Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis

For Baptists Today

Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis

By Bill Wilson

Ask any minister, “What is the worst part of your job?” and nearly all will tell you, “Conflict!”. Ask any congregation member what they like least about their church experience, and most will answer the same. Conflict is everywhere people are, and it seems to be escalating. The incivility of our culture is having a toxic effect on ministry and congregations.

The FACT 2000 survey of 14,000 congregations found that, in the past five years, 75 percent of churches have experienced some level of conflict. At any given time, one-fifth of congregations are in active conflict. With our depressed economy and seismic job losses, many lives are deeply stressed. It comes as no surprise that churches are experiencing more conflict than ever. Regarding conflict as blessing seems foolish and naïve. Is it possible, however, to learn to manage our conflict constructively?

Speaking up early

Church leaders are wise to address conflict early and proactively before it escalates to become divisive. The issue is not whether you will have conflict, but what you will do with it. Following biblical commands means handling conflict with openness, compassion and as much transparency as possible. Speaking up early, rather than sweeping disagreement under the carpet, avoids a host of problems that over time can leave a congregation divided and deeply wounded.

Conflict within a congregation can begin as a simple difference of opinion over worship styles, carpet color or youth activities, or it can be as shame-filled as division over clergy sexual misconduct or staff financial mismanagement. It always causes discomfort, and it can be downright painful. And yet, conflict within a congregation can be a catalyst for healthy growth.

Growing through the pain

In my experience, it is the rare adult who makes any significant life change without discomfort and pain. Throughout the Bible, God uses conflict to grow his people. Paul, Peter, Martha, Mary, David and Jeremiah are examples of heroes who learned through the ache of failure and conflict. The letters to the early church are filled with instructions for managing conflict. We are not the first to walk this way.

Conflicts and crises make excellent teachers. They often lead to new and better ways of doing things. If a youth leader’s misbehavior results in a safer policy for adult interaction with teens, the youth ministry is strengthened. If employee theft inspires a smart policy that minimizes risk, congregational trust is enhanced. When bitter argument gives way to thoughtful conversation, community is built.

Keys to navigating conflict

At the Center for Congregational Health, we believe there are several keys to navigating conflict. One is to avoid triangulation. During conflict, it is tempting for people to talk about each other to anyone who will listen. Instead, we are called to take Matthew 18 seriously and learn to talk to each other about the issue. Such conversations must come in from the parking lot to the fellowship hall. Leaders can facilitate opportunities for guided conversations in a manner that allows everyone to voice an opinion. Mature leaders can help others learn to discuss deep issues of differences, disagreements and disappointments. When people feel belittled, ignored or disrespected, the outcome is very different from when they feel valued, included and heard.

A second practice is to anticipate conflict. Healthy congregations have regular times to talk about life together. Opportunities specifically devoted to open discussion create a safe place for the congregation to ask hard questions and relieve anxiety. Deacon or business meetings that include unstructured time for asking questions build trust. Congregational leaders who are willing to hear suggestions and critiques without undue defensiveness model maturity and deepen the fellowship.

A third practice is to get help. As with Paul and Timothy, in some cases, despite the best efforts of leadership and the congregation to remain open-minded and transparent, a polarity cannot be resolved. When conflict gets especially heated, a third-party intervention may be required to enable us to overcome our emotional anxiety and harmful habits.

Finally, we need to learn the art of graceful exits. If a conflict escalates beyond reconciliation, our goal as Christians ought to be to bless one another and then separate. Often, in a worst-case intractable conflict, the two sides take their focus away from the issue and set out to destroy each other. This tears at the fabric of the church and decimates our witness for Christ. We can certainly do better.

While the church of Christ may be filled with sinners and conflict, when we manage conflict in a way that leads to a healthier congregation, we become a message of hope to the larger world. There may be no better way for the church to witness to a conflict-weary culture than to handle its own, internal differences with wisdom and grace.

