Redeeming Church Conflicts

Tara Barthal and David Edling, Baker Books, 2012, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Barthal and Edling work with Peacemaker Ministries, immersing themselves with the conflict and distress of entire congregations, becoming channels of G-d’s reconciling grace. Their model for redeeming church conflict is based on Acts 15, a recounting of the conflict in the early church; the model articulates four core principles: perspective, discernment, leadership, biblical response (p 19).

        Getting help by involving others outside the immediate problem areas is not always done; conflict tends to isolate people; many times we need to ‘get help’ by involving ‘assisted peacemaking responses’ (mediation, arbitration, accountability); they present a suggested four-step process: glorify G-d, get the log out of your own eye, gently restore, be reconciled. Dealing with conflicts in the life of the congregation is not so much about resolving specific problems as about seeing conflict as a means by which G-d is growing us into true children of G-d.

        Key to dealing with conflict is to recognize that the presenting issue is seldom the real issue: understand not only what people want but why. The writers give helpful suggestions about how to determine the best/real question in the situation (p 92). Essential in dealing with conflict is the need for congregational leaders to model shepherd leadership (p 138) and developing a caring/serving community (p 158).

        The writers focus on the myth of neutrality (p 188), that is often an excuse for ‘loveless apathy’. They emphasize the practise of confession and develop a seven-step guideline. Confrontation and forgiveness are sketched, and the best use of a third party consultant (p 233). The writers share examples of interventions (good and bad), and keeping Acts ch 15 central.

        A helpful book for a healthy congregational life that seeks unity of life and mission.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.