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What To Do When Conflict Spirals Out Of Control

What To Do When Conflict Spirals Out Of Control

I was the new kid on the block.

Young, impetuous and slightly driven. Well, maybe a bit more than slightly driven.

I was the youth pastor, 28 years old and I’d been given a position on our church board.

And it was going swimmingly well until that board meeting.

One of the older board members got me in his sights and let go with both barrels. I was as stunned as a kid at his first day in a new school.

Today, I can’t remember what the fuss was about but I do remember the unbridled anger, the stinging words that cut deep.

Worse still, no board member stood up for me.

It was out of control.

There was fury in the room and I was the target.

After the fury an awkward silence filled the room, I mumbled an inadequate response and we moved on to other business.

My ongoing board experience taught me that fiery conflict was unfortunately entrenched in that board’s culture.

Conflict Abounds

However, conflict in churches is never restricted to boards. It abounds in various arenas, even when you are trying to grow a healthy church.

Staff Conflict

While staff can ease a pastor’s workload their mistakes and oversights can lead to escalating conflict.


Ongoing battles amongst team members are as infamous as the gunfight at the OK corral.


Believe it or not, there are people who deliberately set out to create trouble in churches. Their intensity can make World War II look like a pleasant stroll in the park.

3 Levels of Conflict

Not all battles are created equal. There are different levels of conflict.

Friendly fire

This type of low-level conflict happens all the time. We apologise, clean up the spilt milk and move on.

Civil war

Well, that escalated quickly! The disagreement has moved to another level and someone wants blood. They are messing with my world and I’m mad and I’m not going to take it anymore.


This is ground zero, the centre of destruction. Someone has decided that the scorched earth policy of Stalin and Hitler has given them a role model of how to end this conflict.


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Inconvenient Truths About Conflict

  1. They are inevitable

Conflicts are a natural and normal part of church life. The New Testament is riddled with them and you’ll find it’s impossible to escape them.

  1. Symptoms of unfulfilled needs

Conflicts can occur when needs are not being met. In fact, you may occasionally find that the issue causing the conflict is not the issue. There are other scenarios playing out in someone’s life and the moment of conflict is just symptomatic.

  1. Opportunities for growth

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Groan. Not another opportunity for growth. Sorry, but it’s the truth. Disagreements present moments of learning and growth that peace will never grant to us.

  1. Sources of stress

Conflicts amp stress. We lose sleep. We fret. We frown. We burn mental energy framing and reframing the conflict.

  1. Shape us into skilled leaders

Leaders are refined in moments of battle. When conflict rages the weak fall away and the courageous rise to the somewhat difficult occasion.

How Do People React To Conflict?


No matter what the cost we seek to win the conflict. This shows a high concern for our personal goals and a low concern for the relationship.


This response is focused on a resolution through open and direct communication. This reveals a high concern for both the relationship and personal goals.


If you view conflict as a hopeless inevitability which you can do little to control you may not even try to resolve it.  This indicates a low concern for both personal goals and the relationship.


Giving in to get along’ is another way to react to conflict.  Rather than risk a confrontation you choose to yield. This reveals a low concern for personal goals but a high concern for the relationship.

10 Simple Steps to Resolving Conflicts

These steps can be utilised in resolving conflict

  1. Recognise the issues around the conflict
  2. Spend some time prayerfully answering these questions:

What am I doing to escalate the conflict?

What do I want for the relationship?

What do I want for myself?

What systems and processes are adding to the conflict?

What communication breakdowns have added to the conflict?

  1. Select an appropriate time to talk with the person. Allow 30 mins more than what you think you need. There’s nothing worse than having to quickly wrap up a sensitive meeting because of another appointment.
  2. Share your concerns but stick to the facts. Avoid assumptions. Never question motives. Ensure you specifically define the conflict.
  3. Identify your own contribution to the problem. Own it.
  4. Listen carefully to the concerns of the other person.
  5. Talk through several possible solutions.
  6. Agree on a mutually acceptable solution.
  7. Agree on how you will measure the implementation of the solution.
  8. Phone the person the next day and express your love for them and your desire to resolve all conflict.

How to Have An Awkward Conversation

I wrote at length about the skills you need to employ when engaging in an awkward conversation. You will find this post helpful when you need to have the chat no one wants to have but everyone needs to have.

What To Do When Conflict Remains Unresolved

If you can respectfully agree to disagree and can maintain respect in the relationship then walk in love and grace. You will become a bigger leader who can cope with others who hold different opinions.

If any board member, staff or key leader decides to remain in a position of conflict and refuses to reconcile then they must be asked to resign their role. Unity in leadership is non-negotiable.


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Reflection Toolkit

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John is a wellspring of information, experience and advice in all things church. His responses were often out of the box of what's been said before.
Ps Christie Blaikie
Oasis Church

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