Michael Hare | When Church Conflict Happens
1:53PM May 21, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It's our tremendous privilege today to be speaking with Dr. Michael hare. Dr. Hare recently completed a PhD degree in conflict and conflict Analysis and Resolution. He serves as a consultant with Livingstone's associates based in Wichita, Kansas. And he's also author of the text that we'll be discussing today when church conflict happens, a proven process for resolving unhealthy disagreements and embracing healthy ones available for moody publishers. 2020. Dr. Hare we're super grateful to be speaking with you today.
Well, I'm delighted to be here. Thank you so much for the invitation.
Doctor here, I've known about church conflicts, but I've never met someone who specialized in resolving them. And so I'm guessing that you have a particular reason for how it is that you've entered this chosen field, please tell us about how you entered this work of acting as a church consultant for church conflict.
Well, it actually was just me wanting to serve the Lord and, and so over 30 years ago, became a pastor. And it was God who give the credit for me getting into church conflict, because it seemed like after the first few opportunities, I had to serve in churches, a pattern was visible, looking back, that the churches that God seemed to be calling me to are the ones that had considerable conflict. And so I started studying church conflict, you know, read the books on it that I could find and took some training and never felt fully prepared. Because so many times conflicts in churches are really unique. And so long story medium, I guess. I began to realize that every church I was being called into was one that needed cement, the ministry of reconciliation. And so as the more I learned about it, the more probably the hard way, I learned that conflict can be good. And the more good I saw in it, the more motivated I was to pursue it. So in 2003, I found an opportunity to work as a church consultant as a conflict specialist. And it was a way for me to work cross denominationally, I was primarily working and just a couple of, you know, pastoring, in a couple of different denominations.
Dr. Here in your text, when church conflict happens, you argue that not all conflict is unhealthy. In fact, for church communities that are going to have an experience of maximum amounts of growth and fruit some conflict is healthy and necessary. How is it that we ought to keep a or or where do you get your vision for healthy church conflict when of course all of us tend to avoid conflict.
I'm sure that in the beginning, I've avoided it as well. But I found that avoiding conflict only postpones it in general. And I began to see that especially believing that a plurality of leaders in a church was the best form of governance began to see that the different perspectives that each of the individuals that were in leadership were bringing to difficult conversations really represented spiritual gifts. In other words, I certainly don't have all the spiritual gifts I don't believe anyone does. And so the spiritual gifts informed their perspective in a really unique and constructive ways. Now, I don't mean to suggest that everybody behaved themselves because, you know, an urge conflict, as in family conflict or any other kind of conflict, people tend to move towards misbehavior when they don't get their way. But what I found was that, if it was facilitated in a constructive framework, that the people that I disagreed with, you know, from a pastoral perspective, maybe an elder or another staff member, if I listened more carefully, their perspective added things that I had missed, for sure. They saw things and often it was collaboration of these different spiritual gifts, and solving problems that brought better solutions than I could ever hope to do myself.
Dr. Hare in your text, you outline three types of conflict, unhealthy conflict, benign conflicts and healthy church conflict. Would you be willing to speak to each one of these? How do we recognize and what are these forms of conflict?
Yes. I believe it will start with healthy conflict. I believe that, you know, conflict is normal. There's not any environment that we if there's more than one person that we don't eventually have some conflict. When I look at the scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, I see that there was unceasing conflict. And I think one of the most interesting examples was in the book of Acts, and chapter six. You know, we, the apostles were the pastors. So he couldn't ask for better leadership, the Holy Spirit was leading in a powerful way. And yet in that those first few verses of Acts, chapter six, a conflict arose in in a very large church, that could have been devastating. And as we look at that conflict, we see that God used the conflict to surface issues that needed to be resolved, and then used godly spiritual perspectives, to understand what needed to change. And in the case of the early church, you know, I mean, I think sometimes we assume if we have conflict in the church, we can, it's easy for us to assume that we've got poor leadership or, you know, economic times are hard, or whatever it is, well, in that chapter and X, everything should have been perfect. In one sense, it looked like it could be, and yet there was much conflict. And it was on a number of different levels. And so that I think healthy conflict is when we recognize it and deal with it in a way that is constructive. Now benign conflict is, I use that term to really picture conflict that's unintentional. When I say benign, I don't mean that it's not dangerous, because all conflict can be dangerous, as well as constructive is kind of like, you know, the fire in your furnace can either burn your house down, or keep you warm. And so it's what we do with it, that makes a huge difference. And just to give a quick illustration, early on, in my pastoral ministry, I was having people were coming to me, some of my lay leaders were coming to me with conflicts. And about the second or third time that this one person came and was having conflict with other leaders, it dawned on me that there's more than one level of conflict. And, and so I started looking more deeply, I thought, well, interpersonal conflict is where it always starts. And so I would help these people make peace with each other, they'd forgive each other. There were good Christians, you know, but they, but the conflicts kept arising. And the temptation is, especially if there's one person that seems to be in multiple conflicts, you start thinking, well, maybe this person is the cause or the fault. But I looked a little deeper. And I saw that the conflicts all had something in common. And it had nothing to do with the individuals who were involved. It had to do