Conflict management in church and life

The holiday season brings with it a wide range of emotions, memories, and opportunities. This is also the time of year that the conflicts that arise can take center stage overshadowing joyous occasion. The local church congregation, being made up of humans, is not immune to the possibility of personal conflict becoming a destructive force. With some advanced thinking and preparation it is possible to prevent conflict from escalating. The essence of conflict management is not prevention as much as it is to find a resolution. Conflict management is a subject of such depth that it would require multiples of hours of discussion to explore all the concepts available. In this post I will briefly overview five levels of conflict and some tips to assist in resolution. My desire is that you are able to apply the information presented to your ministry and personal life.

In order to understand any concept we first need to define it. The definition we will use for conflict is; “Striving for one’s own preferred outcome, which, if attained, precludes the attainment by others of their preferred outcome, thereby producing hostility”.

Some things to know about conflict

Conflict is the number one reason pastors leave vocational ministry.

I suspect conflict may be the number one reason people resist working in ministry.

Not all conflict is sin ;

  • Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.
  • Ephesians 6:12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Not all conflict is unhealthy

  • Game of checkers is a form of conflict
  • Appropriate conflict management is a sign of health for a church.

Conflict does not always have a negative outcome

  • The gospel message spread because of conflict. (Nero persecuting the church)
  • The position of deacon came about because of conflict. (Acts 6)

Progress is rarely made without conflict. Conflict is the companion of change! There are times that conflict is predictable such as;

  • Change in leadership
  • Economic change
  • Change in tradition
  • Change in a program or system
  • Change in team members
  • Changing lanes in traffic in a large truck

Most conflict issues found in any church begin with poor communication and not taking the time to understand or be understood. It is essential to learn and use biblical conflict management skills. That is not the same as using the bible to beat someone with. Conflict does not go away just because we ignore it. Typically it will grow and escalate until we have no choice but to deal with it.

In Matthew 18:20 Jesus said “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (NIV), but I say where two or more gather there will be issues to resolve.

There are different degrees or levels of conflict. Speed Leas is credited for defining five levels of conflict that must be addressed in different ways.


At this level people feel discomfort in one another’s presence. Level 1 conflict is a daily part of life. A few example causes of level one conflict are;

  • A slow driver
  • A fast driver (ever notice anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone driving faster is a maniac)
  • A visitor sitting in “your seat”
  • Speakers that don’t use “your style of talking”
  • Falling asleep in church
  • Aunt Bertha bringing that green jello dessert to the holiday dinner.

At this level people are focused on problem solving. It is possible to have short lived anger or even denial of hostile feelings. Rational thought and clear communication is present. People are open to other opinions.


Level 2 conflict is not yet a win/lose destructive level; however, it is more difficult and emotionally charged than level 1. People involved in level 2 conflict are less concerned with solving a problem and more concerned about self protection. Some indicators of level 2 conflict are;

  • Involving others in their discussion to justify their case and plan a strategy
  • The language shifts from specific to general, (“I am not interested in what you are talking about” becomes “you are a boring speaker”)
  • People involved tend to withhold information that may enhance the other or hurt themselves.
  • Hostile humor
  • Labeling (name calling)
  • Distancing
  • People begin to choose sides. Remember “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge” (Proverbs 15:1-2)
  • This is the point when things start to get hairy. People can permit arguments to linger by not responding properly. If someone is involving you in their discussions of someone else ask clear questions such as “did you see or hear that yourself?”, “were there any witnesses?” Be sure of the context of the issue and pray with the person for a peaceful resolution. Do not make assumptions.

III.  CONTESTS (I want my way)

This is the point where the conflict enters the win/lose stage. The focus shifts from self-protection to winning. Competition enters in as one party wants to win while making the other party lose. Level 3 is more complicated and usually has more than one problem to resolve. Perceptions of the real problem are very different, and people begin to depend on their gut feelings rather than on the facts.

Level 3 conflicts usually require a third-party to intervene.  These types of conflict can be hard to resolve.

Occasionally we encounter a divisive person. A divisive person usually tries to turn any difference of opinion into a contest. NOT ALL PEOPLE IN A LEVEL 3 CONFLICT ARE DIVISIVE PEOPLE. If in fact it is a divisive person, it is best if leadership tries to work with the person through proper counseling. The goal of counseling is to help the individual grow through the process. Titus 3:10 says “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that have nothing to do with him.”

IV.  FIGHT/FLIGHT(Someone has to go)

At level 4 the goal of the parties changes from wanting to win to wanting to hurt or get rid of the other. At this level people will not even speak to each other.


This level is unmanageable. At level 5 the situation is out-of-control and the conflict is not solvable unless there is divine intervention and the parties are open to that. The mentality is “How can I destroy the other side?” Annihilation is the goal. The other party is viewed as harmful to society at large and needs to be removed. It is possible for one person to be at level 5 conflict while the other is at level 1.

The goal of conflict should be to reach resolution 

Resolution usually does not always prove one side totally wrong and the other side totally right. Keep focus on the issue. Keep one issue on the table at a time. Cooperation and understanding should be the goals even if both sides are in opposition to each other. If the issue does not call for moral compromise or a legal action, allow that the other person has another opinion. Healthy disagreements can strengthen relationships and be a positive force. However, not dealing with conflict in a manner consistent with biblical principles is harmful to any church. Not dealing with conflict in a healthy way is harmful to any relationship.

Show humility in your attitude. Admit when you have made a mistake and accept correction that you may learn from it. The antithesis of humility is pride, which is a magnification of self-importance and self-esteem.

Micah 6:8 He has shown you O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

I encourage you to consider the other persons opinion when conflict arises. By understanding the issue to be resolved it is easier to begin a plan of resolution. It is wise to discuss how the future will look as conflict is resolved. Conflict is never over until a plan or goal as to how the people will function in the future is agreed on. The goal of any church member should be fulfilling both the great commission and keeping the great commandment. Remember that mature people seek truth and immature people want to win, no matter the cost.

Keep in mind the definition of conflict is: “Striving for one’s own preferred outcome, which, if attained, precludes the attainment by others of their preferred outcome, thereby producing hostility”.

I will end on this thought;

Albert Einstein is credited with saying “We can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Rev. Burt Schwab

About burtschwab

I currently live in Iowa, USA. My goals are to simply live life as a journey and embrace each day. I am married to a wife with similar passions and that makes me a blessed man.
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