Some amount of disagreement among church members is normal. But when the disagreement turns to isolation, exclusion and separation, it needs to be dealt with.  You can follow all the solutions in Hope for Struggling Churches, but if there is not agape, servant-style love in the body, the church will continue to struggle.

One approach to dealing with conflict is from Rev Speed Leas of the Alban Institute, where he separated it into 5 levels.  A good summary is available from the Committee on Ministry office, a ministry of the General Assembly Council, National Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Find it here.

In short, the five levels are:

At level 1,  people talk about issues and differences of opinion.  They don’t generally perceive this as conflict.

At level 2,  people get defensive.  It’s recognized as a problem, and they start to choose sides based on personal self-interest.  Trust is low.  The job of a pastor in these situations is to keep people talking to one another about issues.

At level 3,  people start to talk about “winning”.  The perceived solution is for the other people, clearly in the wrong, to change and get on board.  Factions form, but peace can still be obtained by listening to the concerns of each camp and reframing the issues in terms that can be dealt with.

At level 4,  people start talking about forcing out the other side.  There are clear leaders.  This is a church split in the making.  This usually takes a skilled pastor or outside intervention, but I’ve seen a deacon body move decisively to put the sides back together.

At level 5,  people are past being hurt, and now want revenge.  They want to make sure the church leaders who let this happen never serve in a leadership position in any church ever again.  Some have been known to give bad references, even call the committee of a church considering hiring one of these staff and warning them.  They see their mission as to protect the kingdom. This is where we do things that hurt the witness of the church to the world.

If there is conflict in your congregation, check where it is.  If it’s level 3 or above, seek outside help.  We are supposed to leave a legacy of love, not of failure and acrimony.

source:  The Alban Institute

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