Conflict Management & Bibliography

Every day we experience situations that have the potential to escalate into serious conflict. The following examples have the potential to trigger conflict. The neighbours have a loud noisy party that deprives you of sleep. Your spouse has made arrangements without consulting you to go out and leave you home baby sitting. Some hopeless driver scratches your car in the supermarket car-park. At a church board meeting your ideas are rejected outright.

What is conflict? How can you recognize conflict? Is conflict management a fantasy dream? These questions and more have plagued the minds of those involved in church leadership at every level.


It is helpful to make a distinction between differences and conflict. Differences exist whenever people come together. People don't agree. People are different.  That is the whole point of I Corinthians 12. God never intended us to be clones - thinking, acting, behaving, and dressing exactly alike. Diversity is the spice of life.  Therefore Christians should not try to "clone" one another.

Inadequate Definitions

Some writers define conflict as two people trying to occupy the same space.  This is inadequate. For example, just because two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time does not mean a collision is inevitable! There is an alternative.

Likewise, conflict is not the diversity of ideas. Conflict is not being misunderstood by some body. Conflict is not a clash of personalities. Conflict is not getting angry. Conflict is not controversy. Conflict is not an issue or a situation.

Conflict is something that happens inside of a person. Issues do not make conflicts - people do. Conflict is when something or someone triggers a negative emotional reaction within a person.

Conflict Defined

Professor H. Newton Malony demonstrates that conflict is a subjective experience within a person, not an objective fact. Conflict exists within people, not between people. Conflict is that "desperate state of mind in which people feel their self-esteem is so endangered that something desperate has to be done to restore it." Conflict is really a synonym for distress.

Conflict can be two things:  (i) a STATE of mind and (ii) a WAY of acting.

As a 'state of mind,' "conflict is a feeling that one has been deeply threatened, discounted, hurt, or attacked. Note that this implies more than disagreement - it implies personal devaluation! It is the feeling that one is all alone and that one is not wanted or appreciated. It is a feeling of worthlessness. It is the feeling that one must defend oneself because no one else will. Self-confidence is threatened.  Self-esteem is shaken. This is the conflict state of mind."

As a 'way of acting,' "conflict is desperate self defense. What a person does or says only makes sense if a conflict state of mind is assumed. What a person does is attempt to regain a foundation on which to stand and a sense of self-esteem. It is based on the thought that no one else cares or will protect them. A person may destroy, may retreat from, may surrender to, or may by-pass people or issues. Conflict behavior only stops when the person feels 'safe' again. When self worth returns, conflict behavior ceases." Conflict can be a desperate feeling and defensive action.


According to this definition of Malony's, people only go into conflict when they perceive their self-esteem, their identity, their worth, their status in their own eyes, is threatened. This triggers negative emotional feelings. As such, it is never constructive. It is always destructive. If in their own eyes a person has no value or worth, they become depressed and lose heart. If chronically affected, total inertia can result.

Conflict is bad because it disturbs our equilibrium.  It makes us preoccupied about our own security. It stops the process of give and take which makes social interaction possible.


A classic example of this is the conflict the disciples experienced when they thought they had missed out on the top job (Mark 9:33-43). Each disciple felt demeaned if one of the others was to be given a higher position than himself. Their sense of worth and importance hinged on being 'higher' than someone else.

Many people's sense of purpose and value is wrapped up in their idea, belief, job or role. It has been said that the meaning of life is the esteem we receive from the roles we play. Therefore a person is unable to be flexible, to give and take, etc., if their sense of value and identity is wrapped up with their 'idea' or 'role' which others reject or take away from them. If a person loses their idea or role then inwardly they may feel rejected even though this is not the case.

Biblical Perspective

A Christian's self concept is based on revelation and redemption.  It is not bound up in 'doing' or 'being.'  If as a Christian I go into conflict (and inevitably all of us do), what should I do to reduce the conflict in myself?  The Christian way of re-establishing one's equilibrium is to follow the four "Rs."

Step One

When a Christian goes into inner conflict it is because they has forgotten or are ignorant of the fact that their self esteem, self worth, and status comes from God.  It is not something that can be taken away from them.  When 'in conflict' a Christian needs to 'RECALL' what God says of them.  A Christian is unconditionally loved and accepted (John 17:23c); has the status of son (Galatians 4:4-6); Angels serve them (Hebrews 1:13); Heaven is their home (John 14:1-3); God made them in his own image (James 3:9); God constantly cares for them (Luke 12:22-28); and while they were a sinner, Christ died for them (Romans 5:8).

