Preaching through Congregational Conflict

ConflictCreative Commons Image by Josh Heald on Flickr.

People who have an idealistic view of the church are likely to be taken aback when they realize that conflict is a part of congregational life. Sunday morning worship and Wednesday night Bible study are likely to leave that belief unshaken.

Yet, a careful reading of the Book of Acts notes three major conflicts encountered by the early church. These stories affirm that congregational conflict is nothing new:

  • In Acts 6:1-7 there is conflict over distribution of responsibilities.
  • In Acts 15:1-35 there is conflict regarding membership requirements for Gentiles.
  • In Acts 15:36-41 there is conflict regarding leadership qualifications.

While these chapters focus on three specific issues, for the contemporary church the truth in the list of issues is endless. Ultimately, it is not just the issues themselves that are important. Rather, how issues are handled is critical.

Sometimes issues are minor and can be handled by an email, voicemail, or even a brief conversation. However, when conflicts are such that they affect the life and work of the entire congregation, it is incumbent for the pastor to lead the church by preaching through the conflict.

A preacher may be tempted to ignore the “elephant in the room,” but that only makes matters worse. It is not a matter of using the pulpit to push through a favorite agenda or specific point of view. It is, however, a matter of preaching in a way that enables the congregation to recognize, work through, and resolve outstanding issues.

Preaching through conflict is likely to be a pastor’s most challenging task. It calls for more than exegeting a text or telling a story. Turning to the Internet to “Google it” is not the answer either. Instead, preaching through conflict requires a pastor to draw on every available resource, including — but not limited to — prayer, Scripture, books, and consultation with trusted clergy friends. Here are some suggestions to help a preacher preach through conflict:

Consider how Jesus handled conflict. Jesus was no stranger to conflict. In fact, much of his ministry was conducted with conflict as the backdrop. Recall that his opponents were many, including: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, scribes, chief priests, elders, the Sanhedrin, and Roman authorities. Whether teaching, preaching or healing, wherever Jesus went, controversy was likely somewhere on the horizon.

Whether in private or public settings, Jesus addressed conflict. His responses varied depending on the situation. Whether he responded in silence (to Herod, the one who had beheaded his cousin/forerunner John the Baptizer), with a profound retort (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”), a question (“David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?”), or with a story (parable of the Good Samaritan offered in response to the lawyer who asked, “Who is my neighbor?”) he was always forthcoming. Not one to leave issues unaddressed, he spoke to the situation when at the Last Supper he said, “one of you will betray me.”

The preacher must address, rather than ignore, conflict. Therefore, when conflicts arise, it is not a question of whether to address them, but how to address them.

Stay connected to God. The pastor’s job, with its varied responsibilities, is inherently stressful. Needing to preach through conflict only adds to the stress. It is easy to decrease or even omit devotional time in order to handle the latest fire and take care of whatever seems to be the most pressing issue at the moment. The temptation is great, but do not succumb to it. There is no substitute for spending time with God and God’s Word. Neglecting your devotional life will deplete you spiritually and leave you to your own devices. In Matthew 6:33, Jesus said, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Staying connected to God makes the difference in how effective you are in dealing with conflict. Stay connected. You’ll be glad you did.

Look for the blessing in the conflict. One of life’s most valuable lessons is to understand that no matter how difficult or painful a situation might be, a blessing is there in the midst of it all. While it may require some searching to find it, blessings are present.

For starters, a blessing of conflict is that it lays open deficiencies that need to be examined, issues that need to be addressed, and gaps that need to be filled. Not only must the pastor find the blessing, he or she must help the congregants see it too. For example, if a congregation is growing and needs more space, the pastor can help the congregation see that despite the challenges, this is a nice problem to have. If a congregation needs to merge with another in order to thrive, the pastor can help the congregation see that this is an opportunity to refocus and expand its efforts.

Deliver sermons that create an atmosphere conducive to resolution and moving forward. Words are more powerful than we realize. Words can bring blessings or problems into our lives. Words can be life-giving or death-dealing. They set the tone and create the atmosphere around us.

The words of a pastor’s sermons create the atmosphere and set the tone for everything that happens in a church. This atmosphere needs to be uplifting while simultaneously addressing the issues, problems, and challenges of life, individual and communal. In times of congregational conflict, the need to create and maintain this type of atmosphere accelerates to overdrive.

While resolution awaits ongoing conversation and decisions made in church meetings, sermons are a good time to remind the congregation that times of conflict are really growing pains. They are signs that something needs to change. They are an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Moreover, a pastor’s sermons can remind a congregation that part of life as a faith community is learning to work though issues. Avoiding, giving up, walking away, or refusing to deal with issues is a sign of stagnation, akin to Israel’s 40-year trip around the same mountain.

Last, a pastor’s sermons can affirm the importance of the ministry of reconciliation. In 2 Corinthians 5:18 Paul writes, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” Reconciliation requires large doses of giving and receiving forgiveness. Many people mistakenly think that forgiveness is the end of the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like the birth of a child, forgiveness is not an end in itself. Instead, it is a beginning, one that opens doors for doing the work that needs to be done.

Whether we like it or not, conflict, even in the church, is part of life. It is something the preacher, at one time or another, will have to deal with. Ultimately, resolution requires facing hard truths and having conversations that are not easy. The wise pastor will preach sermons that create an atmosphere conducive to resolution and moving forward, bringing healing and wholeness to the entire congregation.