Case studies yield mediation advice, “multiple possibilities”

“A person who only views conflict in the negative will miss seeing what God can do.” 

JACKSONVILLE—Mike Smith remains firmly convinced of God’s power to turn conflict into blessing. He’s served churches and ministers helping resolve 3,000-plus cases of conflict over 44 years of ministry.

Smith, president of Jacksonville College, has written “Conflict: Causes and Cures” as a collection of case studies that illustrate the principles, problems and prospects of such turmoil. Previously, he led the minister/church relations department of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and directed two Baptist associations in the state.

“Every conflict presents multiple possibilities,” Smith wrote. “My prayer is that every church will have a group of members—whether it is the deacons, church staff or lay persons—who will become equipped with the skills of conflict mediation.” He cited Acts 6 as an indication that the first need of deacons in the early church was to resolve a conflict.

Most church conflict, according to surveys from Baptist associations, stemmed from issues related to control, Smith observed.

“A pastor in the process of interviewing and accepting a call to a church should identify the power brokers,” he said. Quick to point out that these are often good people, Smith underscored the necessity of a pastor building a relationship with those people.

“Generally, churches will follow a pastor if the pastor has worked and built good relationships,” Smith explained, adding that the smaller the church, the more critical it is to form and maintain those relationships and build trust.

“The power brokers who are antagonists are difficult and can be destructive,” he admitted. “A pastor who neglects and tries to bypass the power brokers will find himself in a difficult ministry.”

Sometimes pastors are called to a church to break the hold these individuals have maintained, he said, and to remind the congregation that the church belongs to God. In the process, a church can be redirected back to its mission and purpose.

Smith has seen pastors fall into a trap of demonizing all who oppose them, failing to follow the biblical guidelines of Matthew 18. Not only should a leader communicate forgiveness, he should also seek forgiveness from those he has offended and extend it to those who have offended him, he wrote.

Power is neutralized as pastors demonstrate servant leadership, Smith added, emphasizing the need to learn to share the ministry with volunteer leaders in the church.

“Focus on what God can do through the church and not on building your own reputation or resume.”

Smith said churches can be equipped to respond to conflict and manage it in a biblical way, starting with a proper attitude. He advised churches to admit conflict exists, believe it can be healthy and involve the fewest possible number of people in making it known.

“Go privately and confront,” taking the initiative and avoiding gossip, he recommended. “The longer you wait, the more time Satan has to cause confusion.”

Conflict is a spiritual battle that must be approached after wisdom-seeking prayer, he said, citing James 1:5. If the conflict cannot be resolved in private, another person should be enlisted. Ultimately, when conflict cannot be resolved, church discipline should begin for the purpose of repentance and restoration, he concluded.

Smith also outlined a process of mediation involving a trusted outsider to keep the process on track. He uses the acronym SOLVE to describe how the mediator conducts the meetings with Scripture and prayer, opening with statements and rules, listening to each side of the story, verifying what has been said and exploring various solutions leading to an agreement.

“The mediator is not a judge but a facilitator of the mediation process,” he wrote. He offered a sample agenda for private meetings of individuals, staff, and the congregation gathered in business sessions.

The final section of the book addresses restoration as a ministry to return people to useful service. “Restoration is needed after a conflict for both the church as a whole and for individuals who have experienced conflict,” Smith wrote. While it is a healthy process, it requires a commitment of time, he added.

“Restoration, by its very nature, cannot be programmatic,” he explained, encouraging personalization through resources that offer support, professional counsel and help for future ministry.

“There are numerous wounded ministers, ministers’ wives, children and church members. Some have made a decision to never attend church again,” he said. “These wounded heroes of the faith need to be restored to active service.”

“Conflict: Causes and Cures” is available from Jacksonville College by calling 903-586-2518. All proceeds benefit the school.

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