Managing Church Conflict
Essay Preview: Managing Church Conflict
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“Managing Church Conflict,” by Hugh F. Halverstadt, addresses the question of whether conflicts can be “Christian.” He argues that the key to making church conflicts “Christian” may be found in providing a faith-based process for differing parties to use; and he defines a “Christian” conflict as depending on which process is chosen for resolution, rather than the actual resolution of the issues.
Therefore, Halverstadt argues that ones conduct during conflict management is central to bringing about peaceful resolution in a Christian manner. Halverstadt creates a three-step model, which includes how to become a conflict manager, how to appraise conflict situations, and finally how to manage conflicts. This model prescribes working with conflicting parties by encouraging and applying behavioral standards such as respectfulness, assertiveness, accountability, and a focus on the common good.
Halverstadt distinguishes his work from other books on church conflict, which outlines the following: a way of approaching conflictive situations that are theological and ethical; using communal attitudes and goals while intervening in conflictive situations; applying communal power for managing the conflict; finding common ground between the parties on an ethical process as a means to work through their differences; using interdisciplinary methods for gaining perspective; and showing the reader how they can manage conflicts themselves rather than hiring a consultant. Halverstadt claims that, except in extreme cases of chronic interpersonal conflicts, this model allows churches to manage their own conflicts.
One area I found especially interesting is where Halverstadt points to three reasons for church conflicts being difficult. Halverstadt points out, first, that the parties core identities are at risk because spiritual commitments and faith understandings are highly inflammable since they are central to ones psychological identity. Second, that the Christian gospel is by its nature volatile and invites social and personal change. And, third, that churches are voluntary institutions, which permit and even promote the unaccountable uses of power and authority.
I also appreciated Halverstadts understanding of the mainstream North American Christian. Working with SIL here in Papua New Guinea, it is often pointed out to us (as Halverstadt does) that North American Christians do not generally approach conflict resolution with others as equal partners. Additionally, Halverstadt does a good job of distinguishing between a Guilt (i.e. Western) culture and a Shame (i.e. non-Western) culture. He defines our Western understanding of guilt as a “painful feeling of regret and responsibility for ones actions.” On the other hand, he defines a Shame culture as one in which an individual experiences shame as a “painful feeling about oneself as a person.” He suggests that, in a conflict, reconciliation and healing of relationships may be more difficult in a Shame culture because shame is a matter of identity, not a behavioral infraction.
One question I would to ask Halverstadt is whether anger is acceptable in his concept of Christian