conflicts are an integral part of the life of any community, and churches and Christians are as susceptible to them as any business corporation or social organisation. Recognising the need to raise awareness of the causes, consequences and cures of conflicts, the NECF Research Commission called for a high-level consultation on 19 July 2003. It was moderated by Rev Wong Kim Kong, NECF Secretary General, and attended by about 40 church leaders. The participation of, and sharing by, Dr John Ng and Ms Sophia Ang of the Eagles Mediation & Counselling Centre, Singapore was greatly appreciated by the Commission.
In his introduction, Rev Wong stated that the NECF’s visits to towns throughout the country showed that conflicts in churches were indeed common occurrences. He said that these were to a large extent inevitable, adding that God may even allow conflicts to arise to encourage change and spur spiritual growth. He said that the central issue was to transform conflict into "a positive force that sparks improvements in our partnership and ministry." Rev Wong urged participants to remember the four biblical principles in conflict resolution and church discipline:
The first principle is to use Matthew 18:15-17 as the basis for procedural direction.
The second principle is to understand that the motivation behind every conflict resolution and discipline is redemption and restoration (Galatians 6:1).
The third principle is to avoid harshness or condemnation when engaged in reproof and allowing the pre-eminence of Christ’s spirit to prevail (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
The fourth principle is to extend forgiveness up to "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22).
Causes of conflicts
There are many reasons why conflicts arise, are often poorly managed and often get out of hand. These include:
- Failure to integrate spiritual and practical life, for example, through the neglect of the "Golden Rule" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31)
- Defensive attitudes due to pride and ego (face issue) and the insistence on "being right" rather than "Christ-like"
- Greed, selfishness and personal aggrandisement
- Tendency to make false or unwarranted assumptions
- Lack of commitment to building and maintaining lasting relationships
- Ineffective communication skills
- Personal emotional baggage
- Absence of personal character, courage and integrity
- Low degree of emotional maturity especially with respect to viewing and handling conflicts
- Value differences due to poor attempts to instil common core values
- Non-acceptance of authority in the church and the tendency to view everyone as equals.
- Theological and/or doctrinal disagreements
- Differences in vision and mission
- Leadership styles, e.g. authoritative versus democratic, discretionary versus rules-based, etc
- Conflicts about organisational structure, e.g. who has more power, authority levels etc.
- Lack of standard operating procedures
- Absence of formal mechanisms to handle disputes
- Cultural fit, e.g. hire a person who has no cultural fit
These include a host of practical issues, usually involving decisions over money and resources.
In his presentation, Dr John Ng also made the point that the mere absence of conflict was not a guarantee of relational wellness and that conflicts can stimulate personal and organisational growth and provide opportunities to improve relationships. Whether this happens or not, however, rests squarely on understanding and applying appropriate conflict resolution and mediation methods. He reminded the participants that conflict itself is neutral and that one needs to reposition conflict if it is viewed negatively.
The various types of conflicts that occur in the church:
- Church conflicts: inter-church, interdenominational and inter-conference (e.g. English Congregation vs. Chinese congregation)
- Pastor A versus Pastor B, e.g. sheep-stealing
- Senior Pastor versus Associate Pastor
- Senior Pastor versus the Church Board /Chairperson of the board
- Pastoral staff versus lay leaders
- Among the lay leaders
- Among the Church Board
- Among the members
- Lay leaders versus members.
Dr. Ng said that sharpening one leadership edge, as well as understanding one’s leadership style, personality, motives and values, were crucial for church leaders to last for the long haul and to work with others as a team. Leaders must also know how to inculcate and communicate core values to their congregations, and to practice them. Subscribing to the same core values sets the base in dealing with conflicts, so that involving parties will not fight over the fundamentals.
The Eagles Mediation & Counselling Centre’s framework for the handling of conflicts is shown below.
Mediation is a "corporate decision-making process, whereby an important mediator facilitates parties to reach a mutually acceptable agreement." It is cost effective, confidential and voluntary. The key element throughout the process is impartiality. The parties involved must be prepared through a preliminary conference before embarking on the mediation process.
The five stages of a general mediation process are:
- Making opening statements - which helps to set the context of what it is
- Sharing perspectives
- Moving from positions to interests
- Generating and assessing options, and finally
- Reaching agreement.
Formalising closure is crucial because it is the way to allow both parties to hear that they can actually come to a solution to this problem. One of the key things in mediation is to move people from their very positional statements when they are still hurting. While behind these positions, there are many hidden interests and reasons for their feelings. The job of a mediator is therefore (1) to be able to help each party to uncover such interests with room for creative solution in the dialogue; and (2) to assess alternatives for them.
Participants in this consultation shared their experiences in resolving conflict and were able to identify some important elements, e.g.
- Respect for authority
- Agreement to disagree
- Recognition of parties being "on the same side"
- Fair and impartial hearing for both parties
- Changes in attitude
- Subscription to leadership covenants.
One participant suggested the importance of follow-up after resolving a conflict:
- Restate the issue with Biblical perspectives to the parties concerned and to the church as a larger body. This not only minimises opportunities for gossip and slandering but the church will also learn to solve interpersonal problems in biblical way.
- Rebuild relationships so as to preserve unity and the Christian testimony to the world.
From the legal perspective, it is necessary to look into the constitutional structure of churches in Malaysia. This determines the legal positions of parties in disputes: "What kind of legal rights the members of a church have in the event of a dispute depends on how the church is constituted." Nevertheless, seeking legal resolution undermines the authority of the Scripture and church leadership, and erodes the integrity of churches and system of church government. "If there is litigation involving a church, it would mean in practical terms that the fate of the church would be decided by non-Christians."
To minimise such pitfalls, Lee Min Choon, Chairman of the NECF’s Religious Liberties Commission, suggested the following measures for consideration:
- Clear dispute resolution procedures should be drafted and incorporated into the constitutional documents of churches.
- Alternatively, arbitration clauses to be inserted into constitutional documents of churches to require that disputes must be referred to arbitration.
- Leadership and succession issues to be clearly described in constitutional documents of churches to prevent unnecessary challenge against a properly constituted leadership and also to prevent, in the case of litigation, the Court forcing its own nominated leadership upon a church.
- Property issues to be clearly defined in the constitutional document of a church. A suggested approach is to treat all gifts as irrevocable and vesting in the corporate body (or what’s left of it).
- The identity of the church to be clearly defined as the group that subscribes to the articles of faith and accepts the duly constituted leadership of the church.
At the end of the consultation, NECF Malaysia was urged to consider the following proposals: