How to Keep Your Church Out of Court and Manage Conflicts

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(Photo: Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship)Pastor Clark Van Wick addresses his congregation at Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship located in Temecula Valley Wine Country.

With more than 75 percent of American churches experiencing some kind of conflict and 25 percent reporting disputes as "serious," according to Faith Communities, conflict experts believe planning for its inevitability can help churches arrive at more peaceful resolutions and stay out of damaging court battles.

According to a report from Peacemaker Ministries, born-again Christians in America file between four and eight million lawsuits annually and they are often against each other. The cost of these cases is a reported $20 to $40 billion.

Some 1,500 pastors also leave their posts monthly in the U.S. due to conflict, burnout or moral failure.

A 2004 survey highlights a number of sources of church conflict, ranking control issues at the top, followed by other issues such as leadership changes, pastor's style and finances.

While these conflicts can sometimes lead to growth, they also result in negative outcomes, such as damaged relationships, sadness, declined attendance, loss of trust, leaders leaving and bitterness.

But these drawbacks can be minimized if churches learn how to manage conflicts better, explain experts.

"The primary reason conflict is doing so much damage in churches is because the vast majority of churches are not prepared to deal with it," said Dr. Kenneth Newburger of Resolve Church Conflict and author of Hope in the Face of Conflict: Making Peace with Others the Way God Makes Peace with Us

"Most churches are conflict incompetent. There are very few conflict competent churches. So when conflict emerges, and it's always going to happen, what do you do with it? Churches, typically, try to apply Matthew 18," added Newberger. But when that doesn't work, that's when things begin to fall apart and parties start thinking about the courts.

"If you have to go to court then you can forget about it. At that point in time it's a black and white situation. If they go to court it's over, in other words, it's a win-lose situation," said Newberger.

Churches can avoid legal wrangles, he says, by implementing the groundwork for preventive mediation. This approach, however, is not always readily accepted by churches because it may require outside help.

"As far as the solution, mediation is a biblical concept that's kinda just overlooked. Churches should be peacemakers, Jesus said 'blessed are the peacemakers' and that's something that most churches don't do. They don't like to bring someone in from the outside," said Newberger.

"Sometimes on the church boards they just can't resolve it and it does require someone with a more professional background and experience. If you cannot resolve it you should bring in a mediator, bring in a peacemaker who has skills and understanding that the average person in the church does not," said Newberger.

Darren Moore, an attorney with Texas-based law firm Bourland, Wall & Wenzel, explained in an interview with CP on Monday that churches can handle conflicts better by establishing clear rules and regulations about how to handle conflicts in their by-laws or constitution.

"I think well drafted documents at a stage when emotions are not high, that can spell out how we're going to go about making this organization operate, what are the general rules, they're gonna live by [will help]," said Moore.

He recommends considering common conflict issues like how to remove a pastor; removing a church member; and what to do when there is an irreconcilable dispute. "I think it's important that when everybody has cooler heads those decisions are addressed," said Moore.

A good way for churches to stay out of court is to ensure the organization also has "good functioning leadership" explains Moore.

"Whether that is a board of elders or whether that is officers of the church or whether that is an active and participating congregation. Those types of things in my experience, lend themselves towards a church that is able to handle conflict better than a church where the pastor is the sole authority, period," he noted.
He further urged churches to make an effort to resolve disputes internally rather than seeking resolutions in the courts which, depending on the state, may not be able to provide much help.

"…That's (dispute) one of the things that causes churches to split. It's one of the things that cause significant hurt feelings and from a much broader perspective. It's one of the things that does much damage to the Kingdom when congregations are not able to resolve their disputes amongst themselves," said Moore.
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