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.

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!