Healthy Conflict in Church Communities

Mar 22, 2022 9:00:00 AM / by Nicholas Tangen

I grew up in a culture where conflict was seen as toxic and hazardous. I learned, through observation and sometimes through instruction, that conflict was never a good thing, and that I should avoid it at all costs. As a result, I developed a number of “helpful” strategies to aid me in avoiding this “dangerous” type of interaction, including suppressing my feelings, people pleasing, and, as a Minnesota boy, the tried-and-true passive-aggression. I was socialized to understand and respond to conflict this way because that’s how my parents, elders, and teachers had been socialized to think about conflict.

I imagine that the general tendency to avoid conflict has some genuinely good intentions, like a desire to be kind, to avoid hurting feelings, or to maintain community cohesion. But, as I’ve gotten older and especially as I’ve seen similar patterns of conflict avoidance play out in the church, I’ve come to realize that conflict is not only inevitable but is absolutely vital to the health and well-being of faith communities.

Conflict is a necessary experience in any community or relationship seeking to change, learn, and grow. It helps us to establish resilient bonds with one another and allows us to clarify our values and commitments. Conflict is also essential in the work of justice and equity. Confronting patterns, practices, and systems requires a willingness to engage in tough and divisive conversations, the result of which can be a move towards a more just world.

The challenge is that many of our congregations have been socialized to think about conflict the way I have, and often we haven’t established the shared practices for engaging conflict in healthy and enriching ways. Additionally, the current social, political, and pandemic world is fraught with unhealthy conflict, and it has only seemed to confirm what I was raised to believe—that conflict is toxic.

But faith communities have a leg up in this often-overwhelming conflictual environment. The freedom we have in Christ, and the promises of our baptism, call us into healthy conflict rooted in Christian freedom and mutual obedience. We can engage conflict well because we are grounded in a commitment to shared values, shared mission, and faith in Christ’s redeeming work for each of us and all of us.

The trick is developing the regular practices for engaging conflict in healthy ways. Like most things, there is no 10-point plan for engaging conflict in your congregation. But I think we can begin with a handful of useful principles.

  1. Communicate: We have to get much more comfortable naming the points of tension in our communities, drawing them into the open where we can work together to resolve them. Be clear, be transparent, and be honest.
  2. Listen: We can’t hope to resolve our conflict if we’re not willing to listen to our community members, especially those we disagree with. We need to learn to listen to understand, not just to respond.
  3. Accountability: Accountability means encouraging and challenging one another to be the people we say we are. This isn’t just a practice for calling people out but is way of both naming inconsistencies and celebrating integrity.
  4. Togetherness: Conflict eats away at communities when it is seen as a zero-sum game, where someone wins and someone loses. Healthy conflict is rooted in our deepest commitment to being together in our differences and our conflicts.

Conflict can be a true blessing in our congregations if we develop good and holy practices for navigating it together. It is an opportunity for growth and connection, and it is essential for vital and healthy communities. So don’t be afraid to have the tough conversation. Trust that God is making something new each and every time we engage faithfully in healthy conflict.

Topics: General Ministry

Nicholas Tangen

Written by Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is the Director of Faith Practices & Neighboring Practices at the Minneapolis Area Synod. He graduated from United Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Leadership, focusing on Social Transformation. He writes about the church, community, and social change at


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