The Conflict Conflict

My thesis: the greatest danger to today’s Christian church in the United States doesn’t come from outside.  It isn’t atheists.  It isn’t gays or lesbians.  It isn’t the liberal media.  It isn’t terrorists of other faiths.  No, the greatest threat to our church today is us — the silly little disagreements even more than the major theological rifts.  All week I’ve been receiving emails and even a phone call (!) from people who disagree with me.  They disagree so vehemently that disagreements between Christians are the greatest threat that they promise no longer to read my blog or communicate with me.  That’s how deeply they believe that our disagreements can’t divide us…

One fair question that more than one person has asked is what I am basing this opinion on.  From 2002-2006, I worked on a research project for the General Board of Discipleship (that never got published) to look at attitudes toward mainline churches, particularly the UMC.  One part of that research project was to conduct “exit” interviews with hundreds of individuals who left a United Methodist congregation (to find out their reasons why).  The top 10 reasons given are as follows:

  1. disagreement with another/other member(s) (16%)
  2. disagreement with the pastor(s) (15%)
  3. disagreement with changes made in the church (14%)
  4. “outgrew” the church — no longer fed (12%)
  5. disagreement with teachings of the church (local or denomination) (10%)
  6. relocation — moved away (10%)
  7. lost interest (9%)
  8. found another church (7%)
  9. changes in family/work situation (5%)
  10. friends left the church – had no other connections/relationships (2%)

Note that four of the top five reasons given are conflict within the church.  Switching faiths didn’t make the top ten.  Leaving because gays and lesbians came in, ditto.  Being influenced and converted by atheists?  Nope. Inability to deal with brothers and sisters in the faith?  Bingo.  Church splits?  100% internal.  Church implosions?  100% internal.  Pastors requesting a new appointment?  83% grounded in conflict or disagreements in the congregation.

To those who have written to me telling me that I have absolutely nothing to base my opinion on, I simply say that this is where my opinion comes from.  The evidence might not be compelling to some, but it is to me.

However, beyond the mere reality of disagreement is how we deal with disagreement. The majority of United Methodists who leave over conflict do so because they feel there is no room to agree to disagree.  Too many conflicts in the church are defined in “win-lose” terms.  And once the “losers” lose, ties are cut, bridges burned, and bonds are severed.  88% of respondents reported that no one contacted them after they left, and no one invited them to come back.  Not only are we not concerned about the divisions that threaten to destroy us, we are equally unconcerned with the people who leave.  This, in my opinion, is a threat to the long-term survival of healthy Christian community.

And as I have said elsewhere, this divisive, destructive, and self-defeating behavior is witnessed by the world we hope to serve and save.   Each time we engage in petty, puerile, and poisonous infighting, this becomes our public witness to what it means to be the church.  Of course, when we are able to navigate conflict and disagreement in mature, healthy ways, this is our witness as well.  Unfortunately, we don’t seem to do the latter nearly as often as the former.

I know there are many who disagree that there is any kind of behavior problem in our congregations.  Nothing I say is going to make much difference.  Ultimately, no matter how well or how poorly we are treating each other in the church, there are still significant ways we can do better.  To commit to live the fruit of the Spirit is a good place to start (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).  We could follow with some Micah 6:8 (justice, mercy, humility).  We could crown it with Wesley’s General Rules (do no harm, do good, attend to the ordinances of God).  Really, anything will do, so long as we strive to honor the Christ, “who has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14b)

14 replies

  1. Conflict is a certainty, both one-on-one and many-on-many. “…He rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had done.” Then, on the eighth day, change began according to His plan. Not all accept the change at the same rate, so there will always be differences in understanding God’s world and will. Growth in God is in the conflict, provided Love, respect, and tolerance is too.

  2. @Jason…

    I’m not convinced the issue is “big stuff” versus “little stuff” on any sort of logical scale.

    I’m thinking this is more about emotional process (much of it unconscious and unsurfaced rationally) vs. intentional process.

