Questions to Ask When Resolving Conflict

Here are some questions to ask when resolving a conflict as well as how to “win” a conflict situation and ways to reduce and unproductive conflict.

Questions to ask

Are you the one to resolve it?

  • Do you know enough about the situation?
  • Are you qualified?
  • Can you recommend viable options?

When should I not get involved?

  • Relationship with persons not adequate
  •  Depth of conflict is beyond your capacities

Is this the proper time?

  •  Can you wait?
  •  What is the worse that can happen?

What are the facts?

  •  Situation
  • Individuals
  •  Other attempts to resolve

What are the primary issues?

Is the atmosphere conducive to resolving the conflict?

What are the alternatives?

How to win a conflict situation

Maintain a data base. Deal with values, goals, facts, methods, but not persons.
Keep all parties participating.
Keep on discussion of a solution.
When you win, win in such a way that losers can follow.
Don’t push harder or faster than system can assimilate.
Start small and pick your terrain.
Reinforce success and abandon failure.
Maintain “second strike capacity” by having a back-up system. An automatic shotgun is better than a single shot.

Reduce an unproductive conflict

Locate a common enemy.
Find a subordinate goal (one that will appeal to all the parties).
Individualize the rival groups (help them to get to know each other and do away with stereotypes).
Restructure the organization.
Use a 3rd party intervention.

Steps to Resolving Conflict

No matter what your tendency is to do when dealing with conflict there are steps to take in resolving it.

Step One: Spot potential conflict.

Assumptions. People make assumptions about conflict based on past experience, folklore, authority figures, feeling tone, and degree of resistance to change. Factors such as age, educational level, and attitudinal flexibility will affect a person’s resistance to change.

Context. Study the context for conflict caused by prior events, personal interaction, organizations (structures and policies) within the church, and stress.

Step Two: Avoid conflict with integrity if possible, or engage potential conflict before it develops.

1. Gather more information.
2. Allow time to resolve the conflict
3. Assess the maturity of the persons involved, especially their self-confidence and willingness and ability to accept responsibility.
4. Test the emotional level of the conflict with the persons involved.

Avoiding conflict may be wise when certain conditions exist: low priority, short term, high risk, pain, despair, or guilt. Avoidance is generally not an acceptable approach if the conflict is of significant magnitude or continuing duration.

If you attempt to deal with conflict resolution in your church, don’t expect to be able to force disagreeing parties to be reconciled. God doesn’t force His reconciliation on us, and we can’t make others be reconciled. The best we can do is create an environment for reconciliation and encourage all to accept it as a gift of God. Don’t expect to find solutions in which everyone is perfectly satisfied and happy. This expectation will only intensify feelings of frustrations and anger. Don’t expect to resolve in a few hours, days, or weeks what has been brewing for months, or even years. Don’t expect to be able to bring resolution to the issues of conflict without the participation of a broader group from the congregation. Since the church now knows about the conflict, it owns the process, even through many do not understand all that is going on. Don’t expect to have an “expert” come in who will prove who is right and who is wrong, expose the villains and vindicate the innocent, so that someone can come out as the winner. The real hope is to create a situation in which all persons can find their place in the church in which they can enjoy respect, trust, involvement, and a hand in deciding the future direction of the church.

Do expect to participate in a process that is fair and healthy for the church, but not a fast process aimed at quick fixes. Do expect to establish some ground rules for conduct and appropriate behavior in the face of conflict. Do expect to go through the painful process of uncovering some unhappiness, anger, charges and counter charges, and unseemly behavior. You will not create all these things, but to work on a conflict must, of necessity, uncover them so that they can be dealt with redemptively. Do expect to have to accept lesser goals than total resolution of all the issues at once. That is unrealistic. Instead it will be necessary to have some smaller victories and leave the ultimate victory to God. Do expect to have an impact on the future mission of this church and its quality of fellowship for years to come––for good or ill. That is what really is at stake.

