Growing Through Conflict

by Donald E. Bossart

Donald E. Bossart is associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. He joined the faculty in 1974 after serving 17 years in campus ministry. Dr. Bossart called upon from across the nation to lead workshops and seminars.

The following paper was written in December, 1990.


The author deals with turning destructive conflict into a constructive experience for change and growth.

Most of us don't like conflict. We usually find it perplexing, stressful and even downright destructive. So we tend to avoid conflict whenever possible.

Yet I believe that conflict is not just inevitable but also indispensable -- a uniquely valuable component of our personal and organizational lives. Without it, we lose our ability to hear new ideas and work together toward creative solutions.

After having spent time with many different churches and church groups on conflict resolution, I have come to some conclusions which might surprise you:

The problem is not the problem.

I am the source of most conflict I experience.

Without conflict, no change or growth ever occurs.

But if conflict is necessary for individual and organizational development, we must learn how to use it effectively instead of avoiding it.

In the following reflection, I share some of what I have learned about turning destructive conflict into a constructive experience for change and growth.

Without conflict, no change or growth ever occurs

We all know the symptoms of conflict in the church, even if we would rather pretend it doesn't exist. There is internal division, an "us" versus "them" mentality, with increased but often unfocused feelings of anxiety, anger, mistrust, and fear. This results in long unproductive meetings, accusations and decisions made in secret, gradually decreasing attendance, loss of income and even membership. Nobody likes being in the midst of conflict. But church conflict seems especially difficult.

We shouldn't be surprised, however. Conflict is sharpest where bonds are strong and encompass the whole person. This is keenly evident in the church with its standard of commitment to a life's belief system. What makes matters worse is that the church as a closely-knit group tends to suppress conflict, rather than dealing with it head-on. This may keep the peace, but only on the surface and only temporarily. It's like a delayed fuse on a bomb. The conflict that finally erupts will not just deal with the immediate issue. It also must deal with the accumulation of hurt and angry feelings long denied. For this reason, we often find that the closer the group, the more intense the conflict.

What the suppression of conflict does do is preserve the image of the church as a loving community united in God's service. Such myths keep the church from effectively utilizing conflict for growth. There are others, for instance:

- conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church

- a loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene

- the administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change

- individuals and the church as whole should be "spiritual" -- that is, should be "above" conflict.


But real growth demands creativity and risk. We are never moved to change unless we allow our beliefs and behaviors to be challenged. The suppression of conflict, on the other hand, leads to stagnation and conformity. So while the Christian community should be an ideal place for growth, it often erects a barrier to growth by avoiding or denying conflict at all costs.

The church has much to gain from the effective use of conflict. The conflict will be there. The question is, how will we choose to handle it? Conflict can alienate and block effective work or it can clarify and broaden understanding of important issues, thereby becoming a source of motivation and a release of new energy. The difference is in the skills that are necessary to utilize this force toward its positive end.

Individually and as a group, reflect on the following basic questions regarding conflict in the church.

Case Studies

Here are two case studies which provide an opportunity to reflect on the sources and dynamics of church conflict. No doubt you have had experiences with conflict in your own congregation as well. Feel free to draw on these experiences, sharing them with your study group if appropriate, as you consider the questions below.

Bill was the new pastor of a small church in a once-rural area who formed a new Bible study group. In an early discussion, Jack, a conservative member of the church, confronted Bill over their theological differences. "Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus was special," Jack said. "You have to believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, otherwise there'd be nothing special about him." Bill replied that the divinity of Jesus was not based on the literal truth of the virgin birth. His faith was just as strong with a symbolic belief. Later Jack talked to his friend Laura and told her he was resigning his church membership because this was so important to him. Concerned, Laura first tried talking to the pastor. Bill said Jack should go where he felt most comfortable. Then Laura asked for a special meeting of the pastor-parish relations committee, but the committee chair said there was nothing they could do. Unsatisfied, Laura went to the administrative council which voted to accept Jack's resignation. However, some members requested that the pastor say more about this controversy. Bill put them off, claiming it wasn't an appropriate time to discuss theological issues. By now, Laura and others in the church were beginning to wonder about their own views on the virgin birth and what their church believed. How much theological agreement is necessary and how much diversity can be tolerated? Was Bill really the kind of pastor they needed?

