Every year, men complete their seminary training and embark upon what they expect to be a lifetime of ministry in the church. These new pastors put their Greek and Hebrew to work in preparing sermons, use their counseling skills for congregational care, and communicate a vision for ministry.

Sadly, these men are utterly unprepared for one universal aspect of ministry: conflict.

Pastor Mark Hutton has studied how pastors handle conflict in the church, particularly conflict associated with major change. His findings offer pastors and congregations insight into why conflict is important and what to do when the going gets tough.

Two Views of Conflict

In May 2013, Hutton earned his doctor of ministry degree from Covenant Theological Seminary. In his 21 years of ministry, Hutton has pastored churches in Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Currently, he is pastor of spiritual formation at Central Presbyterian Church in Clayton, Mo.

For his research, Hutton crafted a qualitative research study in which he interviewed pastors from the PCA, EPC, and PC(USA). All the pastors interviewed had 10-plus years in ministry and served established churches of varying sizes. Hutton interviewed them about their experiences with conflict and the resources they used for learning more about pastoral leadership.

Of the pastors interviewed for the study, all had experienced conflict in ministry, but none felt that his seminary training had adequately prepared him for handling conflict. In fact, many pastors were surprised when they encountered conflict.

Hutton’s research found that the pastors held two fundamentally different attitudes. One group felt they were called to resolve every conflict as quickly as possible. Many considered themselves people pleasers and averse to conflict. Some believed that the pastor’s job was to bring comfort and never to initiate discomfort in congregants.

The other group, all of whom had read leadership books on conflict orchestration, believed that conflict forced people to deal with deeply held beliefs and fears. Since facing these fears and beliefs is painful, these pastors believed most people resist the process, but that working through the tension was the only way to establish lasting, or adaptive, change.

“People perceive that being a Christian means that we’re just nice and that conflict has no place in the church,” Hutton said. “I think there is a lack of understanding about what Jesus means when He says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’”

Jesus as Conflict Initiator

Though Christians often talk of Jesus as a peacemaker, Hutton believes this idea overlooks the many instances when Jesus initiated conflict. For example, Jesus confronted racism when He told the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. He challenged the scribes by healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Mark 3, and He created tension for the rich ruler in Luke 18.

Hutton provides these examples and others to show that Jesus was willing to let His hearers experience

tension that exposed their sins, with the goal of moving them toward repentance.

Jesus’ view of peace was shalom — each person enjoying justice and living at peace with oneself, God, fellow man, and nature. Hutton thinks bringing about God’s shalom necessarily involves conflict, but it should still be the church’s mission.

Orchestrating conflict makes people uncomfortable as pastors present the truths of the Gospel to congregants and ask them to let go of their idols. But only by working through these tensions can churches experience lasting changes, particularly changes involving the mission of shalom.

“If peacemaking includes concern about the flourishing of others, then pastors must encourage believers to develop a level of concern that includes action on behalf of others,” Hutton wrote. “That challenge alone would push against personal beliefs, behaviors, and ways of thinking. … Jesus is calling his people to do the adaptive work of biblical shalom.”

Change Through Pain

So how does a pastor orchestrate conflict to make adaptive changes? Hutton said it could be as simple as talking about the elephant in the room or consistently preaching on a difficult subject.

However, Hutton cautions that a pastor on a mission is not enough. The pastor must be pursuing holiness and looking to Christ before he thinks about trying to change the church.

Hutton’s research on orchestrating change has implications for the ways pastors, seminaries, and congregations think about and prepare for conflict. Bob Burns was Hutton’s advisor in the doctor of ministry program and serves on pastoral staff with him at Central Presbyterian Church. He thinks Hutton’s research shines a bright light on an oft-neglected element of ministry.

“Seminary professors, as well as pastors, dislike conflict. But if a church is going to be healthy, it must engage in conflict, and the pastor must lead into it. Pastors need support systems, often coaching, to do this. The process of learning it must begin at the seminary level.”

And congregants can use Hutton’s research to ask informed questions when pastors want to orchestrate conflict. These questions can help them discern whether their resistance stems from heart idolatry.

When pastors want to initiate significant, lasting, outward-facing changes in the church, Hutton recommends that congregants ask the pastor, “Why? Why here? Why now?” These are questions any pastor should be able to answer when asking the congregation to change.

For pastors considering orchestrating conflict in order to make changes, Hutton encourages them to look to Christ as the model and take courage from Jesus’ example.

“You are called to be more interested in what God thinks of you and less afraid of what people think of you. Stop being afraid.”

Armed with information on conflict and pastoral leadership, future seminary graduates might enter the pastorate willing to see how God uses conflict to strengthen the witness of their churches and bring about His shalom in their communities.