Step Three: Engage conflict events productively

A conflict event is an encounter between persons with differences. The response might be fight, fright, flight, or freedom. Diffuse the problem by testing awareness of the facts, explaining the history of the conflict, enlarging the conflict group by bringing others who are mature and objective, and refer the situation to the best forum for discussion, and finally delaying any action.

Step Four: Conclude the conflict through decision-making

Here the leader who is seeking to resolve the conflict has a very specific list of duties to perform:

1. State the purpose and define the problem causing the conflict. Clarify the goals or wants of various parties. Three common problems exist with defining the problem:
First – generalization that detaches the experience from the specific event that caused the problem
Second – selection which omits part of the story
Third – distortions of the truth by one or both parties

2. Outline the rules for resolving the conflict. If there can be a common agreement on the rules for resolving the conflict, a lot of the conflict will be removed. A sample set of rules might include
the following:
The purpose of the meetings is to solve conflict, not assign blame.
We will keep meeting until the conflict is resolved.
The conflict resolution results are confidential.
Each group will be willing to change.
We will all tell the truth.
We will deal with issues and not personalities.
We covenant to follow the chosen alternative.

3. Observe the emotions.

4. Engage emotions at different levels using illustrations, teaching, and testimony.

5. Reject any games attempted. A number of games or roles are sometimes attempted, such as a suffering servant, a paternal grandfather, “since I came,” or “if you really love me.” Be sure the individuals are making contact. When making contact, they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing each other. When not making contact, persons are worrying, thinking about something else, or are preoccupied.

6. Give the individuals freedom to decide by using a typical problem solving process (collect date, list options, prioritize options, depersonalize options, and develop a consensus). Search for alternatives that enable all parties to achieve as many of their goals as possible. Go slow and allow enough time for the group to assimilate the process and the decision. Start small, and pick your terrain.

The structure of a conflict is composed of the choices available to the persons and the rewards or punishments to be received from selecting a given choice. When a choice is made, it will either reinforce the existing structure or attempt to change it. There are usually more choices available than appear at first, and maybe even more than one person wants to discuss. The choice of an individual can be predicted by asking him, recalling his past behavior, putting yourself in his place and asking what you would do, or guessing what social rules that he will follow.

Step Five: Celebrate the conclusion

The conclusion will be either a win-win, a win-lose, or a lose-lose situation. The ideal is a win-win solution where, even if there are losers, they can still follow.

If a church does decide to use a consultant, here are some suggestions:
1. Must maintain neutrality
2. Must work from pre-set time of termination
3. Must provide the church with clearly defined steps and procedures
4. Must maintain confidentiality
5. Must avoid private meetings
6. Must present written report of findings and recommendations
7. Must remove himself if his judgment is impaired by bias or involvement

Types of Conflict Managers

Just as there are many different types of people, there are numerous ways in which church leaders address conflict.  Some of these responses to conflict are better than others but everyone has a natural tendency to move toward one of these responses.

The problem solver (owl) – uses collaboration and works to bring out the best possible solution. He attempts to get both parties to find a new solution that will maximize goals for both. It is better than compromise because compromise only seeks to satisfy. It is most effective when the source is communication. This is a win-win strategy.

The facilitator (fox) – uses compromise and seeks to get the parties to meet half-way with a compromise. He is highly adaptive and uses a variety of styles. It is most effective when the source is attitudinal. This is a win-win strategy.

The super helper (teddy bear) – uses accommodation and helps the others without concern for himself. He may ignore personal needs to resolve the conflict. He will try to get them to give in for the sake of the relationship. It is most effective when the source is primarily emotional. This appears to be scriptural from the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when He taught to turn the other check and to go the second mile. The Bible talks of giving our coat when someone asks for our shirt. However, when taken to the extreme, this position can become the same as avoidance in number five.