Martha pastored a medium-sized church in an urban area located near a major medical center. Several members of the congregation were doctors and nurses at the center. For some time, Martha had wanted to move the church into social justice ministry. She believed she had found the perfect solution: the church would open a free health clinic for the homeless. When she presented her plan to the program committee, however, it met with heated opposition. "We'll have no control over who comes in and out of building." "What about security for the church staff?" Karl, a doctor on the committee, complained that no one took their needs into consideration; they were overworked as it was. "How could we possibly afford such a major project anyway?" asked Susan, the business officer. To which Martha replied that she had already approached the denomination for partial funding and received a positive response. At that point, the meeting degenerated into angry questions and responses. "Where would we put it?" "Just don't think of using Morrow Hall. That's designated solely for congregation use." "That stipulation was never fair." "Well, it was the only way it got built." "Remember when our last pastor insisted we open a soup kitchen?" "It would have worked if you had supported him." "I'm just tired of everyone's pet project being rammed down our throats!" Finally, Susan motioned to table discussion pending further study. The motion carried but the group was unwilling to name a study committee at that time. Weeks went by. Congregation members avoided Martha fearing she would raise the issue again. Others wanted to circulate a petition, some for, some against. Martha talked to her denominational representative; Susan canvassed various committee chairs; Karl had a hallway conversation with his best friend in the congregation. What was going to happen next?

The Sources of Conflict

The problem is not the problem

When conflict breaks out, accusations fly. Everyone believes they know who or what the problem is. But the real source of conflict is probably not what people say it is. For this reason, exploring the surface dynamics of a conflict will not resolve it. Rather we must look to the state of participating individuals and the existing relationships between them.


Perception is the process of taking into our minds the multitude of data that our senses make available to us. For instance, we never really meet a "new" person. An initial interaction with someone new is so overloaded with data that we selectively pick only what we are capable of absorbing through our filters. The same is true when we meet a new group of people or have any new experience. On the basis of our perception, each of us constructs a personal world view which we call reality. Each personal world view is different, which means that we often perceive the same event differently. The potential for conflict is enormous, because we "see" others and the world through the filters of our own perception.



Communication is the process of passing messages or ideas from person to person. We normally communicate an idea by "translating" it into words or actions and "sending" it to others. We hope that they receive the same idea we sent. Of course our way of "translating" and "sending" the message depends on our own personal meanings for words and actions. In addition, the person receiving the message must also decode it, using another full set of personal meanings for words and actions. The possibilities for miscommunication are endless, leading to potential conflict.


Power is the force necessary to achieve an end or a goal. In our society, power tends to be understood negatively. It is usually seen as a force over us, to be used against us, or as a force we enjoy over others. It is seldom equal and often implies exclusivity. Thus conflict generally involves the exercise of power in an attempt to gain control of scarce resources or to influence behavior.

In order to effectively utilize conflict, we need to change our understanding of power. It is important to view power as an ever growing resource, rather than a scarce commodity for which we must compete. This is not to deny that power may be gained at the cost of others. But coercive power used for domination is more costly and less likely to prevail than non-coercive power. Power in its deepest sense is not some person(s) dominating others, but all persons fulfilling their richest possibilities and God-given potential in the interaction of the human community.

I am the source of most conflict I experience

Our understanding and use of power is rooted in our basic need for self-worth. Used for selfish ends of domination and control, power is a distorted form of self-affirmation. It represents our attempt to enforce our values and needs on others. But many times our own values and needs are themselves in conflict. We are competing with others at the same time we are competing with our own diverse inner drives, and we project our inner conflict outward onto others.

Effective utilization of conflict, then, must involve the connections between three forms of conflict: internal or intrapersonal conflict, that between individuals or interpersonal conflict, and that between group structures or intergroup conflict. This is how conflict moves back and forth between the personal and the social.

We are all subject to the psychological dynamics of inner conflict. Perhaps greatest among these is the ongoing inner tension or battle between our "shoulds" and our "wants." The site of this battle, Freud tells us, is the ego, the place where our inner selves meet the external world. Every person seeks a balance between their internal state and their relation to reality. But when our self-image comes into conflict with reality, our ego-identity is called into question. This is intrapersonal conflict. Interpersonal and intergroup conflict follow as a result.

