Managing Conflict in Home Churches


Dennis McCallum

One of the most difficult trials we face in group, or collective leadership is conflict. At Dwell, we have found that improperly managed conflict is the leading cause of home church failure. During the combined home church leadership weekend this year, we would like to examine the question of inter-personal conflict and our response to it. This paper provides insight from Donald Bosart and others intended to stimulate thinking on the part of leaders in preparation for more detailed discussion.

The Nature of Conflict

It is a mistake to view conflict as undesirable in group leaderships. Conflict is not only unavoidable, it is actually a normal and even helpful part of normal small group functioning. Donald Bossart has summarized the views of sociologists and psychologists that conflict is necessary in a normal social group. Conflict serves as a vehicle for change, group definition, and self-expression. He states,

Conflicts which concern goals, values, or interests that do not contradict the basic assumptions upon which relationships are founded tend to be positively functional for persons and social structures.1

However, not all conflict is positive in effect:

Not every type of conflict is likely to be of positive benefit, just as it is true that not every type of conflict is likely to be of detriment for individuals or groups.2

There is no reason to think we will ever be without conflict. Here we are suggesting in addition that we should never want to be without it. Conflict is important in creating the tension needed for creativity and accelerated learning.3 In the book of Acts, we see the apostles and others engaging in conflict, and this conflict in turn issuing in positive change. For example, in Acts 6 the conflict between Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews resulted in the appointment of the seven servants. In Acts 15, the dispute over law and grace resulted in a definitive declaration of the doctrine of grace. God has used the pressure of conflict at many junctures to further his purposes.

If a leadership never experiences conflict, it suggests one of several pathologies, including repression of conflict and premature consensus.

There is a pathology with the use of this cooperative process which is liable to be found with use in the church. It is the pathology of premature agreement. This means a superficial convergence of beliefs and values before the underlying differences can come out.4

Sociologist Irving Janis has coined the phrase "group think" to describe the pathology of premature consensus evident in groups that are determined to avoid conflict. It is clear that any group tends to have certain underlying assumptions that constitute the ideological basis of their existence. What features would be evident in addition which would signal the presence of group think? Janis lists the following,

  1. Dissenters and opposing views are not argued with, but merely ignored.
  2. There is a belief in group invulnerability; decisions made by the group cannot be wrong.
  3. Rationalization is evident. Evidence to the contrary of decisions and plans that have been made is minimized.
  4. Negative stereotypes of outsiders.5

On the other hand, conflict is not always good, and can be quite destructive. What will determine when conflict will be helpful, and when it will destroy?

Types of Conflict

One key, given by Bossart, is whether the linkage of conflicting relationships is competitive or cooperative. In competition linkage, I can only attain my goals if you fail to attain yours (e.g. a track race). In cooperative linkage, I can only attain my goal if you succeed in attaining yours. Cooperation encourages perception of similarity of attitudes, which leads to the tendency to avoid coercion and use persuasion. Competition encourages an approach to conflict which seeks to win, and is willing to see the other parties suffer loss in the process. Suspicion is natural in competitive relationships, but may also appear in cooperative relationships.

It should be clear that, from a biblical perspective, the leadership of the local church is involved in cooperative linkage, although this may not be the view of its members. Unfortunately, we sometimes discover that a competitive attitude has taken hold, thereby bringing in a different dynamic in conflict. Bossart explains,

Conflict behaviors in the competitive mode are designed to destroy, injure, or control another party or parties, and the relationship is one in which the parties gain only at the other's expense, the key is a win/lose relationship.6

This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that a Home church leadership team is usually closely knit. This closeness is not a safeguard against violent conflict. In fact, it can intensify the effect.

Closely knit groups, with a high frequency of interaction and high personality involvement, tend to suppress conflict. Feelings of hostility tend to accumulate and intensify. If conflict does break out in such type of groups, it will emerge with high intensity . . . In other groups where individuals only participate with less than their total personality involvement, conflict will be less likely to be disruptive . . . The multiplicity of conflict stands in inverse relation to the intensity.7

Bosart observes that the local church is more likely to suppress conflict than perhaps any other entity. This stems both from fear arising from previous destructive conflicts, and faulty theology which sees the absence of conflict as an ideal to be upheld. In other words, churches will often view conflict as wicked.

Another reason that churches repress conflict may be the presence of conflict with people and forces outside of the church. When the local church perceives itself as being at war with the Kosmos, other churches, and hostile individuals, they fall within the scope of the "embattled group" mentality.

Groups which are engaged in continued struggle with others [outsiders] must claim the total personality of their members, and therefore quash internal conflict in order to mobilize all energies for the external fight.8

Other Factors in Conflict

Goser differentiates between realistic and non-realistic conflict.9 Realistic conflict is conflict that arises from frustration of specific demands within a relationship. The parties feel a sense of frustration which is directed at the other parties.

On the other hand, non-realistic conflict is unrelated to specific goal frustration. Bosart explains it this way:

Non-realistic conflict is not occasioned by the rival ends of antagonists, but rather by the need for tension release on at least one of them. This type is not issue directed, and not directed toward the attainment of a specific result or end . . . Non-realistic conflict comes from such sources as deprivations and frustration from a socializing process and later role obligations, or from a conversion of an originally realistic conflict which was not allowed expression. Realistic conflict need not be accompanied by hostility and aggressiveness. These can also be seen as interactional vs. interpersonal sources of conflict.10

Rensis and Likert call these substantive and affective (i.e. emotional) types of conflict.11 In affective conflict, the resolution of specific issues fails to end the conflict. Instead, it later re-surfaces in another area.