Crisis and conflict awaken our passions and can motivate us to a better way. When conflict arrives, as it must, please do not waste the opportunity to seek to turn it into a blessing.

Learn more about understanding conflict and a discussion of the levels of conflict, as identified by Speed Leas.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health (

Please site Bill Wilson, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.


Resources for Conflict

The Center is available to help with conflict. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

Levels of Conflict by Speed Leas

In reference to the article by Bill Wilson (in Baptists Today) titled Conflict as Blessing: Please Don’t Waste This Crisis, we have provided the Levels of Conflict as identified by Speed Leas.

Levels of Conflict

Levels of Conflict

Level One: A Problem to Solve

Conflicting goals, values, needs.  Problem oriented rather than person oriented.

Level Two: Disagreement

Mixing of personalities and issues, problem cannot be clearly defined. Beginning of distrust and personalizing problem.

Level Three: Contest

Begin the dynamics of “win/lose.” Personal attacks. Formation of factions, sides, camps. Distortion a major problem.

Level Four: Fight/Flight

Shifts from winning to getting rid of person(s). Factions are solidified. Talk now takes on the language of “principles,” not “issues.”

Level Five: Intractable Situations

No longer clear understanding of issue(s); personalities have become the focus. Conflict is now unmanageable. Energy is centered on the elimination and/or destruction of the person(s).

 Level Zero: Depression

Depression is defined as “anger turned inward.” Sometimes congregations do not know they are in conflict because they are in a state of depression. The task is to raise their awareness that there are problems to be solved.

The simplest way to manage conflict is to keep differences of opinion at Level One or to move them down to that level so everyone understands and agrees that “we have a problem to solve.” Write the problems out together as a “Workable Problem Statement” which should:

  • be free of blame
  • be specific and descriptive
  • not focus on the distant past
  • not be a “put down” of any involved parties
  • be agreed to by all involved as a definition of this problem

Discussion of the Levels of Conflict

According to Speed Leas, conflict often develops and escalates in a predictable pattern. It begins as a problem that needs to be solved (Level 1). Problems are issues or challenges that can be described and for which solutions can potentially be found.

If the problem is not solved, conflict can escalate to level 2, a disagreement. The disagreement is often about how to solve the problem and is a normal, expected part of solving problems. The key is to find ways to resolve disagreement or to convince all parties to come to a shared point of view.

If the conflict continues to be unresolved, a level 3 conflict can emerge, a contest. A contest is one in which there are winners and losers and no one wants to be a loser. Sides begin to form and clarity about the problem to be solved begins to diminish. It quickly becomes more important to win than to solve the problem.

If the conflict continues to escalate to level 4, individuals and groups begin to act in more aggressive, instinctual ways and the situation can quickly deteriorate. In a fight/flight situation, those who are conflict avoidant leave and those who remain are typically more committed than ever to winning. Principles and dogma are often evoked as justification for various points of view. This level is characterized by strategizing how to win the fight and garnering the resources necessary to do so.

Level 5 describes a level of conflict in which hope for reconciliation is generally lost. Emotional responses overwhelm thinking and problem solving approaches. Combatants are focused not just on winning, but even on punishing or getting rid of their opponents.

Level 0 describes a situation in which the conflict is not openly acknowledged or recognized. It may have been present for a long period of time and remained essentially underground—unacknowledged and not discussed. This does not mean the conflict has gone away.

In all cases except for level 0, the goal is to de-escalate the conflict to the lowest level possible—ideally to level 1. If the conflict has reached level 3 or higher, it is difficult to resolve the conflict without outside help since all the insiders are viewed as having a side in the conflict.

For level 0, the goal is to escalate the conflict to the level of awareness. As long as it remains unacknowledged, no work can be done to resolve it.

Congregational Shift: Can a Congregation Transition without Carnage?

For Baptists Today

Congregational Shift: Can a Congregation Transition without Carnage?