For instance, as Christians we find it acceptable to feel and express love, but not hate. Yet some things in the real world cause us to feel hate, thus leading to inner conflict. Or at times our desire for personal gratification is at odds with what society or the church tell us is acceptable. We want to both approach and avoid the object of our desire, which again leads to indecision and frustration. At times like this, we become uncomfortable with our self-image, feeling unworthy and unacceptable to others and to ourselves. Our interpersonal relations become very fragile when we are in this condition. We may be excessively concerned about our own power and control over others in order to relieve our sense of ambivalence and the accompanying feelings of tension and threat.

In this way, the negative or positive valence of a person's self-worth determines whether that person's power will be expressed constructively or destructively. This has a direct bearing on how we handle conflict. If we experience ourselves as having negative self-worth, we react defensively in relationship to others and tend toward a win/lose lifestyle. If our sense of self-worth is positive, however, we can more easily project that value onto others and work with them in empowering each other.

So a non-threatening environment of acceptance and support is vital for the effective utilization of conflict. The freedom to be and accept that being engenders receptivity to others and their possibility for being, uniting in a win/win style of relationship. This condition allows for the goals of self and the goals of others to be compatible, fostering creativity and growth for all concerned. Power, while seldom equal, can at least be in equilibrium. Participants in the conflict feel that they are being heard and taken seriously.

The Dynamics of Conflict

We tend to think of all conflict as destructive, but that's not necessarily the case. The difference is in how we handle conflict -- whether we just manage it or effectively utilize it. Just managing conflict is a way of bypassing the deeper issues and feelings which are the real source of the conflict. Participants may attempt to keep the peace by denying that a problem exists or avoiding its implications. Or participants may call for a vote, polarizing the situation by forcing people to take a position on the issue before the real problem has been fully identified or uncovered. Using conflict effectively, on the other hand, is a way of bringing deeper issues and feelings out into the open so that the conflict has a chance of being resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

This is the difference between destructive and constructive conflict, between a win/lose and a win/win approach. We probably have more experience with the characteristics of destructive conflict: secrecy, threats, coercion and bluffs, misperception and miscommunication, unbridled competition in which one party tries to destroy, injure, or control the other(s) and in which one party gains only at the other's expense. We have likely had less experience with constructive conflict and its characteristics: openness, trust, no threats or power plays, a willingness to learn and change, and a cooperative stance in which the goals of the participants are integrally linked.

Most conflict begins with a sense of chaos and uncomfortable feelings of fear, hurt and anger. It quickly devolves into a competitive stage where people attempt to identify who or what the problem is and establish their own position: "I am right and you are wrong." Unless this destructive pattern is circumvented and transformed into a constructive one, the conflict continues in a win/lose style. People take sides and close ranks. People become more and more judgmental and perceptual distortions become greater and greater. Differences are highlighted, similarities overlooked, and the desire to understand another position deteriorates quickly. The pressure finally is not to be objective or innovative, or seek the best solution, but to win at any cost. So a temporary winner emerges, but the disagreement is really not resolved. And the subjugation of differences lays the groundwork for future internal strife. When events trigger another conflict, all the feelings and agendas from previously unresolved conflicts rise to the surface and come into play.

How to Turn Bad Conflict into Good

Becoming skilled at conflict resolution can take professional training and years of experience. But there are some basic principles and techniques which can help you more effectively understand and utilize conflict when it comes your way. If nothing else, it can help you recognize when conflict requires a trained, neutral third-party in order to be resolved. You can become an advocate in your church for fair fighting, constructive conflict and a win/win lifestyle.

These suggestions are based on the idea that change takes place in people, not in the problem. In order to effectively utilize conflict, we must work on enhancing the state of the individuals involved and the relationships between them. We must work on improving perception and communication, and on establishing an equilibrium of power among participants. How do we accomplish this?

