Can Church Conflict be healthy?

Most of us in church avoid conflict like the plague (or Covid-19 take your pick). As a culture we are brought up to assume that conflict is bad and that it should be avoided at all costs. Prior to Ordination I worked in the Arts, and specifically in Theatre. One of the great drama theorists of all time, Allardyce Nicol, is quoted as saying “Conflict is the essence of Drama”. And it is. Think about a piece of theatre or your favourite TV programme and begin to count how often a character has to overcome something. There is conflict in every sentence, word and utterance. Without conflict, there would simply be no drama – nothing to look at that would hold our attention. In real life though we behave as though any moments of conflict need to be minimised, or removed as quickly as possible.

Most of my time in parish ministry has been in dealing with issues that were almost certainly tiny when they first happened, but because no one dealt with them, they exploded years later into a highly complex and multi-headed problem. Looking back (and at a number of issues I have now) they all occurred because no one wanted to have a difficult conversation with someone else. When the issue started, it was probably a Level 1 difficult conversation, thirty years later its now at Level 5.

When conflict arises in church – why do we avoid these conversations? Well, a lot of us will be told that we don’t have these conversations in churches because we believe that this sort of behaviour doesn’t happen in Christian communities and that this is why we avoid conflict. I personally think that’s rubbish. For that to be true, the rest of the world would have to be significantly better at difficult conversations than the church – and they aren’t. They’re just as bad.  If there is a “Christianity” lens at the heart of this – its actually to do with clergy getting wrapped up in a pastoral identity which they think means that they can’t be candid.

One issue I dealt with was a group that used one of our halls. The group had used the space during term time for about 40 years. During this time, the rent had never really been put up, which meant that they were paying around £2.80 an hour. No one would have the conversation with this group that we were subsidising their rent to such an extent that were unable to pay to redecorate, put in new heating etc (all things they complained about). When I finally went to speak to them, the main issue they had was that “the Vicar was nasty to us”. When I explored this a bit further, it wasn’t anything that I said, they just expected the Vicar to be nice, and kind, and soft, and essentially a pushover. When I behaved like a normal person running a small charity and trying to explain how we had financial problems partly caused by the extraordinarily low rent – they didn’t want to hear it. I think this might be at the heart of why clergy struggle with difficult conversations. The vibes we get from people when we’re not in the mould of expectations that they’re after, can be very unsettling. Church conflicts aren’t necessarily more complex than in other areas – but there are nuances where specific training can make all the difference.

I hope to explore this in more detail over the next few weeks.