By Chris Gambill

There is no change without pain. Change processes in congregations often have unintended as well as intended consequences. Unintended consequences can include conflict, anger, grief, loss of energy and momentum, or even the loss of staff or members. Regardless of how well intentioned a change process may be, it has the potential to bring more harm than good.

For some congregations, these potential liabilities are enough to check any movement toward change. However, as most faith communities surely know, not changing also has serious liabilities and consequences. Refusing change puts a congregation at risk of irrelevance or even extinction. Church history, both ancient and modern, is brimming with evidence that this can and still does happen. The choice should not be between change and no change. The real challenge is to create transition processes that produce the kind of results congregations hope for and avoid as much as possible those things they least desire. With careful and prayerful planning, a congregation can transition without carnage.

When considering change, congregations should seek to be faithful to their own particular sense of calling. Scripture and tradition offers various points of view about change that can inform a congregation as it seeks to be faithful and relevant. For example, in regard to change in general, scripture seems to revere and value both stability and change.

  • “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV)
  • “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

Regarding the speed of change and the energy or patience required to see it through, there also seems to be paradoxical guidance from scripture.

  • “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV)
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’(Matthew 10:34-36, NIV)

In our experience at the Center for Congregational Health, most congregational change processes fall along a continuum where one end represents a revolutionary approach and the other end an evolutionary approach. A revolutionary approach is one that is typically carried out in a short timeframe and seeks to establish significantly different ways of thinking and behaving. An evolutionary approach typically utilizes a longer timeframe and may or may not seek to establish the degree of change sought through a revolutionary approach. The biggest difference between the two approaches is the impact on the congregation members, themselves. Revolutionary change is hard to miss. Evolutionary change can happen so slowly that the transition is almost indiscernible. Both have a significant emotional, psychological and spiritual impact on members of a faith community.

For congregations ready for a revolutionary approach, the sudden and often dramatic change is welcomed by most people. However, if a congregation is not carefully prepared and does not have enough of a sense of urgency to support quick and dramatic change, then the transition may be resisted or rejected. Quick change processes have less time to build cohesion and consensus. This means there is a higher risk of congregation members not “owning” the changes or of feeling left out of the decision-making processes.

Evolutionary change, because it is slower and more gradual, may be more readily accepted or produce less resistance. Because more time is available for the progression, it has a higher likelihood of producing broader ownership for the change and decision-making processes. On the other hand, the slow pace of evolutionary transition may be frustrating to those with a greater sense of urgency about what they perceive to be needed change.

Which is better, revolutionary or evolutionary change? Neither. Just as it is not an option for a congregation to simply choose change or no change, the choice is also not simply between a revolutionary or evolutionary approach. Picturing change processes on a continuum with the two extremes being revolutionary and evolutionary allows change leaders to move back and forth along the continuum to find the appropriate methodology, speed and forcefulness for any particular situation.

Those seeking to lead change processes in congregational life need to ask good questions. For example:

  1. Which theological principles should take precedence in the change process?
  2. How urgent is the need for change?
  3. How much time does the congregation have to devote to a change process?
  4. How much emotional energy surrounds the potential change?
  5. How much risk can the congregation afford regarding potential unintended consequences?

Listening carefully and answering these questions accurately can help congregational leaders determine the right speed and energy needed for a change process. While congregational transitions are never easy, they can be managed in ways that bring largely positive results.

Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health ( based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Please site Chris Gambill, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.


Resources for Communication

The Center is available to help with transition. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

A Healthy Handoff: the Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor

For Baptists Today

A Healthy Handoff: the Crucial Relationship between Former and Current Pastor

By Bill Wilson

The transition from one pastor to the next is a precarious handoff. Too often, the exchange is bungled and the ministers and local church suffer from a litany of bruised feelings, resentment, wounded ego, and crippled ministry. I regularly talk with current and former pastors, their spouses and their children, who express deep hurt and regret about the way a pastoral transition has taken place. I know there is a better way because I had a ringside seat for a transition that went well.

