Redeeming Group Conflicts

Recently, I was asked to serve a church in mediating a conflict. I have also been reading recent rumblings within the Reformed community blogosphere. I had a copy of Redeeming Church Conflicts by Tara Barthel and David Edling, so I decided to peruse it for some helpful insights. I knew that one-on-one counseling was different than the dynamics at play in marriage counseling, but I had not considered the unique dynamics of counseling/mediating a larger group. An awareness of the different dynamic in group conflicts was quite helpful (What follows has no relation to the local church I assisted. Thankfully, all parties were committed to reconciliation and God blessed the individuals and church in the process).

Barthel and Edling wisely highlight a few problem areas when engaging in group conflict. I have found it very helpful personally, and I recommend it for anyone who finds themselves in this type of situation. Let me highlight a few points:

1. The Danger of Seeking Counsel Within the Church

There may be people within the church who can assist us with our conflicts. We should use caution, however, because one of the most insidious and destructive aspects of church conflict is gossip. People have an innate desire to be in the know, and when rumors of conflicts begin to spread in a church, half-truths, uncharitable presumptions, and outright lies can tear a church in two... "A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends." Proverbs 16:28. (p. 45)

It goes without saying that Christians are quite capable of gossip, innuendo, spin and outright lies when engaged in conflict. To deny that professing Christians are capable of this is naive. When you combine group conflict with perceived hurt, character scrutiny or doctrinal rectitude, the terrain can be challenging to navigate. Barthel and Edling offer helpful questions that are worthy of reflection.

2. The Destructive Power of Group Dynamics

This section in chapter seven is worth the price of the book. Here is what they say about how a group can muster momentum for their cause:

In a group conflict, people with perceived similar agendas may band together out of a sense of empowerment, or at least a sense of potential empowerment. A group sharing a goal (desire) will define their common interests in such a way that they will hopefully prevail over other competing groups.....Therefore a group will justify extreme measures to accomplish their goals, and a sense of a "holy crusade" can easily develop. (p. 98)

Mobbing is a term that is used to describe this type of group behavior. It is something that has been studied in Sweden since the 1980's, and is more commonly recognized in Europe, yet not on the radar of most US churches, businesses or organizations. Group-organized attacks are brutal and destroy any relational capital that existed prior to the conflict. Often individuals, organizations and churches suffer the hurt for many years...possibly decades.

3. The Allure of the Stage

A final lethal aspect of group conflicts is referred to as "stage." Hear what Barthel and Edling say:

Most people, willingly or not, act differently when put before an audience. In group mediation the person speaking for his or her side is on a stage. This person has been given a platform from which to demonstrate to the others that he or she is zealous for the cause of that side. Frequently people in this position use hyperbole to make a point, which causes the opposition to hear only the extremes and not whatever truth may have been presented........A "mob mentality" feeds into the problems associated with people speaking from a stage. (p. 100)

They go on to say these insightful words:

When mob mentality takes over, people feel confirmed in their views, and cherished positions develop to the point of becoming almost unassailable demands. The rush of performing for others combined with the power of group-think can push people to feel justified and reasonable in their convictions, even if they may have self-doubts or secret concerns......The temptations associated with a mob mentality and being on stage in church conflicts can lead people to do and say things in groups that, on their own, in private, they never would do or say. (p. 100)

If you have ever been scrutinized or been in a position of having to weigh the truth of a group or mob, it can be a daunting and exhausting responsibility. Too often, those called upon to mediate can grow weary and make quick decisions. The solution tends to err in the direction of taking the smaller group or individual out of the equation in order to bring "peace." This is often the accused, the pastor or the leader; whichever will bring about the least amount of perceived collateral damage. 

Scripture would caution us to take slow and deliberate steps to insure justice for all sides. Favoritism of either the alleged "victim/powerless" or the one in power without due process is not a godly option. (Leviticus 19:15) Accountability and protection are due all parties. This will take time and possibly many conversations to arrive at a resolution. Each party should be provided with all of the information and given ample opportunity to respond to any and all accusations. Owning responsibility and rightfully being offered the opportunity to defend oneself against false or true accusations is a basic biblical requirement. Our secular legal system affords this basic right, but sometimes the church falls short.

4. The Failure of Leadership

Within the context of this complexity, Barthel and Edling say this to leaders:

In each of the group dynamic situations listed above, one of the primary things being revealed is a failure of leadership. God calls spiritual leaders to lead his people into the place where all interests of man are subservient to God's interests (see Phil. 2:1-4). Leaders are called to help people understand the dangerous dynamics discussed above so they can be avoided in the future and repented of if already present. (p. 101)

While I found all of these insights to be helpful, one critical piece that they do not state is the potential presence of a "ring-leader." In group conflict, there are likely one or two people who fuel the fire and draw others in to accomplish their goals. Other research suggests that the ring-leader appeals to vulnerable, fearful people in a variety of ways in order to increase those who are involved in their "crusade." This is often the case when the "ring-leader/s" are set on winning and not reconciliation. Rarely do you find a ringleader where all parties are committed to reconciliation.

I highly recommend this excellent resource and would encourage you to read and prayerfully consider how you can be an active part in redeeming the next group conflict in which you are involved (Ephesians 4:1-6).

Have you found yourself in this situation? The accused, accuser or the one called to mediate? What would you add to the conversation?

To learn more about Tara Barthel follow this link:

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After reading this post, the first five people who comment on this site and send their mailing address to will receive a free copy of the book signed by Tara Barthel.

Copyright © 2014 Timothy S. Lane with Barbara Casey Lane. All rights reserved.



Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.