Conflict isn’t so much a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys ― it’s more akin to the Godly task of putting strained and even broken relationships back together. 

Of course, some church conflict is healthier than others.

“In healthy conflict, the focus is on seeking what God is calling the church to be and do,” said Doska Ross, who together with Joyce Lieberman led the workshop “Ruling Elders in Times of Trouble” for the National Elders Conference at Big Tent. “The trouble is that both sides usually feel that God is telling them what to do.” 

Ross, a ruling elder, is executive and stated clerk for the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii; Lieberman, a teaching elder, is associate for polity guidance and training in the Office of the General Assembly. 

Big Tent, Aug. 1-3, is a celebration of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission and ministry organized around the theme “Putting God’s First Things First.” It’s composed of 10 national Presbyterian conferences, more than 160 workshops and special events to mark the 30th anniversary of the formation of the PC(USA) and the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Presbyterian Center here. 

Lieberman said elders should be aware of how they personally deal with conflict. There are at least five types: Avoiding (“What conflict?”), Competing (“I win! You lose!”), Collaborating (“We can work this out.”), Compromising (“It’s the best we could do.”) and Accommodating (“Peace at any price.”). 

During a heated session meeting, an avoider might decide it’s best to suddenly go home and feed the dog. Accommodators will write a check to settle the church’s budget problem. Collaborators are willing to get all parties to the table to work toward a resolution. “They are a blessing to be on anybody’s session,” Lieberman said. 

According to Ross, ruling elders on session can usually manage minor conflicts, including what color to paint the kitchen or whether to purchase the new hymnal. “But there are times to get professional help,” she said. “We have people we can turn to in our connectional church.” 

Lieberman said that even minor conflicts can be emblematic of the presence of bigger issues – the ordination of gays and lesbians, the church’s policy on divestment from companies that profit from non-peaceful means and how to dismiss congregations graciously. 

Be aware of those, she advised, and avoid holding what are sometimes called “second session meetings” in the church parking lot following the formal meeting. “That is secret-keeping, and it’s not transparent,” she said. “We really do have a commitment to collectively discern the mind of Christ. If you silence voices at the table, you may miss God’s voice to you.”