with the structure in the church, and with an inadequate system of assigning rooms and resources and different things because the church was growing. And so when it was a small church, it was easy for everybody to know what everybody's doing and got stayed out of each other's way. But as it got bigger, and we got new leaders in that didn't understand all these things, the conflicts rose. And it was a very simple solution. But it was not an interpersonal conflict solution. I mean, I did have to work with those people and, and help them to reconcile, and that's always important, no matter what happens, but the root cause was a structural one. And once we resolve the planning issue of a church calendar, and assignment of resources and, and room assignments, and so forth, not depending on people that already know things, but making it clear so that everybody had clear instructions, the conflict stopped. And so I call that a benign conflict, because the people who were in conflict were kind of put in conflict by forces, you know, that were outside themselves.
And then when we talk about unhealthy conflict, again, that's more of a description of how people react to conflict. As we mentioned, I mean, obviously, if somebody has, you know, anger issues or mental illness or, you know, there's a lot of different things that can can contribute. But it's the way we respond to conflict. If we look back in Acts chapter six, again, we see the response of the apostles was to understand the situation to listen and to pray, and ask for God's help. And then to assign people that had the right gifts to the right chairs, to get it resolved. And the church you know, At the end of that section, the priests were getting saved. I mean, it was it was a wonderful revival that continued in the early church.
Dr. Hare, thank you so much for your reflections. Dr. Hare our church is particularly susceptible to avoiding conflict, I think of how churches are volunteer organizations. And you know, there's not a factory floor to these operations where you can go down and see what the bottom line is, how many widgets did we make? How many widgets did we sell? The metrics of a healthy church are pretty complicated in that regard to sort out. And so because the church is based on a volunteer interaction, we really want to be likable people, we really want our churches to have good reputations. So it seems to me we can be particularly shy of conflict. Is that true? And if so, what do we do about that? How do we how do we learn to embrace conflict that exists even in those structures?
I think you raise a very important point, and that is Christians. They avoid conflict, in part because they don't think they should be in conflict. In other words, we, you know, it's like we have conflict at home, maybe we have conflict at work, come to church, we shouldn't have conflicts in church. That's where we're getting away from conflict. But in fact, the conflict in the church is often more complicated than conflict anywhere else. Because some of the factors you mentioned, I mean, you know, with volunteers that don't have to be there that aren't getting paid. And then I think maybe even bigger than that, is the fact that because of our differences in perspective on theological and religious issues, you know, most churches today are not straight, denominational or party line type churches, where everybody is raised in one denomination, and they all agree, our churches are a collection of many different people coming from different traditions. You know, nondenominational churches are one of the biggest growing areas I understand, in the church. And so if I come from a Lutheran Church, and you come from a Baptist Church, we're not going to think things should go the same way. And then you add to that, that we have scriptural reasons for what we believe. In other words, our interpretation of Scripture informs what we believe in and to be perfectly frank, not everybody understands the difference between what I call primary and secondary issues. You know, I mean, if we're talking about the deity of Christ, talking about the inspiration of Scripture, most people even cross denominational you in evangelical circles agree. But when we start talking about mode of baptism, and we start talking about church governance and, and a million other things, then it takes, I believe, some insight and patience, and gifting in order to help people understand and sort out issues and find common ground in the right sense, you know, in a biblical sense. And so, you know, I also not having pastored many years, I know what it's like to pastor churches. But I also work in an organization that does all the staff is paid. I mean, we do have some volunteers, but I've never seen any conflict with them. And, and so we've got, you know, 1000 people and our headquarters here in Colorado Springs, we've got another 3000 staff around the world. And as I've had the opportunity to work cross culturally, to work with different cultures within our home base, because we do hire people from other cultures. And then especially when I've traveled, I had an opportunity to work with 100 staff in Asia and three different cities. In one one area, I find that the the conflicts Christians have even cross culturally, are very similar. And that the solutions, you know, I wondered about the model that I've presented in this book, I wonder if it worked cross culturally. Now, I confess that I had help. I had a pastor that had pastored, for 17 years in this part of Asia. I also had an organizational development consultant, the three of us were working together to try to resolve these conflicts. And as we work together, I saw certainly the gifts these men had, and the pastor especially who had grown up and pastured in that culture, helped us to avoid some of the landmines that were there, culturally, but so many similarities to what we read in Scripture to what we find in our church here at home and in the churches around the world and, and so I do believe that Christians Generally are conflict avoidant. But and I do believe church conflict is complex because of these a lot of these factors that have already been mentioned. And that's one of the reasons I wrote the book was I was hoping that a book with a workbook in the back might help church leaders have like a map to solve their own problems, because I do believe it's best if the leaders in the church are able to solve the problems in the church. Now, I certainly am a church consultant, I'm happy to come in and help. But that shouldn't be the first line of offense or defense, however you want to look at it. I think helping to train church leaders to see the value of the ministry of reconciliation within their own congregations. And to set examples about what healthy conflict looks like, is the solution.