Step Two 

Next is 'REASSURANCE.'  This is the feeling we have when we accept these facts as true for ourselves.  This is an act of faith.  When we do this we will experience the truth of 1 John 3:19-20:

". . . we shall know that we are children of truth and can reassure ourselves in the sight of God, even if our hearts make us feel guilty. For God is greater than our hearts and He knows everything . . . when we realize this our hearts no longer accuse us . . ."

Some find quietly reading appropriate Psalms helpful.

Step Three

This step involves accepting the responsibility for how I feel about myself and what I have done. It means 'REPENTING' of wrong thoughts about myself, my forgetfulness, and if involved, sinful behavior. When we perceive ourselves as being of no value, we are sinning against God's revelation (Matthew 6:26; 12:12; Mark 8:36-37; Luke 9:25; 12:24; I Peter 1:18-19 etc,). This wrong perception may have provoked sinful thoughts about others ("I hope lightening strikes him dead"), and sinful behavior (verbal abuse, retribution, intimidation, vindication of self, aggression, some form of vengeance, etc.). Whatever it is a person has thought and done which is wrong must be repented of and confessed to God. If others have been sinned against, the person must confess his sin to them and ask for their forgiveness.

Step Four

Following through the first three steps will have reduced the conflict the person feels inside themselves. They no longer feel threatened. The inner sense of panic is gone. They can be at peace with themselves about their identity and status based on God's redemptive actions and love. This then allows the person to 'RE-ENTER' the arena of life and attempt to find a solution, deal with the problem, face the issue or whatever.  Only after our self security has been restored can we deal realistically with life.

This 4 R style is Christian realism and faith in action.  It allows us to obey the following injunctions: love because He first loved us (I John 4:19); forgive 70 x 7 (Matthew 18:22); do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27); be reconciled to our brother (Matthew 5:24) etc. But while we are in a state of conflict, obedience to these injunctions will only be an ideal we affirm, not a way of life we live.

Remember, conflict is a subjective experience, not an objective fact. It results from an unchristian view of ourselves and our status.

[This article was published in Assembly Links Magazine (Aug, 1985) and the Talbot School of Theology Magazine.]

Conflict resolution for Church Leaders

Graeme Cann asks the question: "Why is it then, or what is it then, that underlies our negative feelings to a situation?" He suggests that often these negative emotional responses arise from our own previous hurts or fears. Particularly childhood fears.

So when we are "in conflict" that is either  (i) a STATE of mind or (ii) a WAY of acting what is it we need to do?

          A     Ask ourselves are our past fears or failures triggering this response?

    1. Do I now withdraw? Go silent? Shout the person down? so the conflict is never       dealt with?
    2. Do I fear rejection like Peter?
    3. Are there old wounds I need to deal with?

    B  Is "my conflict" stemming from personal goals which drive me?

    1. For example, to achieve perfection? Perfection is not a virtue, it’s a neurosis -an       overuse of a defence mechanism, perhaps because of fear of failure
    2. Or may be I am work driven and feel thwarted?
    3. Or the goal of control.
    4. Or I'm motivated by gaining other people's approval. If I am not affirmed how do I feel about myself? When I perceive I'm not being affirmed/complimented, do I go into conflict?

    C   Lack of Skills may cause me to go into conflict

    1. Most important, skill of listening. It's hard because we're often very solution oriented.
    2. 1 minute manager. Read it.
    3. Listening to feelings as much as facts. Empathy. Sympathy can be natural, but empathy needs to be trained.
    4. Being able to put equal value on the issue and the people. Our feelings are important, the issue is important.
    5. I count, you count. I am a person of worth, created in the image of God, been adopted.... I count.
    6. But, you are also. You're been redeemed, adopted etc. and therefore a person of worth. Therefore we're going to value each other. We're not going to devalue each other, or ourselves. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to challenge your ideas. But that, doesn't mean I'm not going to listen to you.
    7. To what extent does my style of leadership affect our relationships? Not buddy, but respect, dignity, etc.
    8. Do you esteem other people's contributions?

6 steps to resolving inner conflict

  1. Listen      (as above)
  2. Be proactive rather than reactive
    • Take control over your response. Give time. Step back. Think about the situation. (Of course hear them out first.)
    • What am I afraid of here? What am I fearful of?
    • Sometimes people are going through stuff, and need to let out anger.
  3. You need a mentor in ministry. Someone to help you, with permission to ask the hard questions...
  4. Address and resolve the feelings of inner conflict
    • What is this person's actions/words causing me to feel?
  5. Repent of inappropriate actions, words, attitudes and forgive the other person if necessary.
    • Lord,I'm sorry for attacking, doing/not doing...
    • Forgiving others: well you died for that, I don't have to deal with this
  6. Address the other person. Make apologies if necessary, ask for forgiveness...
    • Need to ask what basis on which we are going to work it out. This is not about you and me on different sides of the fence. Put the idea on the table.
    • This takes the punitive aspect out of the situation, and into a cooperative

E.g. do you want to go to church and avoid certain people? There are other tacks such as giving a ' problem' person a position of influence.

