Lessen Conflict by Building Relationships

by Dennis J. Hester

How Pastors Can Manage Church Conflict (Part 1 of 3)

Churches are using termination as the ‘weapon of choice,' in targeting church staff problems in epidemic proportions," said Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas and former pastor and president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, in the 1992 issue of the Deacon magazine.

The pastor and the church's relationship is like a marriage. They court each other before they commit themselves to one another and then their honeymoon period eventually comes to an end when they have their first fight. And statistics prove that the chances of surviving their conflicts and continuing life together are as dismal and disappointing as the statistics for actual marriages in America. Pastors and other church staff are being terminated at an alarming rate.

John C. LaRue, Jr., sees the termination of pastors-or "forced exits" as he calls them-as a chronic problem among congregations. In a survey conducted in 1996, published in the March/April 1996 issue of Your Church magazine entitled, "Forced Exits: a Too-Common Ministry Hazard," LaRue says "Nine out of ten pastors (91%) know three to four others who have been forced out of pastoral positions. In fact, one-third of all pastors (34%) serve congregations who either fired the previous minister or actively forced his or her resignation. Perhaps more telling, nearly one-fourth (23%) of all current pastors have been forced out at some point in their ministry. Many who are forced out do not return to a ministry position: Ten percent of dismissed predecessors left pastoral ministry."

I believe one of the basic cementing factors that hold marriages together is the same thing that helps pastors and congregations weather the storms of conflict that are inevitable in every church body. And that is a strong, healthy, growing relationship.

Listed below are a few steps that any pastor can take to build a relationship with the congregation that will help weather the storms of conflict when they come.

1. Love your people, laugh with them and enjoy being in their company. Spend time with your people, even those who cause you problems. It's the people, not the job!

2. Don't be distant from your people. Be humble, even if they are cold, snobbish, rude or arrogant.

3. Admit you are wrong and have sinned when it happens. Ask for forgiveness and move on (1 John 1:9).

4. Learn to manage your anger. If you need counseling in this area, then get help now!

5. Work to find win/win solutions to your problems.

6. Assume your church family loves you and minister to them as if they do love you.

7. Join or begin a pastor's support group with healthy-minded pastors. In such an objective group you can test your ideas and role-play how to deal with people with whom you find it difficult to communicate.

8. Invest in counseling from time to time. A confidential professional listener is worth the time and money.

9. Don't lose your sense of humor. Laugh at yourself and learn from your mistakes. You will be a healthier person and minister. Your people will love you for it.

10. Commit yourself to be working constantly to improve your relationship with God, your personal family, and church family.

If we as pastors can't get along with people we are in sad shape, because people are all that we have in our congregations. And the better we know them, love them, and serve them in the name of Christ, the less chance we will have a conflict that we cannot resolve.

Dennis Hester is an intentional interim minister specializing in helping churches to prepare to call their next fulltime minister. He also serves as a seminary speaker, church consultant, and director of People Power Training, whereby he conducts workshops in communication, conflict management, and learning to deal with transitions. Hester is the author of "Pastor, We Need to Talk!" How congregations and pastors can solve their problems before it's too late. To contact him call (704) 480-0494 or email: dennishester@carolina.rr.com.