The power broker (shark) – uses confrontation and competition and is committed to win. He will use anything at his disposal. To him there are only winners and losers, and he wants to be a winner. It is most effective when the source is substantive. In this, some person or group achieves personal goals while the rest get nothing. Somebody wins and somebody loses.

The fearful loser (turtle) – uses avoidance and simply runs from the conflict. He is passive and withdraws from the conflict. His approach is fright and flight. It calls for peace at any price. The strategy is win-lose. When you withdraw, walk around it, step over it, don’t try to move it, you will not stir up any stink. This is the peace at any price. People following this process just walk away from each other hoping that the conflict will disappear, or believing that a solution is impossible. However, avoidance or denial of conflict is the least favorable resolution. It is ultimately the most painful and expensive way of responding to a situation.

Resolving Conflict

Although Christians are called to live a life of peace, resolving conflict within the church is not a simple matter of everyone forgiving and forgetting that a conflict occurred.  There are reasons that a conflict happened and if they are not addressed the conflict will continue to pop up.

Considerations before attempting to resolve conflict

A number of factors should be considered before attempting to get involved in solving a conflict situation:

The newness of the group is a consideration, as it is harder for a new group to deal with conflict.

The skills and experience of the group in dealing with conflict and the subject of the conflict are important.

The amount of time available to deal with the conflict is important, and to start and not finish is a strong negative factor.

A clear understanding of roles and authority needs to be evident to all.

The question of the involvement of a third party has to be discussed.

There are ways that can be used to curb or de-escalate a conflict. This helps to assure that the conflict is fair––played out within limits and boundaries.

Describe what you see happening
Make statements of invitation––suggest a way to resolve
Pay equal attention to process and issues
Establish boundaries
Structure the process (by deciding who will be involved, what are the limits, and what is the timing)
Review common goals (general)
Respond with descriptions and not threats
Use a third party (expert and objective)

Actions for a pastor to take in conflict situations

Step Out – Set a spiritual example
Step In – Mediate the conflict
Step Over – Rise above the conflict
Step Up – Confront the conflict
Step Back – Let the conflict burn itself out
Step Down – Resign from the conflict

Sources of Conflict

Some congregations are more conflict prone than others. It is almost like some families are more likely to have heart attacks than others. There are a number of factors that identify a conflict prone congregation.

High exchanges

Congregations with a great deal of interaction or a high level of exchange. Small churches and churches in small towns have problems here. The “busy” church is liable here. Multiple contacts give multiple opportunities for conflict. “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

High expectation

Conservative churches tend to expect more from staff and members, and this causes high risks.

High involvement

Conservative churches also stress this, and ask for a lot of time, money, and energy. This leads to a desire for high input. Persons can cross over from ownership to possessiveness and cause conflict.

Low trust

Caused by failure to keep confidences and unwillingness to be understanding of faults.

Low understanding

The people do not understand how to have good relationships.

Low respect

Leaders are set up to be knocked over like tin cans on fence posts. Strong lack of respect for pastoral authority can cause conflict.

There are several dynamics that can cause conflict: community change, financial stress, closed power system, and prescriptive expectations or arbitrary demands.

There are many things that cause conflict.
1. Communication problems – probably the number one cause of conflict. These lead to misunderstanding and conflict.
2. Confusion causes conflict, and ignorance and distortion brings confusion. Conflict by confusion is in 2 areas:  Roles – Conflict in roles is caused by presumptions and pressures. Goals – Goals may be unclear, too many, or too divergent.
3. Concealment causes conflict, and four smoke screens are used to conceal the reasons for conflict: pride, guilt, pain, or envy. These may be the real reasons, but something else may be used and talked about.

Control of power causes conflict

Power causes conflict in four ways:
Abuse (domination and intimidation)
Assignment (excessive, ambiguous, or exclusive)
Absence (interruption, abdication, or deterioration). A closed power system will cause conflict.

