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Surviving and Navigating the Obstacle Course of Congregational Conflict
By Dr. Everton A. Ennis

Like all pastors, I was excited to be installed in my first district. While anxious, I was confident that the Lord was with me, and that my ministry would be transformative. I would love the people, and they would love me in return. Armed with my degrees from Oakwood and the Seminary, and filled with the Spirit, I headed off to my new assignment. I had big dreams for ministry. On the very day I was installed, my dreams began turning into a huge nightmare. I had walked into a war zone of congregational conflict, and I was not ready for it!

I quickly realized that my academic training had not prepared me for what was happening in my churches, nor for what was to come. Reaching out to conference leaders and to some senior pastors did help some, but that was woefully inadequate. After two years of absolutely devastating mental stress and the unforgettable crush of emotional burnout, I buried myself in a personal quest for ways to survive and navigate the obstacle course of congregational conflict.

Congregational conflict is more the norm rather than the exception in pastoral ministry. It is going to happen. One of the challenges I had for most of my ministry was the idea that “I can’t wait to move past all this conflict, so I can get back to doing ministry.” During the course of my doctoral research, I learned that my pastoral ministry is in fact a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). Surviving congregational conflict begins with a biblical understand of conflict, as well as a biblical attitude toward conflict.
The pastor should embrace the reality that God has called him or her to “the ministry of reconciliation,” which means that conflict should not be viewed as a distraction from ministry, but rather as an opportunity to partner with Christ in essential conflict reconciliation ministry. My doctoral work showed that there is need for more emphasis on conflict ministry as a part of ministerial training in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Every pastor will face varying degrees of congregational conflict. I recommend that local conferences utilize professional conflict management ministers to help develop the conflict ministry effectiveness of their pastors. Pastors should also consider utilizing these same resources in their congregations.

I would like to offer the following suggestions to aid pastors in strengthening their essential conflict ministry skills:
  1. I strongly recommend that pastors should take the initiative to avail themselves of continuing education opportunities in the area of conflict resolution. Seminars, webinars, books, and further academic training are some ways to accomplish this. In my case, I specialized in conflict resolution training as my research and project emphasis for my doctor of ministry degree. It is not a question of “if”, but rather “when” the pastor will find him/herself at the center of a major congregational conflict as the target. There is also no question of whether the pastor will be called upon to address conflict between others in the church. The only question is, “how prepared are you?”
  1. Teach the elders that an important part of their ministry is to solve problems and help bear burdens – that they are to work alongside the pastor to provide an essential conflict ministry to the people of God (see Moses’ acceptance of Jethro’s advice in Exodus 18). In fact, this emphasis on the role of elders should reduce the amount of conflict in the church, simply because a significant percentage of congregational conflict originates within the leadership team (pastors and elders not getting along).
  1. In cases of serious congregational conflict (or to inform, educate, and strengthen the church ahead of major conflict), utilize the services of a professional, independent, third-party training service such as CLASS Act Seminars to conduct workshops and seminars for the congregation, church board, and the board of elders. This is an important aspect of transforming our churches. Remember, very little or no emphasis is placed on conflict ministry in our ministerial training curriculum. Therefore, asking most of our pastors to train their elders and the congregation has not been shown to be a productive approach in many cases. Our pastors mostly feel incompetent and ill-prepared to do this kind of work.
In 2016, CLASS Act Seminars will begin conducting leadership conventions for pastors and elders in major cities across the USA. The goal is to raise awareness and provide essential training in the areas of pastors and elders conflict ministry, local elders’ leadership development, and keys to transitioning conflicted congregations.

Dr. Everton A. Ennis is pastor of the New Jerusalem Praise and Worship Center, and Newman churches in Georgia. He is the founder and president of CLASS Act Seminars, a consulting and training service that assists pastors and congregations in matters of conflict ministry, leadership development training, and church growth strategies. He is also a Registered Neutral/Licensed Mediator (by the Georgia Commission on Dispute Resolution and the Administrative Office of the Courts/Judicial Council of Georgia), as well as a Notary Public. He has traveled across the USA, and to The Bahamas and Canada as a keynote speaker and presenter at various church leadership and church growth events. Visit his website at