My late father, Bill Wilson Sr., was the founding pastor of a church in Brentwood, TN, and after twenty years as pastor, left to work for the state Baptist Convention. His successor, Mike Glenn, walked into a situation filled with both opportunity and peril. Over the ensuing twenty years, the church has relocated, grown exponentially and thrived. These two men and their families managed this precarious situation with grace, humility and wisdom. The result is a congregation that continues to live into its remarkable story with vigor, health and passion. Brentwood Baptist today is a congregation 8,000 strong, with an amazing story of growth and innovation.


Space for the new pastor

Mike and I spoke recently about his relationship with my father. Mike regularly and publicly affirms my father’s ministry and insists that when he does so, he is affirming the church itself and the fact that it’s past is inextricably linked to both present and future. One thing that helped the transition at Brentwood was the fact that for Mike’s first five years as pastor my father did interims, preached other places and attended a church plant. That time away gave Mike space to become the pastor. Eventually, Mike and the church called my father and mother back on staff as co-ministers of missions. Upon their return, Mike saw the congregation begin to enjoy the warm relationship between my father and himself. “People loved the fact that the former and current pastors were good friends. He never missed a chance to brag on me, and I never missed a chance to say how much he meant to me. He never tolerated criticism of me from others, even when it was deserved.”

Over the years, Dad became Mike’s counselor, prayer partner and encourager. Mike, never threatened by the respect and affection the congregation had for my father, even channeled it in positive ways. “One time, in the midst of a church-wide crisis,” he explained, “the anxiety in a large meeting was very high. At a critical moment, I told the congregation that the first thing I had done upon discovering the problem was to go to Bill Wilson (Sr.) for counsel and advice. When I said that, you could feel the tension ease and the whole church exhale. His voice of wisdom, earned over the years, was invaluable to me.”

Mike maintains that part of the strong growth and health of Brentwood Baptist has to do with how he, my father and the congregation managed that handoff from founding pastor to successor. I believe their individual ego strength and maturity were critical as the two of them modeled a healthy transition that perpetuated a healthy church culture.

Later, in my own career, I was blessed to succeed Billy Nimmons at FBC Dalton, GA following his retirement. Billy was always gracious and generous with his support and encouragement, which coupled with his undying love for the congregation, helped make our remarkable work there possible.

Another story of a successful transition involves Michael Lea, of the First Baptist Church of West Jefferson, NC, who followed Pastor Emeritus Ken Morris, when he retired after 33 years there. Michael entered the situation with eyes wide open: “I knew that Ken could be my greatest threat or my greatest ally.” Before coming in 2008, Michael discussed the transition process with the search committee and then spoke to Ken both by phone and in person. He was reassured of a healthy handoff, and said of Ken recently, “He has been my greatest asset.”


Healthy boundaries

Before Michael entered the picture, Ken prepared the congregation to love another pastor. He reminded them on numerous occasions that he was retiring because he wanted to, and he announced his intention to fully support the new pastor.

Ken stayed out of the search process, and was often absent from the church during the two-year interim between his retirement and Michael’s arrival. Like my father, Ken served other churches as he transitioned away from pastoring his long-time congregation. Serving as an interim pastor for two churches outside the county helped him separate. “That feeling that I belonged to another church helped me feel that not all of my roots were at First Baptist,” he said.

Today he calls Michael his pastor and friend. When Ken is asked to do a funeral, he requests that the family to go through Michael. Then he lets Michael assign him a role. If Ken visits church members in the hospital, he goes as a friend – not a pastor – and tells them, “Michael will take good care of you.”


