Finding the Optimal Level of Conflict – by David R. Brubaker
Every congregation experiences conflict, even though each one does so in unique ways. The sources of conflict may vary from the micro to the macro—from intrapersonal pathologies to personality differences to globalization forces—but over time they are inescapable. Various studies have shown that organizational leaders and managers spend up to 25 percent of their time managing conflict. Experienced pastors know that during times of crisis, conflict management duties can become all-consuming.
Although many members assume that all congregational conflicts emerge from personality differences or communication problems, other significant sources are often at work within the system itself. These include the structure, culture, and leadership of the organization. However, conflict can result not just from changes in the structure, culture, and environment but also from other systemic realities within those three areas.
Conflict can arise out of the congregational structure from one of several causes. First, conflict results when power is overly centralized and those with less power attempt to shift the power imbalance. Second, roles can be so poorly defined that overlapping and thus contested responsibilities lead to tension and conflict. Third, the formal and the informal social structure can be so divergent that conflict emerges from differing perceptions of who really has authority. Leaders who notice patterns in the interpersonal conflicts in their congregation will want to consider these possible structural causes.
An organization’s culture can be another underlying source of conflict, particularly its most visible expression—the worship service. The most common conflict arises when newer congregational members encounter an entrenched organizational culture that they do not share. The conflicts that result tend to be framed by both groups in terms of right and wrong behavior, as culture supplies the values and norms that help us determine what behavior is appropriate or inappropriate. If a pastor or other staff person hired from outside the congregation is perceived to be acting in ways that are counter to the congregation’s cultural values, conflict is particularly likely and tends to be acute. And when an outside leader and an inside culture clash, culture normally wins.
Finally, the multiple environments in which a congregation is nested also provide the potential for multiple sources of conflict. This is the reason why “town/gown” conflicts (between communities and the colleges or universities they host) are so common; academic cultures that value debate and progressive thinking are likely to be in tension with environments that value harmony and traditional values.
Although conflict is inevitable, many scholars and practitioners believe that any organization may have an optimal level of conflict. Some disagreement and conflict provides energy and generates ideas, but too much conflict becomes destructive. When an organization has too little conflict, it may need to be encouraged, and when an organization has too much conflict, it may need to be reduced. In the middle of this curve, however, lies an optimal level of conflict where most organizations seem to thrive. Stirring the conflict pot may be needed in some situations, but when the pot starts to boil over, a conflict reduction strategy may be needed.
Diagnosing the level of conflict and seeking outside assistance at higher levels constitutes the intervention end of the conflict management spectrum. At the prevention end lie opportunities for congregational leaders to create a conflict-healthy system where disagreement is welcomed and destructive conflict doesn’t take root. A conflict-healthy system includes both individual behaviors and congregational mechanisms to manage conflict. It begins with the recognition that leaders set the tone regarding conflict management in their congregations, along with many other behavioral norms.
An organization’s culture matters more than its structure. Therefore, while congregational leaders may be able to create a mediation program or an open-door policy, the greater challenge will likely be changing the conflict culture sufficiently so that congregational members will naturally seek out and use interest-based methods of conflict resolution rather than only choosing flight or fight.
Culture changes when behaviors and assumptions change, and leaders’ behaviors and assumptions matter most of all. Therefore, leaders who learn to know the system, build a supporting coalition, and model the desired changes are affecting the culture of their congregations. The culture may at first resist, but leaders’ persistence in modeling the desired assumptions and behaviors will over time change the conflict culture—the norms and behaviors around conflict in your congregation. Managing conflict starts with managing oneself. Consider the conflict culture that you would like to have in your congregation, then start behaving as if that culture has already arrived. Culture change is never easy, and it is often painful. But it is possible.
A compelling example of leaders’ turning conflict into opportunity for structural and cultural change is found in the first seven verses of Acts 6. The idyllic description of the first Christian community, recorded in Acts 2:42–47 and Acts 4:32–37 is soon marred by incidents of deception in Acts 5:1–11 and internal conflict in Acts 6:1–7. While the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira—who attempted to deceive the apostles about the extent of their generosity—are shocking, the conflict recorded in Acts 6 sounds more familiar to our ears. One group murmured (or complained) against another group, and leaders intervened to resolve the conflict.
The complaints came from the Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews and were directed against the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Most scholars agree that the Aramaic-speaking Jews were in the majority of the early Christian movement and included Jesus’s disciples—now called apostles. The identified issue for the minority group was that their “widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1)—a compelling allegation in a society where care for widows and orphans was part of the Mosaic Law.
The twelve apostles could have ignored these allegations, ordered the minority group to stop griping, or issued a decree that all widows would henceforth be fed equal portions. Instead, they convened a meeting of all the disciples and self-defined by clarifying their primary role in the community. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). They then gave the problem back to the group that originally complained, suggesting that they choose seven individuals “full of the Spirit and wisdom” to care for the feeding of widows (v. 3). Fortunately, the proposal “pleased the whole group” (v. 5), and they chose seven men, all of whom had Greek names–and thus were likely from the group that originally brought the complaint.
It is instructive to note that this passage begins and ends with church growth. The first verse of chapter 6 records that “in those days . . . the number of disciples was increasing,” while the last verse of this section concludes that “the word of God spread” and “a large number of [Jewish] priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7). This is thus a story about a conflict, nested in a story about growth and change. This fascinating, if brief, account of the first recorded church conflict offers at least three significant learnings.
First, leaders need to move toward conflict, not away from it. Leaders who learn to move toward conflict discover that they have opportunities to resolve issues when those issues are small, rather than attempting to fight fires when they are nearly out of control.
Second, the identified issue is almost never the real issue. The allegation from the Greek-speaking minority that their “widows were being overlooked” in the daily food distribution was indeed a compelling one, but it likely was a proxy for a deeper feeling of powerlessness and alienation among the Hellenist members of the early church. All the significant leadership positions (apostles) were held by the Aramaic-speaking majority, and the minority did not know how to exercise their voice other than through “murmuring.”
Third, involve the “complainers” in solving their identified problems. Note that the apostles did not agree to take care of the problem that had been identified. Rather, they recruited members of the murmuring minority to address the problem. This outcome actually created a new role in the church—that of deacon.
Conflict is often a crisis, but it is also an opportunity. Much depends on our attitude toward conflict. If we expect it to be destructive and awful, it probably will be. But if we anticipate that the conflict may instead be an opportunity for genuine change, we may experience transformation. As Ron Kraybill, the founding director of Mennonite Conciliation Service, has said, conflict may be “an arena of revelation,” a time when we hear God’s voice as we never have before.
David Brubaker is a seminar leader with Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations.