Six Tips for Resolving Conflict in the Church

Many people prefer to avoid conflict, hoping that it will go away. But time only causes the wounds to get deeper, further damaging relationships. When conflict occurs in the church, it can threaten the unity of a congregation. Experts say the only way to heal conflict is to acknowledge and address it. But how? Ken Sande, a leader in the Christian peacemaking field, offers some time-tested biblical principles for resolving conflicts among people at church.

Sande is author of The Peacemaker and founder of two Christian conciliation ministries: Peacemaker Ministries and Relational Wisdom 360. He says these methods can be applied in a variety of settings, including work, school, and home. Sande offers the following six tips to help pastors address disputes between members of the congregation.

1. Start by Modeling Christ

The gospel offers the most powerful peacemaking strategy ever developed, Sande says. “Jesus gives us this powerful model of loving others, and the power of the Holy Spirit to live it out,” Sande said. “Of loving our enemies. Of doing good to those who hate us. Of blessing those who curse us. And it is supernatural. It’s totally countercultural.”

Trained as an engineer, lawyer and mediator, Sande has spent more than 38 years helping people reconcile their differences. Again and again, he has seen a gospel-based approach work in situations that seemed impossible to restore, including those with deeply divided church boards.

It all starts, Sande explains, when people take seriously Jesus’ teaching: "Get the log out of your own eye before you start pointing at the speck in the other guys’ eye." 

2. Practice Relational Wisdom

When we get into a conflict, Sande says most of us tend to go “two-dimensional.” We focus on the horizontal relationship: dwelling on our righteousness and the other person’s wrongs. Relational wisdom, a gospel-driven form of emotional intelligence, brings God into the equation, he explains. It helps people to view their relationships “three-dimensionally” by seeking to be not only self-aware, but also other-aware and God-aware. “This helps us get our hearts in the right place, so we can help others more effectively,” he said. One might start by praying: “Lord, give me wisdom and patience with my people. Help me to understand their hearts.”

Before attempting to resolve an issue, Sande says it’s helpful to ask yourself the following types of questions:

  • Self-awareness. What’s going on in my own heart? What am I feeling? Why? How am I inclined to respond? What will I do instead?
  • Other-awareness. How am I affecting others? What do others seem to be feeling? What do they seem to need? How can I demonstrate genuine love and forgiveness?
  • God-awareness. What is God up to? Why did he allow this situation? Am I acting in faith or unbelief? What would glorify him?

3. Recognize the Three Faces of Fear

When people fear something, they typically have one of three responses: control, anger, or withdrawal. If a pastor reacts only to what he’s seeing, he’s missing the point. For effective resolution, he needs to get to the deeper question: “What is this person afraid of?” 

Once you understand this underlying dynamic, you can resist the temptation to become defensive, Sande says. Instead, seek to discern and address the fear that is triggering other’s behavior. When you do so, you can prevent conflict, minister to others and move your relationships to a whole new level.

Sande says the more quickly you address others’ fears with the gentleness, kindness, and love of Christ, the more often you’ll see a positive result.

4. Practice the ‘Three Ps’ of Satisfaction

Any time you’re trying to solve a problem, render a decision, or give guidance, you want people to be satisfied with the process, with how they were treated, and with the final outcome. Sande calls these the Three Ps:

  • Process satisfaction. A fair, orderly, and even-handed process. Everyone feels that they’ve had enough time to present their side of the matter.
  • Personal satisfaction. Treating everyone with respect, courtesy, and equality, just as we would want to be treated ourselves.
  • Product satisfaction. A final solution that is as reasonable, just, and equitable as is humanly possible.

Even if someone doesn’t entirely like the final outcome, Sande says they will often accept the result if they are treated fairly and with respect.  

“If you give people process and personal satisfaction, they will usually walk away satisfied,” Sande said. “I’ve seen it again and again.”

The converse is also true, he says. “If you don’t treat people with respect, or if you don’t give them a fair process, they will be bitter toward you, no matter what you decide.”

5. Remember the Golden Result

One of the most effective communication rules Sande has seen in mediation involves the Golden Result: People will usually treat you the way you treat them. It’s very similar to the Golden Rule: Do to others as you would have them do to you.

 “Blame others and they will usually blame you,” he said. “Admit where you’ve been wrong, and you’ll be surprised how often others do the same.”

If you listen carefully and with humility, plus take responsibility for your own actions, it generally brings the tension level down. Any time you’re in a conflict, Sande encourages you to ask yourself, “How do I want to be treated?” If you engage others by treating them exactly the same way, he says you’ll be amazed at how often this changes the course of your conflict.

6. Promote Biblical Peacemaking

When people learn peacemaking skills, they’re able to resolve many conflicts on their own, Sande says. If the church encourages small group leaders and elders to develop more advanced skills, such as biblical reconciliation, it allows lay leaders to coach individuals and serve as mediators in conflicts. That way, only the really difficult cases among the congregation would be left for pastors to address.

In Sande’s experience, about 80% of the people who think they need a mediator are able to resolve the matter on their own. “With good coaching for one party—who goes back and just starts living out the biblical principles— that resolves it, most of the time,” Sande said.

Peacemaking principles aren’t difficult, he says. They just involve skills people may not have developed yet.

Additional Resources

If you would like to dig deeper into the topic of biblical peacemaking, here are some resources that can help you.

Posted February 4, 2021

The information provided in this article is intended to be helpful, but it does not constitute legal advice and is not a substitute for the advice from a licensed attorney in your area. We strongly encourage you to regularly consult with a local attorney as part of your risk management program.

Related Resources

The Deacon's Bench Online - Hidden Dangers

Protect Your People