Attitudinal differences cause conflict by differences of feelings or perspectives about persons and issues. Prejudices, stereotypes, and particular beliefs all fit into this classification. The more attitudes are shared, the less likely there will be conflict. Whenever a group changes, it opens up the possibility of having attitudes that are not shared by all in the group. The coming of a new pastor can be an example of this. Substantive misunderstandings cause conflict and are caused by a difference of opinions about facts, goals, ends, or means. To resolve this type of conflict the leader needs to check facts and be sure they are right. Anytime that personal values become attached to either attitudinal or substantive forms of conflict, then another dimension has been added.

A number of things related to churches can create conflict situations:
1. Rapid church growth
2. Community changes
3. Financial stress
4. A closed power system
5. Prescriptive expectations on pastor which become arbitrary demands
6. Multiple staff with hidden agendas
7. Empire building not kingdom building.

Conflict accelerates as change accelerates

Misunderstanding between line and staff about authority. This is common between the music and youth staff persons. Who is responsible for the youth music?

Competition between departments such as children and youth departments, especially youth church departments and church day school departments. This is generally related to competition for limited resources, such as time, money, facilities, and personnel.

Overlapping or ambiguous responsibilities between two or more persons. Conflict erupts over who is responsible.

Personality clashes between two individuals.

Competitive reward systems will cause some conflict.

Conflict between pastor and church seem to occur in timed cycles of conflict in a pastor’s ministry. The conclusion of the “honeymoon” after 3–6 months is generally a time of conflict intensity. The second intensity of conflict occurs in 18–24 months and determines the tenure of the pastor. If he survives this conflict, he can expect cycles about every 5 years.

Benefits and Negatives of Conflict

Conflict is generally seen as very negative, but it is both positive and negative. Conflict brings change and change alters the status quo and the positions of those in power, therefore they resist conflict and resist change. Conflict is generally necessary and desirable for those who are oppressed. The opposite of conflict is apathy.

Conflict is evidence of concern, vigor, and hope. A church with no conflict is dead. It is an indication that one is going in the right direction. Luke 6:26 says, “Woe when all men speak well of you.” Conflict produces personal growth and church growth through the experience of dealing with conflict. It helps to establish a church’s identify. Conflict develops solidarity and perseverance. Conflict causes a church to search for better solutions.

At least four times it is wise to encourage and even escalate conflict:
1. When people are trying too hard to be nice and don’t challenge new ideas.
2. When the group becomes so homogeneous that new people with different ideas can’t get in.
3. When conflict is a means of expressing aggression, it may be the best way. It may be more moderate than an explosion or other forms of expression.
4. Conflict increases consciousness, aliveness, and excitement.

Negatives of conflict

1. Conflict causes pastors to leave churches. It has been estimated that one in three pastoral moves is related to conflict.
2. Conflict causes personal hurt and loss of relationships. It builds hostility and destroys fellowship.
3. Conflict will actually make people sick: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. This often results in loss of members and loss of money.
4. Conflict causes a loss of momentum and a loss of motivation. This in turn stops growth.
5. Conflict wastes time, energy and money that could be used for ministry.
6. Conflict produces discouragement and a sense of failure, and this may be
the worse effect.
7. People will mistreat others during a time of conflict.
8. Conflict hurts a church’s witness in the community.

Why conflict needs to be treated

1. Wastes time, energy, and money that should be used for ministry
2. Builds hostility and destroys fellowship
3. Makes people sick: spiritually, emotionally, and physically
4. People mistreat others during conflict
5. Hurts a church’s witness in the community
6. Destroys relationships

Emotions and conflict

1. Conflict goes through four negative emotions: anger, guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

2. Fear is experienced when a person is threatened and feels incompetent to handle a conflict situation.
Stage 1 is alarm, and physical changes occur.
Stage 2 is an emotional response, and the person moves away from the threat. This is a learned reaction.
Stage 3 is mental changes. This fear is a major problem in managing conflict.

