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Biblical, parliamentary solutions can help pastors in conflict traps

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–Biblical guidelines and parliamentary procedures can help pastors who feel caught in traps caused by conflict, a national consultant on conflict mediation told participants in the National Conference for Church Leadership, July 10-14.

Norris Smith, pastor-staff leadership department of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, urged pastors and other church leaders to shed their naivete that becoming trapped in conflict cannot happen to them.

“Two kinds of people will ambush you at church,” Smith said. “They are either mean people or those who are genuinely concerned about a situation but who don’t know the proper way to address it.

“Today, if you are attacked in a church business meeting, the attacker wants an audience,” Smith said. “But 50 percent of the problems people have are simply the need to have their say.”

In such situations, he advised church leaders to follow the biblical instruction to speak directly to the person who has offended them. Also, using established meeting procedures to deal with differing opinions can stand church leaders in good stead.

When a pastor has been caught off guard, cornered or ganged up on, he should listen briefly for kernels of truth and then restructure the confrontation, Smith counseled.

“Move the ambush to a safe, controlled environment, such as rescheduling the meeting at an agreed upon time and place, with a purpose for the meeting,” he said. “Agree on who will attend, and then agree not to discuss the matter with others before the meeting.”

Smith encouraged always saying that a note will be made of their initial comments. Documentation, he said, is important in some ongoing conflicts.

As for business meeting confrontations, Smith said leaders should always recognize a legitimate concern and separate it from the method being used to communicate.

“If the concern is divisive, hurtful or a power play,” he advised, “refer that person’s concern to the proper group or committee, asking for a later report and a plan of action. If emotions get out of control, move to table the issue so that emotions can cool.”

When an attempt is made to bring the pastor into a problem two other people have with each other, he suggested the pastor recognize the concern but decline to be pulled into the disagreement.

“Be biblical,” he said. “Send the concerned person to the person with whom he has a problem. Or ask if they just need to ventilate and then let the issue go. Define your role before it is defined for you. Say what you can and cannot do. For example, ‘I can be a sounding board for you as you prepare to talk with the other person.'”

When secret meetings by non-authorized groups to discuss the pastor and his ministry are brought to the pastor’s attention, Smith suggested first considering the role of the messenger.

“The messenger may be the source of the poison. Determine the leader of the group and talk to that person, not the entire group. The concern may be legitimate and may need to be addressed,” he continued. “If there is a need to meet with the entire group after meeting with the leader, ask the chairman of the personnel committee to go with you. Again, indicate you will make a note of the meeting.”

When the pastor learns that someone has a problem with him and is talking to others about him, Smith suggested praying for wisdom to ensure against overreacting.

“Don’t give them ammunition,” he suggested. “If a confrontation is needed, do so. Don’t go to the people who told you about it. Go to the person who has the concern and meet in a neutral place.”

If someone wants the pastor to champion their personal conflict because they feel the pastor owes them for favors or kindnesses, Smith suggested depersonalizing the issue.

“Put the situation in an honest disagreement context,” he said. “Agree to disagree.”

Impatience in solving a problem may lead some persons to bypass proper procedures to settle a matter once and for all, Smith said.

“If you bypass the structure, you will alienate yourself, intensifying the feelings of your detractors,” he observed.

When an agenda in committee has been agreed upon, and later a member wants the pastor to change it before a vote is taken, Smith cautioned, “Don’t do it by yourself. It is a committee decision. Let the person know they are asking something you can’t do. Suggest they go to the committee, amend the motion, bring a substitute motion or make a motion to table.”

Smith said some will try to flatter or pressure the pastor to use his position to flush out their conflict into the open. The argument, “People will listen to you,” often is used in such a situation. Again, he advised, use proper procedures to bring concerns before the church.

Finally, he said, requests for confidentiality can be a trap.

“When someone comes to you with a conflict, asking you to ‘Promise not to tell anyone about it,’ don’t let your ego or a friendship get you trapped,” Smith advised. “Some information may need to be reported to legal authorities. Don’t promise something you may not be able to keep.”

Two responses, he said are appropriate. First, he suggested, “I can keep confidences, but if you don’t feel you can trust me to handle your information responsibly, then don’t tell me.”

A second appropriate response may be, “I’ll handle the information responsibly and with accountability. If I see the information needs to be shared, I will do it, but I will never do it without your knowledge.”

Smith urged participants to “be as wise as serpents so you can be as gentle as a dove.”

The National Conference for Church Leadership was sponsored by LifeWay’s church leadership group and the pastor-staff leadership department.

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  • Charles Willis