As a pastor, I’m occasionally confronted with issues in the congregation that are divisive. When they occur each side of the issue is supported by people who may see fear in the opponent’s position and hope in their own.
Like many Christian leaders I don’t do well in these times of conflict. I can easily get defensive or dismissive or hope that it will go away. I know that conflict is normal and can be a catalyst for Christian growth. So how can a leader pastorally attend to the diversity and division conflict often brings?
Allow me to offer a few basic steps:
- Define the issue. This begins by listening to how the various sides understand the issue. However, beware that the issue may not necessarily be what people are expressing or debating. Sometimes, the issue is subtle and below the surface.
- Identify the various positions without naming anyone. In controversial matters naming someone can lead to a kind of demonization. In times of conflict it is wise to stick to the issue or position rather than the person or even group representing the issue. Taking this approach will lessen further fragmentation.
- What are the fears and hopes connected with each position? People take positions on issues because they see some kind of hope or benefit from it. At the same time, they may see the opponent’s position as a source of fear or threat of some kind. Acknowledging the hopes and fears of everyone involved lowers people’s defensiveness and garnishes their openness to finding a solution together.
- Find a middle way that is biblically and confessionally faithful. A “middle way” is not an attempt to be so narrow that no one can subscribe to it or so broad that it doesn’t resolve anything. A biblical “middle way” identifies the edges where we fall away from the faith while maintaining a path we can walk on together that is both narrow in terms of our salvation through Christ (Matthew 7:13) and wide in light of God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-21). A biblical “middle way” is also defined by our confession of faith – what we confess together as most important about our faith and life as both the local and universal church.
I offer these suggestions not as an easy way to resolve often difficult and complicated conflicts, but as a guide for you as a leader to encourage people to come closer to together rather than further apart. Bringing everyone together around a common solution is ideal, but many times we are left with what appear to be much smaller victories. May the insignificant victory of Christ on the cross keep you travelling together in faith.