Trust and respect

Like the friendship between Mike and my father, Michael and Ken’s relationship is one of trust and open communication. Michael explained, “Ken has provided a great deal of leadership here by saying to people, ‘Michael is our pastor now; let’s ask him,’ or ‘let’s look to him for leadership at this time.’” On the other hand, Michael understands that many in the church have a rich history with Ken, so they want him to be involved in funerals and weddings.  The two have proactively avoided triangulation. When someone mentions Michael to Ken, Ken responds with how fortunate he is to have Michael as his pastor. When someone mentions Ken to Michael, Michael responds with a narrative description of the great pastoral leadership that has brought the church to this point.

The respect between former and current pastor is clear. Ken refuses to serve on committees or teach Sunday school, but he stays involved in music at the church and occasionally volunteers in the library. Michael invites Ken to meetings of the larger staff. “This is Christ’s ministry,” Michael insisted, “not Ken’s or mine.”

A healthy handoff between former and current pastor never just happens. It requires careful planning and sustained effort. How can we manage this pivotal transition in a way that is healthy and promotes growth for all concerned? What follows is sound advice from Mike, Ken and Michael.

Advice for incoming pastors:

1. Do not rush the transition.

2. Recognize the principle of different gifts for different times. That allows you to bless your predecessor without reservation.

3. Be respectful of and sensitive to the history and culture of the church.

4. Honor your elders.

5. Watch your territorial language. Remember that it is Christ’s church , not yours or your predecessor’s.

6. Leave your ego at the door.

7. Work to build trust with the former pastor and congregation.

Advice for former pastors:

1. Work to find interests and an identity apart from pastoring that congregation.

2. Tell the congregation that you are no longer the pastor, and believe it yourself.

3. Show support and confidence in the church and in the new pastor and pastoral staff.

4. Set boundaries around funerals, weddings and hospital visits.

For BOTH: model health, even if it is not reciprocated.

– Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health ( based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Please site Bill Wilson, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.

Read the Full Interviews

Read the full interviews with

Mike Glenn,

Michael Lea and

Ken Morris.

Share Your Own Advice

What have you learned along the way – both good and bad? Leave us a comment.

Resources for Transitions

The Center is available to help with your time of transition – as a minister or as a congregation. We can provide consultation, coaching, leadership development and spiritual formation.

Learn more at If we can help you in any way, please contact us!

We are also on Facebook and Twitter.

Marks of a Healthy Faith Community

For Baptists Today

Marks of a Healthy Faith Community

By Chris Gambill

What is a healthy faith community? That seems to be one of the great mysteries of the faith. There are many approaches to describing church health and definitions vary widely. As a consultant to hundreds of churches over the past 17 years, I have yet to find the one all-encompassing definition. I can say with assurance that, while no one definition of health fits all, there are some basic characteristics, or marks, of a healthy faith community.

In the Center for Congregational Health’s® extensive 17 year experience in working with faith communities, we have discovered that healthy congregations don’t all look or act the same. We have observed healthy faith communities in a variety of sizes and ministry contexts, with vastly different resources, and with varying outlooks for significant growth and development.

Congregational health is often viewed in light of theological principles derived from scripture. These include transforming spirituality, prayer, discipleship, compassion, evangelism, stewardship and generosity. It is important to point out that, while a sound theological foundation is vital to any faith community, it is simply not enough to keep it healthy. The Center for Congregational Health’s® approach to opening doors to hope and wholeness for faith communities, lay leaders and clergy enables faith communities to maintain their own theological perspectives. Our goal is to help them develop and maintain the framework within which these ideals and aspirations can flourish.

To understand and identify the marks of a healthy community of faith, I suggest turning to scripture. Examples from the earliest Christian communities provide helpful glimpses into the lives of God’s people striving to live together well.

The Biblical marks of a healthy faith community

Constructive conflict resolution

A healthy faith community is not one that never has conflict; it is one that resolves conflict constructively. When faced with internal conflict over the distribution of food in Acts 6, the apostles allowed the congregation to own the problem and participate in solving it. They avoided polarization (Grecian Jews versus Hebraic Jews) and sought what was best for the congregation. They were able to remain in a constructive, problem-solving mode and find a collaborative solution.