    On intentional matters, agreement can actually be somewhat easier, because all cards about that particular thing, at least, are on the table as it were.

    On emotional process matters, this becomes much more challenging. If you ask people why they’re doing what they’re doing or why their opinion about the placement of a particular item matters, likely the first response you get won’t be all that illuminating. It’s more likely a rationalization than an accurate reflection of the emotional decisions and commitments made before any rational elements started to kick in.

    It’s not that people are lying or trying to hide things. It’s that they really don’t know why they’re acting as they are– they just act. Then they try to come with reasons. And so they’ll continue to do about such things until there’s been enough listening– and mostly to non-verbals– the begin to get a clue about the actual emotional process going on.

    When Jesus says if you can’t work something out with someone who has offended you, call in two or three witnesses– he’s not saying “intimidate the other person by building a larger posse for your side.” He’s saying get some help from some folks who can help the two of you listen to each other better. And note what he says next– If your sister or brother does listen, you have won that one back. Not– if she or he agrees with you– but if she or he listens.

    Such mercy to listen– and keep listening until both we and especially the person speaking, and especially speaking emotionally and non-verbally– may more of us find it! Kyrie, eleison!

  3. My church is fine with GLBT. No prob there. But when we moved drums into the sanctuary we lost three long time families. We support two ex-cons and welcome them into our fellowship. But we are at war over whether we want children and crying babies disrupting worship. We are engaged in a dozen social causes in our community and across the state, but my best friend left the church because a couple of the ladies from our UMW put padlocks on the kitchen doors to keep the young adults out. Your post is painfully right on target as far as I am concerned. We do the big stuff really well. Its dealing with each other day to day that we suck at.

  4. Dan,

    A bit more research to back up your thesis– from mine on early Christian liturgical texts and church orders (first through 4th centuries).

    And particularly from two Syrian texts– Didascalia (230) and Apostolic Constitutions (380). These folks took conflict between sisters and brothers very, very seriously. The deacon HAD to say “Anyone who is in conflict with another, leave now” (slight paraphrase– but same point) before the prayers of the people. If not, the rest of the service was invalid– even if the bishop was the presider!

    Now, this wasn’t about throwing people out. It was about reconciling them. Those who left were accompanied by a deacon who worked with them to discern the nature of the conflict and to help them articulate their concerns to the bishop first thing on Monday morning. The bishop would listen to all sides, consult with other elders, and then decide what each party should do to create reconciliation. Until they did this, they could not receive communion. There would be another meeting on Saturday morning to check up on the progress, and if good progress were being made by both, both could return to receive communion on Sunday.

    That’s one thing.

    The other has to do with qualifications for being a bishop. There were basically three. You had to be over 50– because anyone younger was likely to be too driven by ambition, still. You had to be able to discern between the core of the law and the non-essentials (The First and Second Legislation, it was called). But above all you had to be merciful– because as bishop you HAD to forgive every sin. Every sin, save one– the sin of creating divisive conflict in the church (schism) a SECOND time. In that case– and that case only– the bishop was expected to excommunicate the offender permanently.

    Early Christianity took conflict and reconciliation very seriously. I think it’s because they knew how destructive the first could be without robust ways to effect and support the second.

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

    • I agree 100% with these comments about the Early Christian’s look at conflict. If you were to look in the roll books of many early Methodist churches you would find that members were removed for various problems and it was the Pastor who had the authority to do much of this. Starting in the 50’s the Methodist church changed this and stripped their pastors of the scriptural authority they had and replaced it with “Partnership between laity and clergy.” Where in the Bible to you EVER find laity having authority over and equal status with a person who is the leader? I dare you to find it. I have yet to find a district superintendent who can justify this policy by scripture and yet we pastors in the “trenches” have to endure this. We also have to endure District Superintendents who do not stand behind a pastor or look to find a neutral ground in which the Book of Discipline gets thrown out the window just to shut up a lay person who is bent on destruction of the pastor or the local church.

