If you are a leader whose church is in conflict there are two issues it is helpful to understand. First, what is the true reason for the conflict, and second, who is at the center of the conflict.
Understanding the true nature of the conflict is often difficult because the presenting issues are often not the real issues. If one tries to solve the presenting issues without understanding what the actual issues are, there will not be resolution because even if you solve the presenting issues, the core issue remains untouched.
Having watched and worked with numerous churches in conflict, I am convinced that most church conflict has nothing to do with the surface or presenting issues and everything to do with power and control issues that lie behind the surface issues. This has to do with decision making power in the church and control of the church. It is an agenda to force a certain decision or direction hidden behind other presenting issues. Often it is cloaked in spiritual language and the "good of the church" but at its core it is about power and control.
How does one know if they are working with the presenting issue or a deeper control issue? One of the key markers is whether those who are complaining and making noise are open to rationale discussion and compromise or if they insist on getting their way. If it is the latter you are most likely dealing with a power issue and unless you cede to their demands the conflict will not stop. If you do, you have allowed power brokers with an agenda to win the day and that is always unhealthy in the church.
Often in church conflict it feels like everyone is involved because loud voices prevail. The truth of the matter is that power games in the church are never widespread but like power games everywhere can be traced back to an individual or a small group of individuals. I call these the voice behind the voices. Power games in the church are never a general group but always have an individual or small group of individuals behind them. They usually stay in the background and feed discontent but the common voice one hears from others is an indicator that this is not random conflict but has a leader or leaders behind it. Common language and common attitudes are clear indicators.
How do you determine who is at the core of the conflict? Listen to the language, have a lot of conversations, ask a lot of questions and eventually you connect the dots toward a common source. Unless you understand the real issue and can deal with the common source one has no chance of mitigating the conflict.
We are often naive in the church regarding conflict. We too easily believe presenting issues, not wanting to believe that power politics might be present in our congregation. In addition we are too slow in dealing with the true source of the conflict because we are dealing with people who hide behind spiritual language. None of that, however, changes the damage that they are doing to the church. Power politics in the church destroys and people with agendas hurt the body. The proof that you are dealing with power politics is when you get to the core group and they will not live under the authority of the pastor or elders. Those who don't respond to appropriate authority are playing power politics.
The ultimate power play is simply to call for the resignation of the pastor and the board. Here is where motives are nakedly plain. I was the pastor of a church where this once happened and church chairman in another church where it happened. In both cases, the real issues had been revealed and the core parties revealed and their last stand was to try to force the leadership out of office. When they lost their bid they left the church, clearly unwilling to live under authority.
The bottom line? As Jesus said, be innocent as doves and wise as serpents. Don't be fooled! Be smart. Be wise. Be prayerful. Act carefully.