the shape of leadership

Dealing with Confrontation Inside Your Congregation

Confrontation and leadership, Part 3

Chris Railey on August 10, 2018


Let me remind you that confrontation is unavoidable. You’re leading people, and people are imperfect. In fact, you’re a person too, so you’re imperfect. And when imperfect people lead imperfect people, there will be problems.

Confrontation is not a sign of bad leadership. Avoiding it at all costs may just be. If confrontations is inevitable, good leaders aren’t those who never have to do it. They’re the ones who do it the right way.

In Part 1, we laid out the right way to confront. It takes confronting quickly, in love and always assuming the best. When it comes to one-on-one confrontation, that means you do it personally and privately.

Today, we’re going to look at how to confront people in your congregation. We’ve already looked at staff people and key leadership, your board. But there is one more level of confrontation you may have to manage.

Families Love, Even When They Fight

Church is a family. And no family is perfect! You and I both know that when families get together, there may be tension, disagreements, hurt feelings and even arguments. It doesn’t mean we don’t love one another. In fact, if you didn’t love one another, you wouldn’t care enough to confront.

Just because there is conflict in a family doesn’t mean the relationship is over. And just because there is conflict in your church doesn’t mean people are upset with you or that they are on their way out the door. I think that’s at the heart of ministry leaders who are afraid to confront their congregations. They are afraid that people will leave. The truth is, people are more likely to leave if you demonstrate weak leadership.

Confronting the problems in your church is admitting there are problems. But that’s OK. Every church has them, because no church is perfect. You may see a social media feed, watch an online message, or hear rave reviews about the church down the street. But I guarantee they have their share of conflict as well.

Conflict in your church doesn’t mean your church is messed up. It doesn’t mean anyone’s lost their salvation either. It means that your church is full of people with messy problems who are looking for help. And that may be a great descriptor of ministry.

Confronting Like Jesus

When there is conflict in your church, it does mean you’ve got work to do. You must step up as the leader God has placed in your church and address the problems. It’s time to confront. But how?

The cascading effect of failing to confront issues is devastating for the growth and health of the church.

Confronting a member of your congregation will look different than the other types of confrontation we’ve covered. Because there is no expectation of employment, it’s not like confronting a staff member. Because there is no shared authority, it’s not like confronting a board member.

Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s avoidable. The cascading effect of failing to confront issues is devastating for the growth and health of the church. Failing to have the hard conversation today will lead to 10 hard conversations you’ll need to have tomorrow.

The best way to confront is like Jesus did and how He taught. In Matthew 18, He provides an outline for confronting someone who is in error. This is the best and most practical way to address conflict in your congregation.

Jesus explains four levels of confrontation very succinctly. First, when you see someone in sin, address it with them one-on-one (Matthew 18:15). I don’t think this process just relates to sinful acts, though. I believe someone can be in conflict without sinning against God or anyone else. There may be a misunderstanding or misdirected passion.

So first, go to the person alone and confront them. Explain to them what you saw or heard, and let them tell you why they committed the act in question. Once you’ve cleared the air, the confrontation has been successful. But we all know that doesn’t always happen.

If they refuse to listen to you, the next step is to bring someone else into it (Matthew 18:16). The advice is to take “one or two others along,” and that means to have some wise counsel. It’s not about ganging up on someone; it’s about showing there are plenty of people who love and care for them.

But if that confrontation doesn’t produce repentance, then it’s time to present it to the whole church body (Matthew 18:17). This is the third step, but I think sometimes we get this wrong because we want it to be the first step. Jesus is not specific about how often we confront one-on-one or in a small group. He doesn’t give us a timetable to follow. But I have to believe we need to lead with grace, which means we must give enough time for someone to repent.

If they don’t repent, then you need to take the issue to the entire church body. How is up to you, but it needs to be bathed in wisdom and prayer. If the person is still unwilling to listen, then you’ve reached the fourth level of confrontation. Jesus said to “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). In other words, they have no place in the church until they’ve truly repented.

This type of confrontation is very difficult, but good leaders won’t shy away from tough jobs. They lean in to it with the power of the Holy Spirit and wisdom from God. James taught us all to ask God for the wisdom we need. He also taught us the true motivation for confrontation.

“Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:20).

Covering a multitude of sins is not concealing them, but forgiving them. The goal of confrontation is not to shut people down but to open their hearts. It’s not about breaking a relationship but healing it. The goal is not punishment but forgiveness and reconciliation. If you lead with that in mind, you will be clear about your objective and gracious about your execution in every confrontation.


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