D   Work on      the relationship

    1. Try and restore the relationship, if not make it better.
    2. You can often control whether the person stays or leaves, distances themselves or       comes closer.
    3. Sometimes, it is necessary to let people go. You might ask why they want to stay - do you want to be part of the vision? Or do you want to re-make the church in your own image?
    4. You can get rid of hurt by forgiveness, but you can't come back together without       repentance.
    5. To  identify what deep wounds might be affecting you?


Conflict Bibliography

Allen, Tom.  Congregations in Conflict.  Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1991. 176pp.  This book has three parts: (1) focuses on 12 issues that create conflict; (2) results of conflicts and (3) resolving conflict. Written in a popular style this book is a timely read for any person in leadership in a local church.

Cormack, David.  Peacing Together: From Conflict to Reconciliation.  Eastborne: MARC, 1989. 213pp Cormack focuses on reconciliation and how it might be achieved in a peaceful way for all parties. Excellent.

Cosgrove, Charles H. & Hatfield, Dennis D.  Church Conflict: The Hidden Systems Behind the Fights.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1994. 192pp.  By using stories and narrative examples of real problems at actual churches in conflict, Charles Cosgrove and Dennis Hatfield help us identify the hidden structural boundaries in any group relationship. They show how the dynamics and "family rules" operating in the informal familylike church system powerfully influence how church members relate to each other, do business together, care for one another, and fight with each other. The authors then provide strategies for dealing with conflict at the level of these hidden "family" dynamics. Especially useful where many in leadership are related by marriage to each other.

 Fenton, Horace L.  The Peace Makers: Resolving Conflict Between Christians.  Leicester: IVP, 1988. 158pp.  Fenton discusses this problem from the New Testament churches' record. The author addresses conflict between relatives, when doctrine divides, agreeing to disagree, when confrontation may be necessary and blessed are the peacemakers.

Gangel, Kenneth O. & Canine, Samuel L.  Communication and Conflict Management In Churches and Organizations.  Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992. 288pp.  The authors use Biblical strategies for overcoming conflict and building trust in relationships. The book is designed to lead God's church through its conflicts. This excellent book covers a wide range of topics including:

  1. Why Communication Is Important
  2. Communication Models
  3. Communication Messages
  4. Learning to Listen
  5. Self-Concept and Communication
  6. Language and Interpersonal Relations
  7. Conflict and Nonverbal Communications
  8. Interpersonal Communication and Recruitment
  9. Interpersonal Relations and Training
  10. Interpersonal Relations and Supervision
  11. Conflict Defined and Clarified
  12. Conflict Management and Relationship Levels
  13. Organizational Causes of Conflict
  14. Role Definition and Values in Conflict Management
  15. Power in Conflict Management
  16. Negotiation and Bargaining in Conflict Management
  17. Coalitions in Conflict Management
  18. Conflict and Management Styles
  19. Strategies and Tactics Used in Managing Conflict
• Managing Conflcct Destructively or Constructively
  20. Stress: Causes and Cure
  21. The Workaholic Syndrome

 Halverstadt, Hugh F.  Managing Church Conflict. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991, rev 2000. 223pp.  Halverstadt advocates a Christian vision of shalom for an ethical process of conflict management and shows how respectfulness, assertiveness, accountability, and a focus on a larger common good should all serve as Christian behavioral standards. His instructive and useful book, which can be used as a model for addressing ministries, church systems, and other nonprofit organizations in conflict, offers ways of constraining those who act as antagonists and ways of collaborating with individuals who act as opponents.

"The author has done a unique job of pulling together helpful knowledge from his study of organizational group process, then integrating it with theological and ethical understanding. The result is a book that should be helpful to pastors who want to work more carefully at resolving conflict with a sense of theological integrity." — William Van Arnold, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia

"Halvcrstadt's work is an important book. He deals straightforwardly and responsibly with the theological/ethical issues that surround conflict." — Douglas Walrath, Bangor Theological Seminary, Bangor. Maine

Leas, Speed B.  Discover Your Conflict Management Style. Chicago: Alban Institute, 1997, rev 2000. 44pp.  This is a 'self-help' book in the best sense of the word. The Conflict Inventory will assist you in identifying your personal conflict style. An excellent tool.

