Disunity in the Unity: Resolving Church Conflict

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In my work, ironically, I hear a lot about disunity. You’d think that those of us who come together to praise God, to grow spiritually, and to serve the world could find a way to do so without conflict. But like every other church in the world, we fight.

And I’m not talking about disunity around big, difficult issues or the essentials, though that happens too. I’m talking about disunity around the little things that somehow become big things . . . the color of the choir robes, whether we sit or stand for that hymn right before the sermon, what to do about ineffective volunteers, how to handle a difficult person, and more. You know what I mean.

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And all too often, we find ourselves unable or unwilling to address that conflict in any meaningful way. “That’s none of my business,” “The preacher should handle that,” “If I say anything, I’ll make them mad,” “It’s not that big a deal,” or “I’m just going to ignore that until it (or they) go away.”

In our church sanctuaries, fellowship halls, and meeting rooms, we face crucial confrontations and we’re not sure what to say. So, we stay silent, or engage in gossip, or go on the attack. When we fail to hold others accountable in ways that are both direct and respectful, what often begins as simple disagreements can grow into chronic dysfunction.

We as a Church already face numerous, significant challenges from outside our walls. Can we really afford to follow that sacred adage “in all things, love,” even when it’s clear that too much of that “love” and not enough accountability are actually tearing us apart?

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Consider this: not all conflict is bad. Most of us recognize that productive conflict can improve and even deepen our relationships, particularly in friendship, marriage, and business. But somehow, when it comes to church, we avoid conflict in the name of love, or preserving friendship, or saving time. In fact, open debate and disagreement often produces the best possible solution in the shortest amount of time.

How do we overcome the fear of conflict?

  • Acknowledge that conflict can be productive and that our natural tendency is to avoid it. Just say that out loud. In a meeting. More than once. It is critical that leaders model appropriate conflict behavior. By avoiding all conflict – even that which is necessary and productive — we add to the resulting dysfunction, which is unhealthy for everyone.
  • Consider having someone on your board or committee assume the role of “miner of conflict” — someone whose role it is to uncover buried disagreements and call attention to sensitive issues which the team must work through. The “miner” needs to remain objective and the group should commit to staying with the conflict until it is resolved. This responsibility could shift depending upon the issue being discussed.
  • Coach each other through the conflict. A simple behavioral covenant serves as a reminder for how to engage one another. Or perhaps group members agree to remind each other not to retreat from healthy debate. Once the discussion is over, participants can revisit the idea that conflict is good for the group and not something to be avoided. This creates a culture where healthy conflict is encouraged and valued.
  • Take advantage of resources that enable group members to learn about their own conflict styles, behavioral preferences, and personality styles. Knowing more about our own styles can prove useful in managing organizational conflict. There are dozens of assessments out there that can provide helpful insight. The Board of Cooperative Ministries provides several different workshops around healthy conflict and other issues of relevance to congregations. We’d love to come out to your church and help you use these tools to encourage productive conflict and healthy community.

People can learn healthy confrontation skills and when they do, churches benefit.

Future posts will explore specific skills that we can use before, during, and after a conflict. Why wouldn’t we work to make sure we never have fewer brothers and sisters than God has sons and daughters?


Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler. Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

rcb at fourRuth Cole Burcaw is Executive Director of the Board of Cooperative Ministries. She and her family are members of Unity Moravian Church in Lewisville, NC. Here she is when her daddy was the preacher at Grace Moravian Church in Mount Airy, NC.