The Escalating Stages of Church Conflict
Conflict is the Number One Predictor of Congregational Decline - Hartford Institute for Religion Research
1. (Sometimes) An Uncomfortable Feeling
Something doesn’t feel right. You can’t quite put your finger on it. Nothing explicit has been mentioned. The conflict is still latent. That is, the conflict potentially exists but needs the right conditions for it to appear.
2. A Problem Emerges
An identifiable problem has emerged and dealing with it is the focus. The participants are civil and respectful to one another as they each share their perspective. Solutions are proposed and, in most instances, issues are resolved in a calm and collaborative fashion to everyone’s satisfaction.
3. A Person To Differ With
The focus of conversation changes from what should be done and what is the best solution, to a debate of who is right and who is wrong. Frustration sets in because the attempt to achieve one’s goals is undermined by another. Parties may become more cautious in dealing with each other. The dispute can still be constructive if the parties make a greater effort to see the other person’s point of view. On the other hand, if the matter is not resolved, the situation can easily deteriorate into destructive conflict.
4. A Dispute To Win
Collaboration wanes. Other problematic issues often appear confusing matters. Disputing parties communicate less to each other and more about each other with those who take their respective side, increasing polarization in the congregation. And while there may not be an intent to hurt one’s opponent, it often results. Because the overriding goal is for one’s needs to be met or interests to prevail, there appears to be less concern about how that affects others, further exacerbating the conflict. One side comes to believe that the other cares little about them. As one side seeks to achieve it’s goals, the other side feels like their interests are being all-too-readily dismissed or sacrificed. Action then begets counteraction.
5. A Person To Verbally Attack
A power struggle emerges. Parties now see themselves as adversaries and “antagonist” (a Greek word that means “to struggle against” as in Hebrews 12:4). When people begin to struggle against each other, watch out! An invisible line is crossed that does not bode well for that relationship or for the church. If the parties in conflict could have resolved the matter without help, they would have. Now is the time to contact others for help.
Original issues and context now become secondary. At this stage, the problem is identified as a person. “You are/ he is / she is / they are / the problem”. An “us against them” mentality sets in. Emotions adversely affect objective thinking. Selective perception confirms and fuels negative stereotyping. Once stereotyped, the other side can be “written-off” as _____ (fill in the blank). Parties avoid each other and assume the worst of the other. In the absence of direct communication, each faction views the other through an increasingly distorted filter of suspicion, false assumptions, exaggeration, misinformation, and misperceptions.
Each side justifies its own hostile behavior as reactions to its opponent and to external circumstances. By contrast, the actions of one’s adversaries are attributed to internal deficiencies, such as their character, competency, or spirituality. Public admission of having exercised poor judgment or of having made a mistake becomes increasingly unlikely. In this negatively charged environment, such an acknowledgment would likely open oneself to embarrassment, further criticism, and reprisal. The disputing parties protect themselves, their vulnerabilities and insecurities, by attacking.
Researchers have found that at this stage, direct head-to-head discussions are counter-productive. “Direct negotiations have a limited usefulness once the level of conflict has escalated in intensity.” “Once in a fight, each side finds it difficult to accept the ideas of the enemy.” “A proposal that is unacceptable coming from you [adversary] may be acceptable if it comes from a third party.” “[Direct, two-party] negotiations are hard to sustain and frequently break down.”
Resistance intensifies against an adversary’s ideas often because it is one’s adversary who proposed them. Discussions and negotiations break down because they seem futile. Unilateral acts become the next logical step which inevitably lead to an escalation of the conflict.
6. My “Face” To Save
The term “face” refers to how a person is viewed by others. As long as someone is viewed as a respectable member of the community, all is well. But when one’s public image is seriously challenged, expect the intensity of the conflict to escalate even further.
To have one’s public image challenged is to be attacked on a very personal level. It is to be charged with maintaining a false facade. The attacker seeks to “unmask” the other person’s true and despicable identity. To the extent that this “insight” is believed, the prior course of the conflict is reinterpreted. With these new lenses, words or actions that may have been originally perceived in a positive light are now viewed as part of a larger, deceitful strategy. False motives are attributed throughout. The conflict is no longer understood in terms of shades of gray. It is perceived in terms of black and white and an ideological battle between the forces of good versus evil.
To “save face” against such an attack on one’s identity, people will respond with an equally ferocious assault of their own. Disputants will unleash a torrent of negative descriptions against those who have attacked and maligned them, attempting in turn, to undercut and discredit them. They will label those on the other side as unreasonable, immoral, untrustworthy, mentally unbalanced, and/or sub-human. This conclusion justifies almost any action against the other side, exacerbating the cycle of conflict to dangerous levels.
7. A Person To Expel, Withdraw From, or Ruin
The parties are locked in an all-or-nothing battle. The church is no longer big enough for everyone. The solution is either to drive out the problem person or people or leave. Or, the conflict may be so personalized, intractable, or irrational that the adversaries would rather suffer private loss or the church’s ruin to see their opponent defeated. “Together into the abyss” they go, as one individual soberly described it.
8. The Aftermath
When the dust settles, the worship, fellowship, and the work of the church, as well as individual lives, are adversely affected, often for years to come. For some, winning the battle or driving a person from the church is still not enough. The ruination of a person’s reputation may continue long after the battle is over. Another faction will express shame and bewilderment for what they have said or done. They may lose confidence in themselves for having lost control of themselves. Others will deny the depth or severity of their actions. Still others, acknowledging their embarrassing actions, will blame those who led them.
Pastor Joe McKeever, referring to his church that had split five ways in the two years prior to his accepting the call to pastor that congregation, said, “I was especially careful during my first four or five years here. We spent a lot of time addressing the issues of guilt and disappointment. Many felt guilty for their actions. The rest were disappointed - in their friends, their pastors, themselves, even God.”
The more intense the conflict, the more irrational it becomes. Two intensifying processes take place throughout:
An increasing frustration / anger over the unresolved issue(s), and
An increasing negative perception of the character of the other side.
Someone needs to say, ”Stop! Enough already! Let’s go outside this cycle of conflict and contact an experienced peacemaker to help us break it!”