Doctor here, in chapter four, you map out for different categories of church conflict, intra personal conflict, interpersonal conflict, intragroup, conflict and intergroup conflict, and then structural conflict, what happens when we incorrectly analyze the source of a church conflict?
I call it the fog of war. You know, when we're engaged in conflict, especially in a church where people's values are at stake, I mean, a lot of times people do not analyze the conflict. You know, they they make assumptions. And really what this, what I believe the scripture shows us is that we need to analyze the conflict. And I don't mean some kind of scientific sterile way. I just mean, one of the consultants I interviewed when I was doing my doctoral dissertation, he said, one of the problems he's found in working in churches is somebody that's brilliant at work, comes to church and becomes completely stupid. Now, he was saying a tongue in cheek a little bit, of course. But his point was that, you know, a lot of the skills that we use in our lives with our families, and our work could be used in church, if we would do so. So oftentimes, when I'm working with a church, I'll help the leaders find skill sets, and giftings. You know, we do gift testing, sometimes we will, I can remember one situation where all they really needed was somebody that had some understanding of HR law, human resource law, to help sort out some of the issues. And they had people in the congregation that were experts at that, but they weren't involved in the solutions. And so kind of getting back to your question, I think, you know, it's just real important that we recognize interpersonal conflict is where it almost always starts, because we're people. And when we get into conflict, if we even if we whether we know the root of the conflict, or we don't know the root cause, it's going to surface and relational issues. And so, probably the most common assumption that gets us into trouble is that the problem is inside the person, you know, the other person, of course. And what I learned in that one incidence with, with the planning and scheduling of room assignments and resources, was that those people were really good people. And what was causing the friction between them was something that was completely invisible to them. You know, one leader thought, Well, everybody in the church knows that this room is what we use for this ministry on this day, and this time, when that wasn't true. And, and so when there were, you know, somebody showed up and was trying to go into that room for the regular ministry they had that week, somebody else was already there. Well, they didn't take time to really talk about how that happened. They just got into disagreement about it. And so if we misjudge what the root of the conflict is, we may get, you know, in this case, I was able to get reconciliation with the hard feelings and maybe some harsh words. But we didn't solve the problem. Because the problem was not with the two people that were sitting in front of me. The problem was with, I guess, you could say in one sense leadership, and with another sense organizational structure. And the statistic I'm going to give you Next is probably it's difficult even for me to believe, but after working all these years with churches and other organizations, the percentage of conflict that is structural, where the root cause is actually somewhere in either the policies or the procedures or the leadership, or the organization or communication, you know, Other things that make up an organization 90% 90% of the problems I find have a root cause that goes into the structure somehow. And, and so that means 90% of the time, if we're going to get a good solution, it's going to take structural change or leadership change. And often that requires leaders to be transparent, to confess their fault, their mistakes, their sins, and sometimes to the whole congregation. And in the in the cases that I've had that were most notably successful with large churches. It was when a senior pastor stood up before the congregation and confessed his part in causing a problem, intentionally or unintentionally, and asked for the congregation's forgiveness. And so in answering your question, if we miss, diagnose where the root causes, we might get short term solutions, but we probably won't get sustainable ones.
Dr. Hare by the time we make it through half the first half of your book, you will have convinced us that church conflict can be healthy, in fact, is necessary probably for a church to be fruitful and to achieve its maximum potential. But that doesn't mean that conflict is easy. And even if we know in our minds that church conflicts may be the right thing to do. It still can be wearying to us. What is your advice to leadership to maintain the emotional stamina to keep wading into areas of conflict?
