How to Transform Conflict Through Communication

No matter how you define it, conflict is a serious issue that all church leaders face – all too often. You would think that a church “family” should be able to avoid conflict. But how often does your own biological family go through conflict of various intensities?

Your church family consists of hundreds or thousands of complex human relationships, all brought together under the banner of worshipping and serving God in this particular place and time.

You’ve invested yourself heavily in these relationships – as has everyone else to varying degrees. We all have expectations of each other – and when those are not met, the seeds of conflict are planted. Left unaddressed these small seeds can grow into a garden of weeds that choke out the healthy dialog needed to restore the relationship. The longer the situation goes untended, the greater the issue(s) magnify – until the weeds have taken over the garden and any hope of bearing fruit has been squeezed out entirely.

Is it possible to avoid conflict entirely? In a word, no. We’re too “human” to hope for that.

Can we transform and redeem conflict from a destructive force to one in which all parties come through the other side, better for the experience? In a word, yes. We’re children of a loving Father, and His love can see us through any level of conflict.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Transforming Church Conflict by Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini

With many pastors facing burnout and congregations suffering from internal divisions, there is a need for Christian resources that present concrete problem-solving techniques for handling conflict in the church.

This book offers practical skills and strategies that the authors have learned through years of studying nonviolent communication (NVC) as described in Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, and as developed by numerous NVC trainers all over the world.

Using real-world case studies and examples, Hunsinger and Latini helpfully guide pastors and lay leaders through effective and compassionate ways to deal with discord. These strategies include differentiating observations from evaluations, experiencing and expressing feelings, identifying and connecting with needs, and making requests rather than demands. By learning the basic skills of compassionate communication, church leaders can be empowered to transform, rather than merely manage, church conflict


One of the problems surrounding conflict in the church occurs when you look at the church as a singular organization. While it does exist that way in several aspects (legal entity, location, etc.) it really is made up of several different groups.

For example, many churches have the following three groups within the church:

  • The congregation
  • The governing board
  • The staff

Dealing with conflict the same way with all these groups is really an invitation to extend or worsen the conflict. For example, you could have a disaster simmering on the board and have a happy congregation and staff. It only takes a few dissatisfied staff members to disrupt the work of the board and congregation. Finally, it is all-too-possible to have congregational unrest even when the staff and board are working well together.

What’s the single similarity in all the situations described above?


When we value the needs of others as well as our own, we can use the four basic skills of compassionate communication to gain mutual understanding and to fulfill as many core needs as possible within our human limits.

The four basic skills of non-violent communication template are: Observation, Feeling, Need, and Request. The OFNR template for learning compassionate communication is a useful tool for guiding our conversation, but it is not a formula for a particular way of speaking.

Observations describe what is available to our senses: what we can see, hear, touch, taste, or smell. They are specific to time and context. In making an observation, the aim is to describe what you have seen or heard as if a video camera were recording the incident.

We continually assess what is happening around us through our emotional capacities. Besides acting as a kind of radar for danger, our emotions are also closely tied to our thought.

We are motivated to act, speak, keep silent, and move toward or away from someone on the basis of our needs. Virtually everything we do (or chose not to do) is an attempt to meet a need. Thus, our needs are the source of our underlying motivation.

Once we have clarity about what we need, we can make a request that we believe will contribute to its being met. Requests are understood as gifts, not demands. They give us the opportunity to contribute to one another’s life.

Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini, Transforming Church Conflict


To understand and practice better communication among the three groups listed above, set aside time in a future leadership team meeting and work through the following exercise.

Using a current example of an ongoing situation in your church, create a separate chart tablet for the congregation, the governing board, and the staff.

Along the left margin, write the words Observation, Feeling, Need, and Request.

For each of the three groups, and using the descriptions of the OFNR communication skills above, discuss the situation from the vantage point of the particular group.

After you have completed all three charts, look for areas of similarity and difference.

Use the areas of similarity to promote unity, and use the areas of difference to work to an agreeable resolution.

Conflict may be inevitable, for after all we are all human. However, conflict can be preempted and lessened in both intensity and frequency.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 66-3, issued May 2017


Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “summary” for church leaders. Each Wednesday I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt here.


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