Managing Conflict, Making Peace

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from Church Revitalization
by Russell N. Small

Followers of Jesus are called to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9). However, to bring about true peace sometimes conflict must be engaged. The balance between real peace and conflict is complex. Change often brings conflict. Old structures are remade so that new realities can be experienced. Since change is a process, not an event, church leadership must monitor the entire process so that conflict does not destroy the opportunity for change. One way to prohibit change is for the conflict intensity to become so great that the change process is abandoned. Therefore, in the context of implementing change, leaders must offer careful attention given to the level of conflict experienced in the church. Competent leaders are neither willing to allow the status quo to remain, nor are they willing to allow the process of change to become unmanageable.[1] Striking this balance requires skill and awareness of those within the church.

Monitoring Conflict

Church leaders cannot abandon implementing change at the first sign of discomfort. However, neither can they ignore conflict when it begins to become acute. There is a middle ground between discomfort and acute pain. If the church is not moving through change quickly enough, those who are ready for implementation will become discouraged. If the church implements change so quickly that it is emotionally overwhelming for some, members may distance themselves or leave. A mass exodus during a change process is not ideal. In many situations, there is a group that will distance or leave during change. However, if this group becomes too large, the level of conflict can halt the change process. Church leadership must monitor the level of conflict during the change process.

Why Things Cannot Get out of Control

Church leaders must commit to ensure conflict never gets out of control. Moments when church members begin shouting at one another or someone has a tearful, angry moment as part of a meeting can traumatize the church. If these moments of intensity are allowed to escalate, they will greatly hinder the change process. While many church members are willing to experience discomfort, few are willing to hang around if a situation begins to get out of control.

Church leaders do not have ultimate control over whether someone chooses to have an angry outburst or a tearful moment. However, they must attempt to work toward prevention of such moments and have a clear plan of action if these moments occur. Prevention of out-of-control moments relies heavily on the church leaders’ knowledge of the congregation. Some members are more short-fused or emotional. It is important during church gatherings to merely observe such people in a meeting. Typically, there are a host of nonverbal cues displayed before a person has an outburst. A church leader can watch for these cues. If they become present, a church leader could merely go and sit next to the person. Further, if a church member has a history of outbursts in church meetings, a one-on-one discussion with the person before the meeting to address concerns might be in order. If a church leader believes that a meeting is set to be an explosive environment, it would be unwise to conduct the meeting in the same manner as planned. It would be ideal to reduce the group size and especially address the most explosive members in private. The damage of allowing a large-scale conflict to occur in the presence of other church members will cause the congregation to lose confidence in the church leadership’s ability to enact change.

There are situations that can surprise church leaders even with the best planning. If unfortunately a large-scale conflict does occur, church leaders must minimize damage. The best thing to do if emotional escalation occurs is to immediately turn attention to bringing emotions and tempers back in order. The discussion at hand should immediately stop and the person running the meeting should call for order and godliness. The church leaders will need to be calm and authoritative in this moment. If the person is unwilling to calm down and committed to making a scene, the meeting should be adjourned, and the people dismissed. It is unwise to allow church members to continue exposure to a volatile church environment. Once this has occurred there will be a significant amount of repair required. Church leadership will need to follow up with each person involved, express their regret for the development of the volatile situation, and reaffirm their commitment to a peaceful environment. When a situation has gone bad in a church, some members never recover, some members blame the church leadership for allowing it to happen, some blame the person who got upset in the meeting, or some combination of these factors. It is never ideal for the focus of the church to be on the conflict within the church versus the implementation of a plan toward church revitalization.

Making Peace Is Different from Keeping the Peace

Making peace requires upsetting the status quo so that a better reality is maintainable, understanding the role of conflict in the change process, and discernment of the places where the church has learned to accept less than ideal situations.[2] Many families clearly know the difference in keeping peace versus making peace. In most family units there are certain family members who do not treat other family members with the love and respect they are due. The family merely has learned how to live with these people. They allow injurious behavior to continue because the family has decided it is easier to keep peace than make peace.

Making peace would require lovingly but firmly addressing the family member and no longer accepting certain behaviors. This is a complicated process, and many families (and churches) have chosen to merely keep peace versus making peace. While in the short term it certainly does feel more comfortable to keep the peace, the long-term consequences in families (and churches) to merely keep peace versus making real peace are dire. If a situation remains broken long enough, those who have injurious behavior usually become more emboldened in their behavior. Those who tolerate the behavior become less aware of its effects on the church family and even in their own lives. A church that wants to see real change take place must move from a mindset of keeping peace to making peace.

[1] Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), 21–74.

[2] Jim Van Yperen, Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict (Chicago: Moody, 2002), 163–75.

This post is adapted from Church Revitalization by Russell N. Small. This title was released on April 11, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

There are more churches needing revitalization than there are leaders skilled for the work

Church Revitalization guides current and future leaders through the often-complex process of bringing a church to a place of vibrancy. This book demonstrates how the overarching goal of seeing people come to faith in Christ and develop into Christlikeness can and must inform the most foundational to the most fleeting aspects of revitalizing a struggling church.

Church Revitalization Strategist Rusty Small systematically walks readers through the many considerations of leading a church out of a decline. He helps identify the best approach for addressing what a particular church’s revitalization need may be:

    • Refresh — often most fitting after a difficult season in the church’s life
    • Renovate — needed when a decline has lasted five to ten years
    • Restore — appropriate for churches with generational patterns focused on survival
    • Replant — best for a church facing imminent closure

Few joys compare to seeing God’s life and power realized for the local church when believers begin to think and serve as Jesus did. Small will encourage pastors and church leaders engaged in this critical task.

If God is calling you to church revitalization, take and read!


About Author

Russell N. Small (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary)is a church revitalization strategist with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia and lead pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Appomattox, VA, which he led through a revitalization more than a decade ago. He is also an associate professor at the Liberty University John W. Rawlings School of Divinity.

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