Conflict and church go together like squash bugs and pumpkin vines. The former may not be welcome in the latter, but its presence is nonetheless inevitable. The question is what to do about it.
For a tragic number of us church leaders, the answer seems to be to abdicate our responsibilities for leading our congregations through troubled waters. Some of us become martyrs, ready to tell anyone who will listen how mistreated we have been by our dysfunctional flocks. Others close our eyes to conflict and pretend it isn’t there. And everyone—including those who engage in these anti-strategies—knows that neither is healthy or helpful.
When conflict arises, our task is to lead the congregation through it. We have to be the ones to set the example for grace under criticism and patience in the midst of anxiety. We have to remind ourselves and our people what a Christ-like response to conflict looks like.
And in all of that, we clergy also have to preach. We have to stand in the pulpit and proclaim love and forgiveness, even when we are under fire from those on the other side of the chancel rail. We are charged with exhorting the congregation to hold together, even when we can see the leaders of various factions sitting in their Sunday seats.
How do we approach such a task as preaching during times of conflict? By remembering a few basic things we learned when life was more at ease, then applying them to our work despite the anxiety of our people.
Hold on loosely.
When a young pitcher gets into trouble, his coach will often give a simple piece of advice: don’t grip the ball too tightly. When the situation gets stressful, a pitcher’s inclination will be to tense up and squeeze the ball in an effort to throw a bit harder.
Ironically, the tighter the grip, the less likely a pitch is to be effective. Fastballs lose velocity. Curveballs spin too tightly, or don’t spin enough. The best thing the pitcher can do is also the most difficult: relax.
Conflict—especially prolonged conflict—increases our stress level, which decreases both the amount of work we can do and the quality of that work. As much as possible, a good preacher needs to calm the voices of worry and accusation and focus on the task at hand.
Besides, if we truly believe the scriptures we proclaim week in and week out, momentary conflict cannot steal anything of lasting value unless we allow it.
Acknowledge the problem without trying to fix it.
Stepping out of the anxiety of a situation doesn’t solve the conflict, of course—especially for those who are most involved in it. Some acknowledgement of the problem may be necessary during a time of prayer or even the sermon.
But acknowledging the conflict doesn’t mean we have to offer the miracle cure, as if the title “reverend” somehow gives us license as a spiritual pharmacist. Most disagreements take some time to work through, and many are not ours to solve. A little restraint will keep us from appearing to take sides, or from solving the wrong problem, or from a hundred other things that could blow up in our faces.
Avoid potential blow-ups with good communication.
Across almost every discipline, my seminary teachers warned us never to preach to one person. But sometimes even our most innocuous sermons can be misunderstood by someone with whom we’ve had a disagreement.
Although it’s impossible to control another person’s response to us (another tip from Leadership 101), it’s also a good idea during times of conflict to look for topics or statements that someone in our flock might misconstrue as an attack on them, and approach that person ahead of time for a conversation.
My friend David tells of a sermon he had planned on anger. On Thursday before he preached it, a church member stopped by his office and screamed at him for a decision she disagreed with. So on Saturday, David called her to explain that his sermon was not prepared with her in mind, and that he expected that they could solve their differences best by personal conversation. He even offered her a copy of his manuscript so that she would know what was coming.
Such openness and grace can ward off trouble before it starts.
Not only is each conflict as different as the congregation from which it arises. Each one also presents multiple opportunities for successful resolution. To quote a maxim of artists everywhere, there is more than one right answer.
Conflict and the stress that comes with it can stifle our creativity. Tension robs us of perspective and tells us to look for the one perfect resolution. We wear out our old text books and leadership libraries in search of it.
As helpful as academic principles may be, no one knows our congregations like we do. No one understands the relationship dynamics better. No one can predict with greater accuracy how individuals will respond when presented with certain information in a certain way. So when we prepare to preach to a congregation embroiled in conflict, we likely already have the tools and information we need to navigate the waves. We just have to put them to work.
Preaching through conflict is difficult, but it is also an opportunity to embody the good news we proclaim. A well-prepared and well-delivered sermon can set the congregation at ease, at least for a moment. If it can make more space in which the Spirit can move, we can rest assured that we’ve done our job well.