      In my 20 plus years as a pastor I have seen many people who are destructive to the local congregation that I have no power to correct because of this “partnership” despite the fact that the Bible says that I can do so. I have served congregations where my office has been bugged and phones tapped so that the congregation can keep tabs on the pastor. What does the District Superintendent do about this? NOTHING but tell them softly, “you shouldn’t do that” and walk away. I have heard children of pastors say they want nothing more to do with our church because of the way they were treated and their parent who was the pastor was treated. Are we supposed to cause someone to stumble this way? I think not.

      It seems that if the church is sick it needs to look to its leadership FIRST and see where the reconciliation needs to take place. If the District Superintendents are not helping this situation to be straightened out I do not see bishops doing so either. Shame on us for allowing such a Jezebel spirit to creep onto the church.

      We have now a crop of pastors who when they first go into ministry are on fire and when the dragons in the congregation breathe fire back we cower because we know we are no longer equipped to drive the evil out. I am frankly near burned out myself because if I want no problems with the congregation, all I have to do is show up on Sunday and tell them how good they are, read a scripture or two; but God forbid you tell them you have to grow in their faith or anything about moving on to perfection. That will not fly with many. Yes it is internal conflict that most pastors leave over. I would never leave if I had 1)support from higher ups, and 2)authority that scripture says I have. Is it any wonder that when a Methodist church declines and the building is sold to another denomination, particularly an independent, that they can fill the church every Sunday? Could it be because the pastor of that church and its leaders have the authority to keep the conflict under control? I would bet so.

  5. Very interesting study. I first became a United Methodist (after growing up in a denomination I lovingly refer to as fundamentalist fascist) when I found out that both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush were Methodists. I thought that the UMC was a place I could genuinely work out my salvation and still have a home wherever I landed. (Oh, those halcyon naive days!).

    But I’m left with the question about these disagreements you address… some of them are important. Can a church split over which side the organ is on? Yes. I’ve seen that happen, and both sides were petty and ridiculous. But can disagreements happen over important, fundamental theological differences? Yes, and sometimes one side is right.

    Consider the GLBT debate. I honestly cannot imagine common ground here. To one side, any accommodation to GLBT folks is considered an abomination before God. To the other side, anything less than full communion, full participation in the church (including leadership), and full recognition of relationships goes against everything Jesus is. Smiling and singing “kum ba yah” won’t make that go away. To make matters worse, one side is *right* and the other is *wrong*, and whichever side you’re on demands that you stridently address the other because this issue is very, very, VERY important. Even if we love each other, this kind of disagreement means that people may not be able to worship together.

    It’s sad–tragic–even sinful. Nonetheless, I don’t see a way out (except time, but that doesn’t help much right now).

    • Shannon, this is the debate that is leading to people on both sides and on no side at all to bail out in my church. And as one that is still there trying to love all sides, I do miss my church family that has left to go elsewhere. I still talk to them. But I am hurt that they left too.
      I don’t think we are reaching out to others right now, or that people come and want to join us. This is a miserable time.
      On the other hand, this is a time of renewal. We aren’t taking church for granted, we are actively involved. Those that stay are going to need to step up and do things, because we need everyone. We are reading the Bible, we are praying, we are discussing what we believe and what we think.

      I can’t wait to get back to the happily reaching out to others and be done with this disagreement season. But I think there is potential for good out of this upheaval.

      The arguing about whether to carpet the sanctuary or not was heart-felt but not agony, and it didn’t take so long! People stayed through that.

  6. A big AMEN from an intentional transitional/interim minister who has all too many opportunities to ply his skills. In this regard there is not a more pertinent verse than John 13:35 – “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

    Where “love” in all its variety has broken down, it is not long before division and death set in. It is helpful to ask, “By what will we measure our love for one another?” Additional help comes by actually measuring and adapting our behavior to what we found out.

    My experience is that we have taught division very well and we are now struggling with how to now relearn an ability to see “Christ” in one another. This change in habits of our hearts is not easy. Thanks for keeping after us.

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