Some time ago, I was speaking with a recently retired bishop. He told me that during his tenure attendance at churches in the diocese had declined. He could cite several familiar reasons: population decline in the region; aging congregants not being replaced by younger ones; and, of course, society-wide secularization. But he also drew my attention to perhaps a more unexpected reason: church conflict. When he matched up his memories of churches in conflict with year-on-year attendance numbers, he could see the way in which the one influenced the other. In a span of six months, for instance, one church descended into conflict and went from having 140 people on Sundays to having 45. (And the conflict had nothing to do with what we might think of as the hot-button conflict issues, like sexuality and marriage.) That was reflected in diocesan statistics the next year.
The bishop went further: while church conflicts have many sources, in the blow-ups that led to major attendance declines, the bishop could point to clergy who were ill-equipped or poorly prepared to deal with church conflict. Their actions or inactions, he thought, had contributed to the weakening of the congregation. And this is why we were having this conversation: given my line of work, he wanted to impress on me the importance of having spiritually grounded, mature, and resilient clergy who can work towards conflict transformation rather than, as he had seen, conflict exacerbation.
Many Christians are familiar with Jesus’ famous words: “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”(Matthew 18:20) Fewer, in my experience, are familiar with the context. The verse comes at the end of a section in which Jesus has been teaching on conflict: “when another member of the church sins against you…” Jesus’ teaching is straightforward, obvious—and rarely followed. First, go speak to the person individually. If that doesn’t work, go back with two others. If that doesn’t work, then treat the person as you would a tax collector or Gentile (though given that this is the Gospel of Matthew, who was himself a tax collector, one wonders just what Jesus means). Jesus would have us work towards reconciliation, a commandment he gives earlier in the gospel when he tells his listeners to first “be reconciled to your brother or sister” (5:24) before offering their gift at the altar.
This passage about conflict resolution is one of the few places in all of the gospels where Jesus uses the word “church.” It is an explicit reminder that churches are meant to be communities of reconciliation and conflict transformation. It is precisely when Christians are having difficult conversations in the midst of conflict that Jesus is there in the midst of us.
Church conflict can be debilitating, depressing, and demoralizing, not to mention damaging to church attendance. Responding in a mature, grounded, and resilient fashion helps us become the church God is calling us to be.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.