Conflict is a part of everyone's life; we can't eliminate it.   Nor would we necessarily want to for new insights and growth can emerge from well-managed conflict. Managing conflict is something we all can do on our own, especially if we make use of techniques developed for that purpose. Healthy conflict management is a necessary part of ministry, family life, work-even play. The popularity of this book since it first appeared in 1984 is confirmation of the need for every individual to learn how best to deal with conflict.  The two-part goal of Discover Your Conflict Management Style remains the same as in the original version:

Leas, Speed.  Conflict and Leadership.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1982. 124pp.  Leas notes that 'conflict management' does not necessarily imply control of conflict. Rather it suggests handling the problem competently.  The book provides timely ideas on containing conflict. Guidelines for structing interaction between parties show insight, wisdom and are very workable. The chart on p114  is worth the price of the book. This is an excellent book for church leaders and others

Leas, Speed & Kittlaus, Paul.  Church Fights: Managing Conflict in the Local Church.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973. 186pp.  The authors believe that conflict, if rightly managed, can be an opportunity for a church's growth and development. Various methods for dealing with the conflict, as well as methods for gathering and analysing information are discussed. Each method is identified and recommendations made as to when each is appropriate or inappropriate. The appendixes give useful material on win/lose behaviour in competing groups, the use of simulation games for developing conflict management skills and a design for training referees.

Lewis, G. Douglass.  Resolving Church Conflicts: A Case Study Approach for Local Congregations. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981. 182pp.  Lewis draws on theological perspectives and behavioural sciences. While disagreements are unavoidable the author offers a positive, solidly based program to prevent such disagreements from becoming destructive and debilitating. Actual cases are used to illuminate and analyze critical areas of strive, to develop a framework and principles for coping and guidelines for managing conflict. A useful resource for those who struggle with differences of opinion in the church.

McSwain, Larry L. & Treadwell, William C.  Conflict Ministry in the Church. Nashville: Broadman, 1981. 202pp.  Written to assist leaders to analyze conflict, disagreements and tension and what to do about them. The book will enable the reader to better understand how conflict works and how to minister effectively in this context. A very useful resource.

Malony, Newton H..  Win-Win Rrelationships: 9 strategies For Settling Personal Conflicts Without Waging War. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995. 179pp.  "I need this book as much as anybody. I've taught conflict management for over fifteen years, but I still have trouble settling conflicts without going to war. I suspect that I am not alone." The Author.

Most Christians have their hearts in the right place, but what many of them practice is far different from what they preach. This book explains that Christians can legitimately disagree on ways to address —and solve problems, and that both sides can still be winners. The danger and destruction come when problems are confused with conflicts.

Dr. Malony explains: "Just because people have contradictory opinions does not mean they have a conflict. They have a problem. Conflict exists inside people, not between them. It is an inner experience. People go into conflict when they feel so personally threatened that they try to win arguments regardless of who the)' hurt. They have moved over the line from the stress of problem sohing to the distress of personal threat."

Win/Win Relationships shows that by first resolving conflicts, then focusing on problems, Christians can be winners without getting mad, getting even, or giving in. And they can do it while allowing their adversaries to be winners too!

This book is a digest of a segment of the Doctor of Ministry Course Malony taught on Leadership, Conflict Management etc. Highly recommended.

Robert, Marc.  Managing Conflict: From the Inside Out. San Diego: Pfeiffer & Company, 1982. 149pp. Conflict management—in one's personal or professional life—should start inside the individual. This book analyzes the types of situations that cause conflicts and helps the reader to prepare for potential conflict situations.

After discussing how certain conflicts can be avoided or prevented, this book skillfully guides the reader through the necessary methods of handling conflicts that are unavoidable or that he or she chooses not to avoid. Emphasis is placed on conflicts in the work place, but conflicts of all kinds — with family, friends, and acquaintances—are discussed.

Questionnaires are included for easy, back-home application in dealing with conflict situations. Down-to-earth language and style make the text interesting to the layman, and the research-based theory makes it a valuable tool for the professional.

Thomas, Kenneth W. & Kilmann, Ralp H.  Conflict Mode Instrument.  Tuxedo, NY: Xicom, 1974. 18pp. I found this tool insightful, very helpful, and accurate in describing behavioural responses to conflict. Highly Recommended.

 Fisher, Roger & Ury, William.  Getting to YES: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.  New York: Penguin, 1991. 200pp. 

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Dr Keith Graham