I wish I had kind of a magic bullet. I'm afraid that what I'm about to tell you something you already know. And most every Christian knows. And that is that this is a spiritual battle on one level that requires us to be reflective and spiritually mature. And, you know, I think I think about Nehemiah and the Old Testament, and how will all the conflict he had with the people, the surrounding neighbors, even with his own people, while he was trying to do the work that God called him to do. And there are several places in there in the book of Nehemiah where it says, and I don't remember the exact words, but it was something like he, he talked to himself. He spoke to himself here, he reasoned with himself. And I believe that, that what we often need to do is listen more carefully. We need to step back, we certainly need to have consistent spiritual disciplines in our lives, that help us enable us to find that rest, outside of circumstances, you know, above circumstances beyond circumstances. And and what I found is that, and I'm going to get a real practical here, and that is when we're engaging in a conflict, whether it's between, you know, maybe we've been asked, maybe it's personal conflict, you know, we talked about that center circle, intra personal, we have conflict inside ourselves. We need to be at peace and be in the right mindset and have the right motivations when we approach conflict, regardless of what the you know, what the other person or people bring to the conflict. Because it is it is, especially as a spiritual leader, it is that calmness and peace in our own hearts, that does tremendous, has a tremendous impact on the people in the room. If we can stay calm, if we can stay constructive, if we can stay positive, and draw attention back to Scripture into biblical principle. You know, oftentimes, what I find is that the solution comes when people can go up a level. In other words, they're talking about very practical things. You know, which room Do I have ministry, and I think about the culture wars with music. You know, I've been pastoring several churches, turnaround churches were that was a big issue. And what I found is that generationally, people had different preferences and music and because of the way they were raised, or the church traditions, they felt like they were primary issues that were we're fighting about. And I can remember still talking with one man who was just angry and seemed unreasonable about any kind of contemporary music in church. And we were in the process of working to create an ad to a church that had had many years of traditional music, a contemporary service, second service. And I remember when I said to him, and I mean, you know, I give God the credit, he wasn't meant my brilliance. It was God leading me to say this, I'm sure but I said, Bill, if You knew that by us creating a second service that had a little bit different music, your grandchildren would come to Christ and serve Him. Would that make a difference in the way you feel? You could have heard a pin drop. At that point, even though he said, I'll never come to one of those services, if you can create a service that would attract and win my grandchildren to Christ, you go right ahead. And so in a way, it was raising the level of the biblical principle from preference to something greater than that, in this case, you know, evangelism? And then, you know, I mean, asking, you know, do you Can you think of any scripture that would say, we can't do this, we shouldn't do this, and, and helping to work through the theology, and said, I'm not asking you to agree with me. But do you see why we might want to do this in this generation. And, and so. So I really do believe that our own spiritual maturity, our own sense of being at peace with God, and then learning how to use skills to facilitate a conversation and listen in such a way as to get to the root cause of the issues and then address the root causes in a biblical way.
We never had any open conflict in any of the churches, I pastured over music, we had some private conflict. And what I was gonna say, too, and I'm kind of long winded, you can edit this as much as you need to, but is that, for example, and whether you're working with two people, or 100 people, one of the things that helps is to create and have elicit from whoever you're working with, whether it's one or two or three people or 100, some guidelines or ground rules. And so I'll say something like, okay, we, you know, we want to conduct ourselves in a manner that honors Christ. What kinds of guidelines could we come up with, that we can agree on today, that would help us do that, even in times of disagreement that would show mutual respect, honor to the Lord and so forth. And, you know, if you have, if you elicit it from the people there, then they own it. I mean, I have my started out just listing things like don't interrupt each other don't know name calling, things like that. But what I found is if I elicit it from the group, because they don't want people interrupting them, they don't want people calling them names. I write it on a whiteboard. And then if someone you know, I can think of a very clear example, when I was working with a church and, and I had a whiteboard behind me, and I had written like five guidelines. And I said, we can add or change these if we need to. And somebody started interrupting another person. And I just walked back and put my hand up and pointed to no interrupting. And the person said, Oh, I'm sorry, I realized I'm doing that now. And every time someone violated one of those rules, then I would just walk and point to it. And usually that brought it back into a calm and respectful atmosphere. And then I would ask at the end of making these guidelines, how many violations Do you think a person should have, before they lose their seat at the table and have to take a timeout, for however long it takes before they can be back in sync with, you know, the spirit of this meeting. And they almost always pick three. And I have had situations where I've had to say, we agree that if there's three violations, you have to take your time out. So john, I'm going to ask you now if you would, to step outside. And if you feel like you can calm down and and be respectful and follow the guidelines, then we invite you to come back in. But if you can't, I'm afraid you're going to lose your seat at this table. And that really has a good impact on the way people behave.
