While church leaders usually think of church conflict as bad, conflict can produce benefits. Dr. David Augsburger, professor at Fuller Seminary, recently shared “what people want in conflict.” Here’s his list:
- Voice. Church dissidents often just want to be heard. Like a child who isn’t getting attention by being good, dissidents can get attention quickly by creating conflict. The saying “the squeaking wheel gets the grease” has its basis in this idea. People want to be heard and have their ideas, feelings, concerns, and opinions valued. No one expects to win all the time, but everyone needs to have their voice heard. The benefit of conflict is that all voices get heard.
- Vindication. Sometimes people who have been prescient, or prophetic, or just insightful need to have that insight vindicated. The church needs to acknowledge they are right, if they are, and conflict provides the platform for their case to be made. Vindication is a benefit to both the vindicators and the vindicated — one acknowledges the important contribution of another.
- Validation. “You have a valid point” is music to the ears of those in the minority. Not only do people want their voices heard, they want their position acknowledged. This is different from vindication because validation does not mean agreement, only recognition. A church benefits when others can acknowledge that their viewpoints differ, and that the opposing viewpoints have validity, too.
- Process. Conflict can produce a process for dealing with issues, assuring that future issues will not be swept under the rug. This process which some call justice is a guarantee that the voices of all, not just the powerful, will be heard in the future.
- Impact. Conflict can result in something being done. Old wrongs can be righted which is what the apostles did in Acts 6 when they ended discrimination of the Greek-speaking widows by appointing “servants” to distribute the food equitably. Conflict should produce the benefit of positive impact.
- Safety. The minority view might be heard, but if they are treated differently because of their dissent, then conflict starts all over again. Those in conflict need to know that when the problem is resolved, community is strengthened, and we go forward with the guarantees of future safety in place. The whistleblowers who speak out are often ostracized in government and business. For conflict to produce a benefit, those who speak out must be able to do so from a position of safety.
The church is no stranger to conflict, and out of conflict have come some of the great doctrinal statements, mission strategies, and kingdom accomplishments. Not all conflict produces positive benefits unfortunately, but skilled church leaders can lead a church to a mutually-beneficial outcome when conflict arises. What’s your experience with church conflict? Was it managed well, and did it produce benefits to the church? Or was conflict a destructive force in your experience? I’d love to hear from you if you have a story you can share.