Adaptation to change

A healthy faith community has the capacity to adapt. Beginning in Acts 10, the scriptures portray an early church facing a potentially crippling crisis over identity and diversity. Christ followers were no longer limited to Jews. With this change, questions arose over who could rightfully be a member of the faith community and under what circumstances. Faced with this challenge to its most fundamental sense of identity, the early church adapted, emerging stronger, more inclusive and ready to take on the task of evangelizing the world.

Authentic community

A third mark of a healthy faith community is, well, community. One of the many casualties of life in the twenty-first century is the loss of what Robert Putnam calls our social capital.[i] He has documented numerous ways in which our relational connections have broken. This is in stark contrast to the church where “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46, NRSV). Many faith communities attempt to make difficult decisions, resolve conflict, overcome a financial crisis, grow and develop their ministry, and plan their future with minimal social capital within the congregation. The result is a decision-making that erupts into conflict and processes that produce not progress but frustration.

Ministry that reaches out as well as in

A healthy faith community ministers to those outside as well as inside the church. The Acts 2 believers shared among themselves as needs arose. They sold their possessions and “had everything in common.” Their strong ministry to believers was balanced by Peter’s and John’s healing and preaching outside the community of believers, as when they healed the beggar at the temple gate in chapter 3. They were also bold in proclaiming the gospel to unbelievers. It is easy for churches to be caught in the trap of spending the vast majority of their resources, time and energy on those within the faith community, while neglecting their mission and service to those outside the walls of the church.

Good communication

A healthy faith community encourages honest and civil discourse. Communication is between people, not about them. In Acts 10 -11, when facing a critical juncture in the development of Christianity, the earliest Christians had to wrestle with whether Gentiles could be full members of the Christian community. To their credit, they were able to have what was, no doubt, a challenging conversation. It ended with Peter describing his experiences and the assembled apostles and believers declaring, “then God has given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). The scriptures are full of many examples of God’s people having honest, but difficult, conversations about important issues. On their best days, the honest discourse led to a realization of God’s will and purposes and a desire to fulfill them together.

A balance between clergy authority and lay leadership

A healthy faith community supports participatory leadership. Clergy and lay leaders see themselves as ministry partners and work together to build fundamental capacities within the congregation. Clergy support, encourage, mentor and coach developing leaders. In Acts 6, seven church members were elected to share leadership responsibility. Their empowerment helped the church to grow. In I Corinthians 12, Paul emphasizes the importance of every gift within the church.

Clarity of identity and mission

A healthy faith community is bound together by a shared identity and mission. Faith communities are riddled with differences of opinion and belief about everything from politics to theology. They need something to bind them together that is bigger and more compelling than those things that could tear them apart. Getting clear about identity—understanding the congregation’s values, its shared history and culture, and its unique strengths and challenges—is one kind of binding agent. Another is identifying what inspires the congregation and pulls them forward into mission and ministry.

The early church in Acts again provides an example of a faith community with an overarching sense of identity and mission. In Acts 4:32, the writer says of this community, “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul.” Their sense of connectedness was so deep that “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34). Though Acts clearly shows there were significant differences among the early believers, they were able to overcome these and seek the greater good of the community and their calling in Christ.

It must be said of healthy communities of faith that there are no perfect ones. A case in point can again be found in the Book of Acts. For many Christians, the most compelling picture of a healthy church is the early church described in Acts 2. However, later portrayals of this same church in Acts 5 and 6 reveal major shortcomings. Even within healthy communities of faith, it takes balanced effort and resourceful leadership to live together well in a fallen world. The striving for well-being is continuous, but absolutely worth the effort.

[i] Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
Chris Gambill is senior consultant and manager of congregational health services for the Center for Congregational Health ( based in Winston-Salem, N.C.


Please site Chris Gambill, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.