Pastoral Mediation : Conflict in the Church

Guest Blog Post by Jesan Sorrells of HSCT on Pastoral Mediation

Many of the information and recommendations in the article below have come through the works of Dr. M.K. Hope, Professor of Mediation at Cloverdale College and Director of Peace-Conflict Education based out of Greensboro, North Carolina, US.

Her seminal work on pastoral mediation, Pastoral Mediation: An Innovative Practice and A Guided Method of Mediation: A Return to the Original Ideas of ADR are available on I recommend getting both along with checking out the citations below the article.

I thank her for all of her help and recommendations in writing this article and would like to note that the recommendations below may fall along the fine line of pastoral counseling versus pastoral mediation.


The world is complicated and maybe it always was. Here are three examples:

Two members of a church are dating. For reasons unknown to the rest of the flock, the two members cease to date. Then, one of the members leaves the congregation, never to be heard from again. A few months later, without warning, the pastor is replaced and the laity have no idea why.

A pastor and her family enter a new church. They become involved with parishioners and eventually with the people’s lives. One day, a young man approaches the new pastor and tells her a shocking story about an incident of sexual abuse that occurred in the church many years ago. He also reveals that the former pastor did nothing to address the issue. He stares at her, waiting for an answer.

Two members of the church board are engaged in a conflict over the boundary of their lawns. The conflict escalates until the two members can no longer be in church together, much less being on a board together. Unfortunately, the two members control the finance functions of the church. The pastor is asked to intervene.

The world is more complicated than it used to be.

Unfortunately, pastors in the United States and elsewhere, who used to be provided wide community latitude to resolve issues (or not) in their own way, are no longer in such a position. With the advent of social media, the strong desire and ease of litigation in the West, and with the growing exposure of behaviors in the world being brought more and more into the church, pastors are increasingly at a loss.

As a conflict engagement consultant, I believe that the way forward through this issue is simple. However, as a mediator, I know that there are usually rarely any simple answers.

The doctrinal world of the Western churches is as fractured as it has always been, but in the current climate of social and political pressures, pastors are being asked to lead their flocks in directions they could have ignored. And, unfortunately, many seminarians are coming out, ill-prepared to effectively engage with a flock already overly engaged in the world.

There are solutions. Below are three tips that any pastor, church elder, or even a lay leader should be able to use effectively to begin addressing any three of the above scenarios:

Active listening: I find that as a professional conflict engagement practitioner that many people rarely listen to another party.  I was presenting to a group of real estate professionals recently and I noted that a lack of using active listening skills makes a listener a “target in the gap” between the speakers’ wishes and the actual reality of a situation. For a pastor in any of the above situations, this is true as well.

Assertive communication: Being assertive—not aggressive—is difficult for many people and for pastors in particular. Being a person of God does not mean, however, that another individual can, or should, be able to “run you over.” In the case similar to the one outlined in the second scenario, being firm and communicating clearly—not necessarily Biblically—could have prevented a needless escalation. (Hope, 2008, p. 74)

Conflict style: Everyone has one and is critical for pastors and church leaders to come to terms with this fact as best they can. A basic question that can be asked is “How was I raised to address difficult situations in my life from the time I was a little child?”

As a pastor, it is up to you to determine what your conflict style is (Hope, 2008, pp. 29-33).

This can be ascertained through a number of different ways, but primarily it comes about through understanding your own personality, your own conflict approach and history of how you were raised to handle conflicts, as well as your own communication style. If you are an indirect communicator who was raised in a passive-aggressive household your approach will be different towards any potential conflicts that arise than will someone who was raised to be a director communicator in an assertive household.

One final tip from a professional who knows: Always make a referral when you don’t feel comfortable addressing a conflict (Hope, 2008, pp.161, 175-176). There are plenty of qualified counselors, therapists, lawyers and even judges in your community that can help you navigate the social, psychological, emotional and even legal issues around conflicts that your flock may be engaged in.



Pastoral Mediation: An Innovative Practice, Dr. M.K. Hope, Eloquent Books (September 2009)

The Guided Method of Mediation: A Return to the Original Ideas of ADR, DR. M. K. Hope Eloquent Books (February 2010)




Jesan Sorrells is the principal conflict engagement consultant at Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT). Jesan’s work with HSCT focuses around the teaching, training and implementation of conflict resolution and engagement skills and strategies for the benefit of small businesses, churches and higher education organizations in New York State.

He provides seminars, workshops, and 1-on-1 conflict consultations. Please do not hesitate to contact Jesan Sorrells and Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT) via email at or via phone at 218-930-0364 for more information.

Check HSCT out on the web at and check out the HSCT blog at


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