Constructive vs. Destructive Conflict

Bosart explains the basic features of constructive and destructive conflict.

Constructive conflict is that situation in which all are satisfied with the outcome and feel that they have gained as a result. Destructive conflict is that situation in which participants feel dissatisfied with the outcome and all feel they have lost as a result. Constructive conflict, or productive conflict, is based upon the idea that conflict is not inherently pathological or destructive. It does have positive possibilities.


Conflict can be constructive if it is able to arouse motivation to solve the problem. It involves the acceptance of the necessity of a change in the status quo, rather than a rigid defensive adherence to previous conditions.

On the other hand,

The course of destructive conflict tends to expand the conflict or escalate it. This leads the conflict to become independent of the initiating causes and continue after those causes have become past and irrelevant. An increase can be observed in the reliance on power, threat, coercion, and deception. Competition, misperception, and pressure for social consistency all work to further the escalation of the destructive conflict. This leads to a suspicion and hostile attitude which increases sensitivity to differences and threats, while minimizing the awareness of similarities. The pressure for self-consistency within may lead us to an unwitting involvement in and intensification of conflict as our actions have to be justified, both to ourselves and to others.12

Hostility is evident in destructive conflict. Bosart defines hostility as "having a spirit of enmity, antipathy, or hatred." It involves a tendency toward conflict, but does not always end in it. He believes that, if not allowed to be expressed, hostility can build. Do you think this is right?

The key to turning conflict away from the destructive and toward the constructive is an atmosphere of receptivity and openness. Bosart continues,

This non-threatening environment is critical! Threat reduces that tolerance for ambiguity and the openness to new ideas. The excessive tension can lead to privatization and stereotyping of thought (closed mind). New ideas are important for resolving conflict, and they must be free to be shared and received.13

The fear of conflict can lead to a rejection of the concept of personal power in spite of the fact that this is really impossible. The fact is that people do have power in their relationships, and this is a fact that can be denied, but not changed. Students of inter-personal relationships are aware that power and influence is always present in personal relationships and organizations. This fact should be accepted and the potential abuses controlled. Instead we often see something different,

The fear of power as control and dominance and the conviction that it has no place in the loving community has kept power as an immobilizing image in the church. As a result, the church has been criticized as a loving community that does not know how to act or to move with any intentional force.14

Pride, Ambition, and Conflict

When the aspects of conflict mentioned above are considered, we are driven to the conclusion that pride and ambition play a central role in destructive conflict. Andrew Murray argues that pride, which was the cause of the fall, is the essence of sin. Consider the following statements. Do you think Murray is going over-board?

  • Pride, or the loss of this humility, is the root of every sin and evil.
  • . . . the life of the saved ones, of the saints, must needs bear this stamp of deliverance from sin, and full restoration to their original state; their whole relation to God and man marked by an all-pervading humility.
  • The lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure . . . it alone takes the right attitude before God, and allows him as God to do all.
  • In the life of earnest Christians . . . humility ought to be the chief mark of their uprightness.
  • Let us, at the very commencement of our meditations, admit that there is nothing so natural to man, nothing so insidious and hidden from our sight, nothing so difficult and dangerous, as pride.15

Competition and rivalry are also factors in the morphology of destructive conflict. Consider the following passages from Luke James and Peter.

Luke 14:6 And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor {at the table;} saying to them,

14:8 "When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him,

14:9 and he who invited you both shall come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place.

14:10 "But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you.

14:11 "For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted."

James 3:13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom.

3:14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and {so} lie against the truth.

3:15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.

3:16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.

3:17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.

3:18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

1 Peter 5:2 Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;

3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.

4 And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

5 Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."

6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

Questions for discussion

What does it mean to exalt one's self? Would it be wrong, according to this parable, for me to suggest that I should teach more in HC?

Would it be wrong to suggest that I deserve leadership recognition more than brother x? Would this be wrong rarely, sometimes, or always?

What should be the attitude of a leader who serves in a church with another leader who is more gifted at leadership and teaching? Be realistic.

What should be the response of a leader in HC if another leader is asked to serve in a higher post (i.e. elder etc.)?

What is the difference between ambition and selfish ambition? Isn't ambition always selfish?

1. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict in Religious Education and Church Administration, (Birmingham: Religious Education Press, 1980) p. 38

2. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 34.

3. See the Bruce T. Powers, Christian Leadership (Nashville: Broadman, 1979) for a fascinating discussion on the fact that an appropriate level of tension is needed in a group in order for rapid learning to occur.

4. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 47.

5. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 119

6. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 38.

7. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 39.

8. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 40.

9. Lewis Goser, The Functions of Social Conflict, (New York: Free Press, 1956) pp. 48-55.

10. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 40-42.

11. Rensis and Jane Likert, New Ways of Managing Conflict (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976) p. 8.

12. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 43.

13. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 44.

14. Donald E. Bossart, Creative Conflict, p. 144-45.

15. Andrew Murray, Humility: The Beauty of Holiness, (New York: Flemming H. Revell c.1920) p. 17,18,19,20.