Some while ago, Ray Evans wrote some particular helpful articles for FIEC on having difficult conversations in the church. You can find the last one of those here and follow the links in the post to find the others. They are old articles now, but one particular comment stuck in my memory:
I have often said to would-be church leaders: “You know the job is more about conflict resolution than almost anything else. The preaching is the nice bit of the job!”
I have increasingly come to see he is right, to a lesser or greater extent. All three of the articles in that series are worth reading, but the first and last are the most helpful in my opinion.
There are all sorts of scenarios in which pastors and elders are called to manage conflict. There is the kind of conflict that occurs when the eldership want to do something but experience some opposition. There is the conflict that sometimes occurs between elders concerning direction or other things. There is the conflict that can come between members that needs mediating. In the church, opportunities for conflict abound.
Few of us got into pastoral ministry because we love handling conflict. Most of us (I suspect) got into ministry for one of two reasons. Either, we really love the Bible and helping people understand it better or we really love people and helping them apply the scripture to their lives. Though all pastors must be Word-focused and all of them people-focused, I suspect our particular bent for one or the other pushed us towards ministry. Not many got into ministry because we love mediation or conflict resolution. I would be a little wary of the pastor who says he relishes this aspect of the ministry. But, as Ray Evans rightly says, in practice it is a major part of the job and it is part of what must be done.
Leaders who want to see their church grow in Christian maturity and the likeness of Christ must have difficult and awkward conversations with people. It is, in the end, what families must do. If we care about the good of those Jesus has called us to pastor, we must speak into their lives. And sometimes, that will be difficult. Sometimes it will not be well received. But it is what is required if people are to address their sin, if they are to leave behind childish things and move on to the maturity in Christ.
It is tempting to think, because we said something from the front and preached through this or that book, everyone of our people now understands and will respond rightly. After all, Jesus does call us to preach as a mean of changing his people (and it certainly is!) But we are kidding ourselves if we think one sermon, or a single series, will address everything that needs addressing. This is an issue that Colin Marshall and Tony Paine address in one chapter of their book The Trellis and the Vine where they insist ‘Sunday sermons are necessary but not sufficient’. They very much affirm the Word is all sufficient, and they insist on the importance of preaching, but they also insist that sermons as the means of teaching and applying the Word are not alone sufficient. They point to the work of Richard Baxter as exemplifying their approach, who said ‘it is but the least part of the Minister’s work, which is done in the pulpit’ but advocated, alongside Sunday preaching, midweek visitation and engagement with God’s people.
Ultimately, unless we spend time with our people, we will not know what is going on with them. Unless we have conversations with them, we will not know what conflicts may exist. Unless we commit to sitting down with them, we won’t be able to explicitly address the issues that are causing conflict in the church. And, as we know, the opportunities for conflict to arise are legion. It is only by faithfully preaching the Word and by spending time with people outside the pulpit we have any hope of addressing such things in the church.