Christian Conflict
a guide to fighting fair in church

by Martha Ainsworth


ďSo if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.Ē --Matthew 5:23-24

This church is blessed by being made of many people who care deeply about it. Any time that people care deeply about something, it is inevitable that some conflict will ensue. Conflict is a natural, healthy part of community life, and if handled responsibly, will lead to further growth. But it is incumbent upon each of us, as Christians, to be responsible about the way we participate in conflict. In our parish community, we must each approach conflict in a way that is consistent with our beliefs, with our baptismal vows, with the teachings of Christ in Scripture.

Most conflict situations begin when two people want different things. This is a good thing -- that people care enough to envision something they want for our community. But at a basic human level, when we donít get what we want, we get angry. Thatís not a bad thing either -- if, and only if, you use your anger as constructive energy, and do not use it to hurt or punish others.

So, letís say you find yourself in a conflict in the parish. In my career I have often been called upon to mediate disputes, and I offer these guidelines from my experience which I hope you will find useful in maintaining the health of the Body of Christ at this parish. For our framework we turn to the Baptismal Vows we each have made as members of the church.

Will you continue in the apostlesí teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

I will, with Godís help.
Book of Common Prayer, page 304

Begin, continue and end by reaffirming that we are in a covenant relationship with one another as a Christian community and that we want the relationship to continue. Trust that God wants for us to remain in community, and trust and allow the Holy Spirit to assist in the process. Reconciliation -- not victory, not vengeance -- should always be your goal.

If you have a grievance, pursue the appropriate channels within the parish. Take personal responsibility to resist gossip in favor of an approach designed to effect reconciliation. If you are upset with someone, an appropriate path would be:

  • Discuss the issue with one trusted friend (only one) to make sure you are clear about what has happened, what you are feeling and why, and what the other party might be feeling and why.
  • Seek out the person with whom you are upset and discuss the issue directly with him/her. Donít ask someone else, clergy or lay, to do this on your behalf. Do it yourself.
  • If you are not able to effect reconciliation, speak with the Rector or one of the Wardens for further guidance. If it concerns an aspect of parish life, speak to the chair of the appropriate committee.
  • If you are still not able to effect reconciliation, prayerfully re-examine the situation and yourself and attempt to discern whether your desires might be inconsistent with the desires of the community. If you think they are not, approach the Wardens or a Vestry member and ask that the matter be brought before the Vestry.

Inappropriate channels would include discussing the issue with other clergy or lay members of the congregation who are not parties to the dispute. This constitutes gossip and is hurtful and inflammatory rather than helpful. If someone comes to you, wanting to talk about their grievance with another person, refer them to these steps, for the sake of the health of the community.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with Godís help.

Always assume the good will and Christian commitment of all parties. Never impugn the motives or character of another person. Try to discuss issues, not persons. Your sentences should mainly contain the pronoun ďIĒ. Should you find yourself frequently saying ďyouĒ, or worse, ďheĒ ďsheĒ or ďtheyĒ, stop immediately, pray, and shift gears.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

I will, with Godís help.

Constantly re-examine your own position and your conduct. Continually pray and read Scripture for guidance, and be open to hearing from God about it. As the situation develops, you may find yourself gradually changing your mind, and that may be the work of the Holy Spirit within you. Be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. If you have pursued appropriate channels and you still donít get your way, let it go. If you have official power of any kind, donít use the power of your office to effect vengeance, or to enforce the getting of your way. Express your feelings honestly and directly, rather than indirectly -- donít use institutional process as the instrument of your wrath. If you have hurt somebody, seek them out and be reconciled to them. This is sometimes a very difficult thing to do, but a very necessary part of Christian life.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself?

I will, with Godís help.

Have as much respect for your own feelings as for those of others. If someone has hurt or angered you, admit to what you feel and talk about it with appropriate persons; donít just swallow it. Strong feelings are like stamps; if you save them up, you will likely redeem them later when their price is inflated. Donít pretend that conflict does not exist. Deal with your hurt and angry feelings, and deal with them appropriately, in Christian charity toward yourself and the members of your community. Learn to tolerate differences, while assuming the Christian commitment, and respecting the dignity, of those who differ from you.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

I will, with Godís help.

Above all, remain focused on who we are and the reasons why we are here together in this community. We express our relationship with God through our relationships with each other, but when you remember that we are called as one Body to proclaim his Good News to the world, and how important it is for the world to hear that Good News, our differences of opinion may come to seem relatively less important.

© 1996 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.

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