed to:

  1. Help your group identify the Christian values your community seeks to live by and to do so with integrity.
  2. Deal with conflict and resistance to change so discussions can be redemptive and transforming instead of paralysing.
  3. Provide simple steps (supported with the Means of Grace) to guide deliberations and decide issues in your context.
  4. Prepare the work ahead — make arrangements to support the process in your context, train leaders, form discussion groups, etc.
  5. Invite people to participate — name the issue, and provide information for their consideration.
  6. Make the decision in your faith community.
  7. Implement and evaluate your decision.

In our case studies it is when people talk ‘to’ each other rather than ‘at’ each other that Christian community and discernment are apparent.

If you believe it is time to have an alternative to Robert’s Rules of Order when making church decisions, let us know. Leave a post with your comments. We are very interested in your hopes and experience!


My Consensus Compass for Good Decision-Making

A compass is used to learn where you are and which direction you are headed. Use this consensus compass to get your bearings on good decision-making processes.  Then summarize what you know about making good decisions together in your church group. Where are you strong? Where is there room for improvement?

Christ centered Community

What would be different in your meetings if you placed Christ first in your decision making process? What practices will help you to do that? How do you recognize Christ’s presence when you gather to make decisions in your Congregation or Church Board?

Options to explore

How does your current process of making decisions generate creative options to consider rather than simply an ‘either’ ‘or’ choice? What practices do you find helpful to surface these options? 

Ministry matters

How does your process of making decisions take into account your shared values about mission and ministry? How do you share information when making a decision so everyone understands how your decisions will affect ministry?


How do you invite people to participate fully when making important decisions? How do you prepare them for this task? Is your process safe for people to participate in, and be respected for their contribution?


How often does your decision-making process lead to implementation or action? How do you communicate your decisions to the entire congregation so that they understand what has been decided and how it will affect them?


What are the basic steps you follow when gathering to make decisions? How do these steps provide information, allow ways for people to discuss the issue, and make a decision that honors one another? How do you orient new members to your way of making decisions?

Seek God’s will

How do you know that your decisions reflect God’s best hope for and through you? Rather than relying on popular opinions or the loudest voice, how do you listen for the voice of God in your process? How confident are you that you have discerned God’s will when you make a decision?

A compass is only any use if you use to to help you get somewhere. I encourage you to use these questions to lead you into a faithful discernment process.

5 Questions that Build Consensus

The way people come together to make decisions is really important. How they participate and feel is just as important as what they think should be done. If you want to build consensus in your organisation consider the following questions. You may even use these questions to discuss people’s experience of your decision making process at your next meeting and explore ways to make improvements.

1.  What is the shared purpose of our group?

It is extremely helpful for leaders in your church to be able to express their core purpose. Supporting people to reach a shared understanding of their purpose is a key leadership task. Once everyone fully understands why their group exists, they can live out of that purpose in the way they make decisions. They reflect and articulate their reason for being in the conversations they have and the decisions they make. This is much better than having leaders operating on different assumptions and a scattered sense of purpose. Be focused on why you exist and help people get on the same page to make decisions that reinforce their purpose. Some churches have a visioning retreat or meeting to intentionally articulate their core purpose.

2.  How do we make decisions together?

When people know and trust the process used to make decisions they can fully participate. When people feel unprepared, they cause problems or drop out of the work entirely. Have an orientation at the start of each year when leadership changes so that members are taught, or have reinforced, the way the group makes decisions. Explain the specific steps in your decision making process. Be sure to discuss the terms used so people understand and are comfortable with the way you make decisions.

3.  How do you help people grow in confidence as they gather to make decisions?

Making decisions can be difficult enough without having people’s feelings hurt by reactions to what is said. Foster self-awareness in your leaders so they can monitor how much they talk and how well they listen. Do all you can to promote respect. Encourage people when they participate and affirm them for their contributions. Support one another.

4.  How do you work with different opinions or conflict when making decisions?

Sometimes people disagree on a course of action. This does not make them disagreeable. In fact, exploring various viewpoints can help you eventually arrive at the best decision. Being soft on one another and hard (or serious) about the issues is vital when making decisions together. Take the time to acknowledge differences when they arise and what they mean for the people who hold those positions. Affirm that different ideas are important when working toward consensus. Be patient and provide information about the options that are raised. Explore options intentionally and fully.

5.  What happens to decisions once they are made?

Once a decision is made, your job is not done. A decision is meaningless unless plans are made to implement the decision. Members of your faith community must be informed when a decision is made. Otherwise, you will not get their support. Have a clear timeline for action steps and share it. Be transparent and open to questions from the wider faith community. Take the time to celebrate the decisions you make in appropriate ways. Communicate clearly, and in various ways, to get the word out on what is being done and why it is important to the church.

By carefully answering these 5 questions, you will find that your next major decision is easier to make, engages people and is actually implemented in a timely manner. What questions do you need to have answered if you are going to build consensus where you are? Share them in the comments section at the bottom of the page.