3. Persons in a conflict situation and under stress tend to have the following thought patterns:
Dichotomous reasoning – extremes or opposites; absolutes; “everyone is against me.”
Overgeneralization – generate a series of thoughts on the basis of small amount of data. This allows incidents to influence thoughts about other incidents. “I’ll never trust her again.”
Magnification – views events as more threatening than they are (e.g., hypochondriacs).
Arbitrary inference – a failure in discrimination. The people will base beliefs on evidence that is unrelated. They take the boss’s bad mood personally, “I don’t know why he is mad at me.”

4. The leader needs to take action quickly before fear and stress causes the thinking process to become irrational. Two ways to deal with distorted or irrational thinking:
Desensitization – with repeated exposure to events that are threatening, move in small steps.
Challenging problematic thinking
1) Recognize that thinking is distorted.
2) Don’t suggest to other person that his thinking is irrational.
3) Help person to discover beliefs that are unrealistic and suggest a substitute.
4) Try to get to root cause of fear (fear of rejection, failure, success, being left alone, or even conflict).
5) Present a calm assurance that the situation can be resolved satisfactory.

5. As a person’s perception of powerlessness increases, the likelihood of violence or bizarre behavior increases. If he doesn’t think he can change things by rational means, he will use violence or some other means. As a person’s perception of powerlessness increases, the likelihood of violence or bizarre behavior increases. If he doesn’t think he can change things by rational means, he will use violence or some other means.

Understanding Conflict

In order to manage conflict within the church, we must first understand the nature of conflict.


Whenever two or more people pursue mutually exclusive goals, or whenever one person’s needs collide with another’s, conflict results. If there were no effort among humans to fulfill ideas, goals, or desires, there would be no conflict.

Conflict has been defined as an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other party in achieving their goals. Conflict is a situation in which two or more human beings desire goals which they perceive as being attainable by one or the other but not by both. Conflict is the circumstances, both emotional and substantive, which can be brought about by the presence of differences between parties who are, for whatever reason, in forced contact with one another.

Conflict is most likely with close friends. Strangers seldom fight. The presence of conflict indicates a high degree of trust, intimacy, and respect. The absence of conflict shows the lack of these things. Conflict does provide the opportunity for growth.

Conflict is intimately related to power. Every conflict involves the use of power. There is something desired by two or more persons, and they all want it. Conflict can cause a loss of relationships, a loss of self-esteem, a loss of motivation, and a loss of momentum. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts completely. Power causes conflict through: abuse, assignment, assumption, and absence.

Conflict is really misunderstood by many people. There are a number of misconceptions about conflict. Some think that harmony is normal and conflict is abnormal. Some think that conflicts and disagreements are the same phenomena, but they are really different in intensity. Conflict is thought of as pathological, like a disease to be cured, and it is not. Some think that the only approach to conflict is how to reduce it. Conflict is only linked with anger, and this also is not true. Rarely is the approach to show how to escalate it, but this is needed if the cause is right. Conflict management usually is addressed to managers, and they want to maintain the status quo.

Types of conflict

1. Impersonal – facts, values, goals, and methods (how to raise money, where to put piano, doctrine, to build or not to build)

2. Intrapersonal – within the individual (stress, making decisions, changing jobs, etc.) Intrapersonal is primarily related to stress. Stress is the effects of external forces on stimuli (stressors) which upset the physical, emotional, or spiritual balance within persons resulting in a struggle to adapt (cope) to the changes of these forces or stimuli. Persons under stress do not think clearly, but use a frightened reasoning system consisting of extremes or opposites, overgeneralization (rule for life based on one incident), magnification, or arbitrary inference when the evidence is unrelated. Overstress among the clergy is a major source of the conflicts churches experience. Churches create stress with unmet expectations and unfulfilled hopes (disappointments), unrealistic demands, failure in management, and contradictions in the church with secular experience.

