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The Cycle of Church Conflict

5 December 2011

When I did a survey this summer of the 500 people on my mailing list, asking them what was the #1 ministry/professional issue that troubles them, the run away winner was: Conflict. (#2 was staff relations, but more about that later). I asked the same group what the #1 interpersonal problem was that troubled them, their answer was…you guessed it:  conflict. 

I am currently working on a Teleseminar and a Group Coaching program for the spring on Conflict Management.   As I am reading and researching, I will occasionally throw out what I believe are helpful tidbits to be of help to you (and also hopefully whet your appetite for the program that is coming in the spring). 

To understand the cycle of conflict is to better be able to identify when a group is moving into significant conflict. (the cycle is not a one-time thing, but a repeating and escalating cycle. 

The four phases are:3-wire_spring_3

1. Issues:  the cycle begins with issues that arise in need of resolution.  That may seem obvious and straightforward, but seldom is.  At times parties will disagree that an issue even exists.  (I have recently been working with a church where [as the church is imploding] the chairman of the elders refuses to allow a mediator to come in because “we really have no conflict.” )  Other times even when the discomfort is blatantly obvious, there is disagreement on the issues that are causing the discomfort.    In still other cases, presenting issues can be only an outward or current expression of what are the real issues—often deeper and longer term than the current “issue”.  Those issues may be substantive, psychological or procedural.

A critical skill in this phase is to enable various parties not only to identify, but also to express what it is that they really want.  (They may not even know!)  If the issues can be identified early in the process and honestly explored, the cycle can often be stopped.

2. Triggers:  Once the opportunity to address issues passes without action, escalation usually begins.  Events related to or arising out of the issues occur that inflame one side or the other or both.  The basic theme in this phase is that emotions become actively involved.   The issue may even become increasingly buried beneath the expression of negative emotion. 

3. Behaviors:  We begin to make choices about how we will respond to the conflict situation.   The more these choices are consciously thought out the more able we are to be able to contribute positively to the situation.

4. Consequences:  We eventually begin to see the effects of our behavioral choices. Sometimes our choices have the consequences we intend.  Other times they do not.   The key is to not lose sight of intent and to clearly keep the real issues at the center of the discussion. 

If the church leader(s) is not attentive to the real issues and the phases of the conflict cycle, the cycle continues with new triggers, new behaviors and deeper consequences.    The longer the cycle goes on, the faster the cycles move and the more intense they become. 

If the parties involved are willing to search together for the issues behind the cycle, resolution is more likely to occur.   The goal of the church leader should be to decrease the frequency of the cycle and to keep the parties focused on the issues that are its source.

More could be said (and will be).  But that is enough conflict theory for today.  Do you have thoughts or examples of any of this?  Please share them in the comments below.

(Some of the above content came from a workshop presented by the Atlantic Provincial Primary Health Care Initiative and the Nova Scotia Dept. of Health.)

Attitude, Communication, Conflict, Criticism, Uncategorized

2 Comments to “The Cycle of Church Conflict”

  1. rick schwerdtfeger

    Cal, I enjoyed reading your article about “conflict”. I agree all churchs, big or small, will face conflict. I believe we should turn to the scriptures and let the holy spirit lead us to a solution, if you have the right leaders who are in tune with the holy spirit and have strong prayer lifes. With that said, I know in my heart at the root of every conflict is Satan, blinding someone or a group of believers to stir up conflict, be it how the pastor gives to long of service, songs we sing, how communion is served and so on. I remember before you where hired at Bible Christian, the Elders had a conflict with Richard Cook and that lead to his leaving the church. Most of the members back then had no conflict or problem with Richard, just a few leaders and were not willing to resolve the issue, so Richard left. I am a memeber of a church that 9 yrs ago split over conflict of older members vs younger members and MONEY spent and mishandled. Your friend and mine, Mark Ingmire dad and mom was a center figure in that conflict. I have had the opporunity, because of the Lord to know both sides of the isle on this, I went to the church Wally Ingmire started and left 3 years ago and joined the other church he left. There is still an unsettled conflict with the group that left, not the group that stayed back, I pray that Christ will heal these folks and return the church back to where it was. So yes, your article is right on the point, conflict is the #1 issue in churches, I pray there are more teachers, coaches and all around Christian leaders like you out there trying to resolve the problem of conflict and identifying it ASAP and moving on. I always enjoy reading your posts and your information you put on FB, wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas, your brother in Christ. Rick

    • Thanks Rick. I am not a prophet, but am convinced that any church that begins out of unresolved conflict with itself eventually split over conflict. If leaving is seen as an acceptable alternative in the DNA of a church, it will be birthed again and again in the life of the church. Thanks for your comment and, as always, thanks for your friendship.

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