Dr. Heron, your work as a church coach, church consultant specializing on conflict resolution, you've seen the inner working of many dozens of churches, in your view, what is the Coronavirus crisis doing to our churches at this current moment?
It's a huge challenge Jonathan. Most church consulting as far as I know has come to a pretty much of a standstill during the Coronavirus for obvious reasons. The last church consultation I did was last January. And I don't mean that it's not happening because it makes be happening virtually. And I think some church consultations could be done well, in a virtual way. But I believe that all we have to do is look at the disagreement over masks. You know, who wears a mask? Should you wear a mask? Do you have to wear a mask? Or, you know, I think in some places where they're saying the government's persecuting the church, and telling us how to live our religious lives, and they're forbidding us to do the things God's commanded us to do. I think common sense is so critical. You know, I personally know of a church, a small church, where 15 out of 40 contracted the Coronavirus.
three have died already. There were nine in this in this music group that was practicing together. And nine of them out of nine, three have died. And, again, the pastor took the position, in this particular case, you know, that God was going to protect them, that there shouldn't be, there shouldn't be the government shouldn't be telling us what to do in church. And I am sad to tell you that just a couple of days ago, the pastor was one of those who die in this little church. And, and so I think it's complicated things I've watched the church I attend and the pastoral staff there, struggle with issues and try to help keep people from being at each other's throats about such things as wearing masks, and whether they should meet close together and whether they should hug each other, you know, and fellowship and, and so I don't think that it changes what the scripture says about ministry of reconciliation, it doesn't change the way I would conduct myself in a church consultation. But it makes it more complicated. And it makes it more complex, and the principles are the same. And if I had the opportunity to have, you know, work with that little church, you know, I would have tried to reason with them from scripture about using common sense and a time in a pandemic, to protect one another and how as a godly, you know, I mean, I guess I'm kind of revealing what my philosophy is here. But I believe that caring for one another and preventing others from getting sick and especially from dying is, is great, a Christian responsibility is getting together on Sunday and singing hymns.
Dr. Hare, if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the guests on this interview program, and that is this? What would it mean for the church today to be united? How would we recognize this unity? And what is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17?
That is a question I wish I knew an answer to. You know, I've I've seen unity come out of chaos. In a congregation. I've known of instances where denominations have found unity and agreement, you know, agreeing to disagree on certain things and agreeing on primary issues and allowing people to disagree on secondary issues. I've seen that, you know, I certainly see it in the, in the scriptures. I mean, the Lord said, you know, wanna steams one day above another and another person, his team's everyday, the same letter, remember, be fully persuaded in his own mind. So God allows left some latitude. I think that because of the polarization that is occurring in our current environment, in our country, it's become very difficult, you know, with our culture for Christians, to embrace and grasp what Jesus was talking about in john 17. And so I wish I could be more optimistic on a grand scale. Now on a small scale, I believe we can work and, and, and use the methodology that God's given us in Scripture. But on the grander scale, I mean, I, I look at the future the church. And and I believe that we can have victories in court, if you'll pardon, terminology, regional type, you know, subsets of unity, but because we have so many denominations with so many different beliefs, and because we've got such a polarization and political environment. I'm not sure we're going to see a grand scale unification of the church. until Jesus comes. And you can edit this out if you want. But But I believe that, that God calls us to a local body. And that that's where we can have the greatest influence. And some of us will be called to work in larger circles. But I don't see in the scripture on I don't haven't seen in my experience, anything that would cause me to expect widespread unity among Christians. Now, I will say that, you know, I've seen a 1300 people in one call, one zoom call, and I saw great strides being made in just worshiping together praying together, you know, the the chat that was going on in those meetings, on the side bar, praying for each other. And then having someone that did have a calm heart, lead the meeting, and give scriptural encouragement, and personally, transparency and all those things. I did see what I think was the greatest force for unification in a large organization. I've I have seen that. I think I probably told you more than I know about the answer to that question.
Spin are delighted today to be speaking with Dr. Michael hare. consultant with living stones associates, author of the text when church conflict happens a proven process for resolving unhealthy disagreements and embracing healthy ones. Dr. Michael here. We're so grateful to have been able to speak with you today.
Thank you again for this great opportunity. God bless you and your ministry.