Fair Fighting


One of the first things to do, especially if the individuals or groups involved have a history of unresolved conflict, is to draw up a contract for fair fighting -- a list of ground rules, so to speak. At base, this contract must provide for:

- an attitude of mutual respect

- a commitment to active listening to others

- a clear focus on the participants' interdependence and mutual interests

Depending on the situation, a contract might also include the following provisions:

- no "people are saying" comments

- no blaming

- no interrupting

- no labeling

- no personalizing of issues

- speak for yourself, not for others

Remember, supportive relationships are fundamental to resolving conflict. The purpose of your fair fighting contract is to create a non-threatening, accepting and open environment in which to air differences and learn from others. But also remember that this will not keep everyone in harmony. We have no reason to believe that a completely harmonious environment is most productive for growth. Some degree of competition seems to help. When competition and diversity occurs in a supportive climate, then it contributes to creative problem solving. Competition, however, must move toward collaboration.

Integrative Goals

The key to transforming destructive into constructive conflict is focusing on integrative goals, common values, and mutual interests. This changes a win/lose into a win/win situation. Basic human needs are important to the success of integrative goals. These needs include a sense of personal worth and importance, achievement, fulfillment, recognition, and self-actualization. They must be stated explicitly so that all fully understand them. With integrative goals, the best interests of all can be sought.

There is an important distinction between positional and interest-based bargaining. Most attempts at dealing with conflict begin with positional bargaining. Conflicting parties state and advocate their positions on the issue, clear about whose position is right or wrong, good or bad. A win/win approach, however, distinguishes between partisan positions and the interests, needs, desires and commitments underlying these positions. People generally confuse the two, assuming that their solution to the problem is the same as their underlying needs. But this is not usually the case, and as they communicate about the interests which underlie their differences, and as those interests are recognized and validated, parties begin to see how they can negotiate their differences without betraying their fundamental values and commitments. Rather than fighting over different positions or solutions, they begin fighting together for a solution which meets as many different needs as possible.


In a win/win situation, all parties are basically satisfied with the outcome and feel that they have benefitted as a result. Unacceptable solutions are not forced upon losers, as in the usual church decision-making process based on Robert's Rules of Order. Focusing on integrative goals is a way to lead us into consensus-making behavior. This does not mean that the solution will be the exact wishes of every individual, but it will not violate the deep concerns of anyone and will reflect common objectives so that it can be agreed upon by all.

Sometimes complete consensus is not possible. It may be necessary to arrive at a partial, or pragmatic, consensus which allows for a degree of success to be experienced by the parties in conflict. Pragmatic consensus embodies a solution to some aspect of the problem on which there is agreement, and gives that solution a trial run for a period of time, followed by evaluation. Growth can come from such pragmatic consensus as well. Partial success builds trust and confidence to work toward greater success.

If even pragmatic consensus is not possible, then there needs to be a turning back to the basic search for integrative goals. With stronger or more complete goals the group may discover an innovative solution which will meet the conditions needed by all. It could be necessary to go through this process more than once.

A win/win approach, while sometimes more difficult, is more effective in the long run. It is also particularly consistent with the values of the Christian community -- openness, trust, inclusiveness and mutual support.

Conflict Resolution and the Christian Community

Conflict is a process, a means to an end. It connects the disruption and chaos of the old with the establishment of harmony and resolution of the new and not yet. Thus conflict is as essential to the Christian faith as is the cross. The ultimate goal includes both reconciliation and integration, but one does not get there through a process of cheap grace. One must come through the cross to reconciliation in a process of effective conflict resolution.

The use of a win/win approach -- with its open accepting environment for airing differences, its focus on interdependence and common goals, and the process of reaching consensus itself -- constitutes an empowering act in the church. Conflict becomes a dynamic which energizes people and enhances growth. It allows us to raise important issues, seek creative solutions, clarify and establish goals. We fall into troublesome complacency when we cease to debate the issues that must be raised. Church battles can therefore be a sign of hope. In the end, our diversity with its resultant fighting can be seen not as a fight to the death, but a fight for new life.

My vision of the church is of a creative, committed, problem-solving community, able to effectively utilize conflict as an empowering force to deal not only with our own internal problems, but with the concerns and issues of the larger world as well.

To realize this vision requires a faith that chaos, anger, confusion, and doubt can be overcome and that conflict can bring the church toward reconciliation and new possibilities. This reminds us of two things we need to remember about who we are as the church. First, we must remember that by the very act of creation, God gives each individual unique value and worth. Faith in this gift allows each member of the church to affirm his or her sense of self-worth which enables us to engage in the constructive utilization of conflict. Second, we must remember not only to trust each other, but also to trust that God uses even our disagreements to further the work of the church and our spiritual growth.