3. Interpersonal – between people in areas such as power struggles, personal grievances over petty differences.

4. Intergroup or organization – conflict can be between two or more organizations.

Levels of conflict

Five levels of conflict have been identified. At each level the objectives and the language of the people involved are different:
First, the problem is the focus and the language is specific and clear. This is problem-solving and easy to resolve.
Second, persons become more self-protective, and the problem takes a back seat. The language used may be general and avoiding the issue.
Third, persons become interested in winning, and not just protecting. The language begins to distort as talk becomes us and them. They become expert mind readers and talk about perceptions as if they were facts.
Fourth, persons become not just interested in winning, but they want someone to lose. They want to get rid of someone.
Finally, persons become religious fanatics about their position. They see themselves as called by God to rid the organization, and even the world of the object of their opposition. Not only do they want to fire the pastor, they don’t want him to ever get another church.

Life cycle of conflicts

Ron Susek has written a very good book on conflict, called Firestorm. In it he gives a life cycle of a conflict, using the firestorm terminology:
1. Sparks
2. Sparks igniting a firestorm
3. Firestorm in full fury
4. Consuming winds
5. The final burn
6. Rebuilding on burnt timbers

Conflict in the Bible

Christians fight and fight dirty. Organization brings people together, and any time people are brought together there exists the potential and probability of conflict. Conflict is common. Conflict appears to be inevitable in the church. Conflict is inevitable in healthy organizational life and is a sign that people care about the organization and are investing themselves into its life.

One of the major tasks of a leader is to resolve conflicts. In a church there may be conflict between pastor and staff, between pastor or staff and laity, or between laity and laity. Skills in conflict resolution can be identified, taught, and learned. Possible relationships in a group equal the number of people in the group times that number minus one. Example: six people in a group have 6 x 5 = 30 possible relationships. The more relationships that exist, the more possible conflict areas.

Conflict in the Bible

Examples of conflicts
Great Church Fights is the title of a book by Leslie B. Flynn. He says, “Instead of majoring in communion, the church has often muddled in contention.” His book has 11 chapters, and ten of them are descriptions of conflicts in the church:
Chapter 2 – Fiction Frays the Fellowship, Acts 6, Widows feeding
Chapter 3 – Changing Culture or Timeless Truth? Acts 15, Circumcision
Chapter 4 – When Co-Workers Clash, Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas
Chapter 5 – A Fight over Spirituality, Romans 14, Meat to Idols
Chapter 6 – Following the Real Leader, 1 Corinthians 1, Paul, Apollos, or Peter
Chapter 7 – Banishing in Order to Bless, Matthew 18:17; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11–12; 2 Thessalonians 3:6; and Titus 3:10
Chapter 8 – Bigger than Big Personalities, Galatians 2:1–21 Peter and Paul
Chapter 9 – We Are Our Brother’s Keeper, Matthew 5:23–24
Chapter 10 – Ladies Have a Heart! Philippians 4:2–3, Euodias and Synthche
Chapter 11 – Curing the Boss Complex, 3 John 9–10, Diotrephes

Other biblical examples of conflicts would include David and Saul in 1 Samuel 20, the pay for workers in Matthew 20:1–16, Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38–42, who is greatest in Luke 22:24–27, anointing of feet in John 12:1–8, and going to court in 1 Corinthians 6:1–8.

Teaching on conflict in the Bible

The Bible has much to say about conflict. Jesus prayed that all believers might be as one, and therefore avoid conflict (John 17:11). “Be at peace” is used in some form in Ephesians 4:3; Romans 12:16, 18; 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:13; Mark 9:50; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:8, 11. Warnings of continuous conflict are given in James 4:1 (wars and fightings among you), and Galatians 5:15 (biting and devouring one another). Christians are told to do everything without complaining or arguing (Philippians 2:1–4). Christians are to be slow to anger (Ephesians 4:30) and not to let the sun go down on wrath (Ephesians 4:26). Jesus even said that one should not present a gift to God when angry, but go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer gift (Matthew 5:23).