Lesson 5: Disagreeing – A Healthy Approach
Disagreeing – A Healthy Approach
by Dave Sippel
Before we talk about disagreement, let’s set the stage properly:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV
Let’s rely on those verses for our foundation as we discuss disagreement and conflict in the church. It is possible to disagree well. It is also possible to enter into conflict responsibly. We certainly know that it is possible to disagree poorly.
I once sat through a meeting during which a church staff person decided to air his grievances. One at a time, he proceeded to share his feelings of disapproval and disappointment. His issues were mostly focused on the pastors of his church. He pointed out issues with their preaching, theology and leadership. It was…awkward, to say the least. The pastors listened without interrupting and eventually responded with decorum and respect. They showed remarkable restraint. I wasn’t the target of the criticism, but I still felt angry and embarrassed. I remember thinking, “Wow! This is not how this should be handled.” That staff person only lasted a few more weeks. Relationships and trust were broken and a change was seemingly inevitable.
Disagreement with your pastor: Let’s start with our pastors. There will be times when we simply won’t see eye to eye with our pastors. The issues may be related to theology, expectations, management style, communications, etc. We need to understand a few basics and set a few ground rules before we talk about entering into disagreement.
- Your pastor is your boss. This may seem obvious, but we sometimes seek them out as though they are our pastor and nothing else. This has burned me in the past. I shared some personal issues with my pastor. Those issues suddenly became public when they appeared in my annual performance review. Be careful what you say and what you share. They may be hearing these things as your boss, and they will handle the information with less discretion and confidentiality.
- Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. We sometimes assume the worst, and we feel silly later on when the truth is revealed. A pastor once called me into his office. With great concern he said, “Dave, it has come to my attention that you told our youth that their Confirmation class was going to be boring.” I was so disappointed. My pastor had assumed that this statement was true. He had not given me the benefit of the doubt. I replied by asking, “First of all, do you think that I actually said that?” He thought for a minute, and then shared, “Now that I think about it, it doesn’t sound like something you would say.” We ended up laughing about it, but the conversation started on an awkward note.
Disagreement should be handled at the right time, in the right place, with the right people. First, let’s talk about timing. Don’t wait and let something fester. You may need to cool off, but don’t sit with your disappointment for very long. When you finally deal with it you’re likely to forget the facts, and the discussion will almost certainly be disappointing. It will also alter the relationship with the other party during the period of delay.
Second, make sure you confront the individual in the right setting. A retired pastor that I worked with used to use our weekly staff meeting to tell me about the scrap of paper that I had left behind when I last used the church bus. It was embarrassing and frustrating because that could have been handled through email or a phone call. I’ll be honest; it also seemed kind of petty. It’s funny how often praise is given privately, but criticism is shared publicly. Hold a one-on-one meeting with those that you disagree with. It’s really the biblical, respectful way to enter into conflict.
Thirdly, disagreement should happen with the right people. We can go wrong here in two primary ways. We might take the disagreement above our senior pastor before it’s necessary to do that. That may be a painful step that you’ll eventually have to take, but the concern must be taken to the source first. That’s how we would like to be treated. A concerned parent once asked me, “Who do I talk to if I have concerns about the new youth pastor?” I asked, “Have you talked with the new youth pastor?” Another inappropriate audience would be the church staff or members of the congregation. There should be another chapter in Corinthians just for triangulation. It’s just the wrong way to express disagreement.
Disagreement with your denomination: This is a hot button issue these days. Denominations are making decisions about social issues, and people are taking sides. Churches are leaving their founding denomination, and individuals are leaving their church homes. I think there are several things to learn in this area.
There are several options when we feel like we cannot support the direction that our denomination is taking. Each of these steps is a real option. Some of them are good options, and some may be unlivable for you.
- Get involved in the decision-making process. Your denomination probably has a process for bringing about issues of disagreement or concern. There are appropriate channels and steps that you can take to be heard at the denominational level.
- Focus on the beliefs and practices that you share in common. There is not a workplace or church that was custom-designed for your belief system. We can learn to focus on the essential things and learn to live with the non-essentials.
- Go on working and avoid talking or teaching on those topics that you disagree with. This is not ideal in my opinion. Ideally we need to be able to express ourselves. This feels like it would do more harm than good.
- Work from the shadows to create dissension and division in the denomination. I hope that I don’t have to unpack this too much. Read the Bible verse above if you need to.
- Write an open letter on social media and blast the leaders of your denomination. This is happening all too often in my opinion. A statement of your personal theology or beliefs is one thing. Throwing people under the bus is completely different.
My hope is this: When you disagree with someone, treat him or her with the same level of respect that you would like to have extended to you, whether in person or online. I am pretty sure there is biblical support for that, too.
Dave Sippel is the Vice-President for Connections for Ministry Architects.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- Some amount of disagreement will always exist in ministry or otherwise. Is anyone willing to share about conflicts that they’ve had?
- Watch Video
- In conflict, why might Betsy mention that it is important to discuss the things you agree on first?
- Some of our words get lost in translation from our heads to our mouths. How might clarity of speech or graceful listening be necessary when dealing with conflict?
- Betsy mentions finding a third party to practice talking to in order to achieve clarity. Who are people in your life that could help in this regard?
- Is it difficult to maintain a focus on the shared passion and unity you have with those you disagree with? Why so?
- What steps can we take to focus more on unity? How does the Bible inform this practice? Jesus?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How might this discussion affect our ministry or our church life together?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)