We asked our bloggers to share what they have learned about managing conflict in ministry. Here are their reflections.
While attending seminary in California, I periodically met for coffee with a young, senior pastor of a large Presbyterian church. One day I asked him, “What is your least favorite aspect of ministry?” Without blinking an eye, he said, “Conflict.” A few years later, in South Carolina, I asked the same question to a seasoned solo pastor of a small church, and he said, “Conflict.” Not many people enjoy conflict. I can’t say I am much different. I do not actively pursue conflict, though it is a natural part of life in community.
When diverse personalities, convictions, vested interests, unarticulated cultural and generational values, and long-held practices collide, conflicts no doubt will emerge. Moreover, toxic naysayers – every boardroom seems to have them – impede newness and possibility.
Yet, not all conflict is bad conflict. When truth speaks to power, conflict will emerge, and this is good. Conflict can lead to good changes and growth and, dare I say it, progress.
Many of the Old Testaments prophets were conflictual, maladjusted misfits. I think of Ezekiel in particular, though I will not rehearse his wildly eccentric calling here. John the Baptizer was another such prophet, and Jesus was hardly a meek and mild rabbi.
Sometimes I am asked: “How are things going at church? Are you staying out of trouble?” I respond almost invariably, “I hope not.”
And, if I hear, “Everyone just loves pastor [fill in name here],” I think, “Perhaps, she has not been there long enough yet.”
I am slowly discovering that preaching that touches the heart does not leave us feeling comfortable. I do not desire to be a custodial preacher, who does little more than keep the pulpit well dusted. The gospel of the crucified God brings into sharp focus the conflict between the love of God and the natural inclination of the those in power to clutch power with white knuckles.
So, I wonder whether managing and resolving conflict is always the right move. Perhaps, on occasion, cultivating opportunities for good conflict may be a path into deeper growth and heart change.
It should be noted that both of the pastors I mentioned who said conflict was their least favorite aspect of ministry were white males. I admire and respect both of them. Yet, the status quo has been beneficial to white males over the years, in which case, conflict tends to be largely undesirable.
I remember walking into my evening Old Testament class for the first time during my very first week of seminary. I remember seeing the professor standing at the front of the class barefoot, wearing a T-shirt with a rock ‘n’ roll band on the front tucked into his cargo shorts. I thought: “Well, this will be interesting. I suppose it is California.”
John Goldingay, an Anglican priest and now retired professor from Fuller, has become one of my heroes. Each term I knew my GPA would take a hit if I took one of his classes, but I also knew that each term he would invite the class to his house for English tea and scones. Who could say no to that?
John’s wife Ann battled with multiple sclerosis for many years. John showed dedicated care and attention to her until her death in 2009. John regularly communicates a depth of authentic human experience and wisdom.
John said: “So many things we achieve are achieved only through struggle and conflict, not in easy ways. They always seem to involve crosses. I have so longed to find somewhere in life, some corner where joy is unmingled with pain. But I have never found it.”
John continued to reflect, “Wherever I find joy, my own or other people’s, it always seems to be mingled with pain. And I find that the people I most respect are people who know the link between joy and pain. And I have found that if we will own pain and weep over it together, we also find Christ’s overflowing comfort. The bad news is that there may be no corner of reality where joy is not related to pain. The good news is that there is no corner of reality where pain cannot be transformed into overflowing joy.”
Perhaps, for Christians who seek to follow Jesus, whose hands and feet bear the scars of crucifixion, conflict can be a path into deeper relationship and heart transformation.
SAM CODINGTON is pastor of West Haven Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He and his life-partner Esther have a three-year-old son, Ezra, and can often be found running along the Tar River Trail.