Healing from Church Conflicts

(Full Article from 3rd Quarter 2017 Issue of BY THE WORD)

Conflict occurs wherever humans gather because our needs differ. The church is no exception. In one church I served, tension arose over whether to build a rose garden as a memorial to the many members who served the church or to invest in a program for youth to draw new families into the church. In one church, tension escalated in a worship committee meeting when members were deciding whether it was okay for acolytes to wear tennis shoes in church. In another church, angry words characterized meetings about whether contemporary music or traditional music should be used in the church’s worship services. Each situation generated tension and hurt feelings.

I propose that a model for healing tensions that grow in our families and churches involves four principles. They involve allowing a grace period, demonstrating compassion, expressing forgiveness, and creating sacred spaces. Each of these factors affects and builds on the others.

Grace Period

Every relationship can occasionally benefit from a grace period. This is a time when, to minimize tension, we filter what we say to others. Instead of expressing anger, we leave some things unsaid. A truce does not mean that we avoid others or give them the silent treatment. It means we create a period of time when we choose kindness and patience over harsh words. It may mean that we table hot topics in council meetings until we can get more information, or, when someone differs with us on an issue, we do not instinctively react but give ourselves more time to think about the issue. One church member said to me, “I decided to create a period of grace. After a few weeks, I forgot about what annoyed me so much.” Though it’s hard to do, slowing down allows us more time to find constructive ways to approach a problem.


Our willingness to create a grace period is sometimes linked to our ability to live in a spirit of compassion for others. Compassion is demonstrating caring with grace. Compassion is listening with a goal of understanding what another may be experiencing or empathizing with what another is feeling. Matthew connects Jesus’ healing of people with compassion. Luke begins his account of Jesus feeding 5000 with a preface explaining that Jesus felt compassion for the crowd. In Colossians, Paul connects compassion to having patience and kindness toward others. Compassion enables a nurse to care about a difficult patient, a pastor to visit an unhappy parishioner, or a mother to work with an angry child. Compassion in the form of kind words and smiles encourages healing. A professor of mine once said to me, “When you begin to feel tension with another person, do something nice for them. Show them kindness. It’s hard to stay mad at someone you are doing something nice for.”


Compassion can generate a third principle, forgiveness. Forgiveness occurs when we can let go of our harsh judgments about people and situations and give them to God. We pray that God might free us of ill feelings we have toward others. Forgiveness does not mean we forget how we’ve been harmed or accept that a harm was okay. It means that we turn a problem over to a higher power and trust that he will make all things new in his time. We choose to let go of anger and resentment and live with grace. We admit that we don’t know everything and that we might even be wrong once in a while. Living with a spirit of forgiveness means that we give others a second chance, including ourselves. Bernard Meltzer once said that when you forgive, you do not change the past, but you sure do change the future.

Sacred Space

During a time of grace, in which we express compassion and forgiveness, we can create a sacred space in which we talk constructively with others. You can tell from the many stories that we have about Jesus’ ministry that his presence created safe places where people knew that they were cared for an listened to.

As a pastor, I believed that every person I encountered deserved a safe time with me in church he or she could express sadness, doubts, and sometimes even anger. As a university professor, I kept a large stuffed green chair beside my desk in which students, staff, and faculty would come in frequently to sit and talk about life. It was a safe space where I listened with compassion and prayed about their pain. Jesus encourages us to create sacred places where our spouses, children, neighbors, and church friends can talk to us and receive support, not judgment.



Mike Spangle, Ph.D. is a Lutheran pastor and university professor in the field of communication. He is the author of several books including his newest book, Forgiving Others, Forgiving Ourselves.

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