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.

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Julia Wallace

Author: Julia Wallace

Julia is a layperson in the United Methodist Church, USA who works in Mediation and Conflict Transformation. She is co-author of the book: "The Church Guide for Making Decisions Together."

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