Christian Alternative Dispute Resolution: Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration

My Church Law Firm

A seriously contentious dispute arises between a director on a church’s board of directors and that church’s senior pastor-president about using certain funds for a church project. Despite efforts to conduct cordial, prayerful meetings, there is no resolution. Worse, the director and pastor are now alleging misappropriated funds, breach of contract, negligence, breach of fiduciary duties, and a litany of other claims against each other and even other church leaders. Time to litigate this mess in court?

No. As Christians, court is traditionally the last resort. Instead, there is an exceedingly effective and successful alternative that glorifies God. Prayer, combined with leveraging legal counsel highly experienced in resolving church disputes like the above fictional example, can help steer the parties away from courts and into Christian-based resolution efforts.

Specifically, Christian alternative dispute resolution is a structure designed to resolve conflicts and restore relationships according to Scripture while avoiding the often anti-Christian secular court system. The Bible serves as the foundation and backdrop for reconciling conflicts between and among churches, ministries, private religious schools, employees, staff, and even volunteers.

Conciliation: The one-on-one conversation to seek peace.
The first stage in Christian alternative dispute resolution often involves informal conciliation efforts between the sparring parties. The parties should receive individual counseling on resolving the dispute in a personal and private manner with the other party. Or, the parties may discuss the dispute among a select group of respected church leaders in an effort to reconcile the concerns. Jesus remains the central component of conciliation, which is emphasized to the parties.

Matthew 18:15–17 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Mediation: A trusted believer as a third party to help resolve your dispute.
If informal conciliation fails to yield a resolution, the second stage in Christian alternative dispute resolution may involve outside help from a like-minded believer. Usually, through careful guidance from legal counsel, a church will obtain the services of an experienced  Christian mediator. Christian mediator organizations, individual Christian mediators, and some denominations have formal Christian mediation processes.

Christian mediation encourages honest communication and reasonable cooperation rather than unnecessary contention and advocacy. The parties retain control and input into the outcome or settlement of their dispute. The mediator facilitates discussion and assists parties in following a process but does not negotiate or advocate for a particular settlement. Throughout the mediation, the mediator stresses the Scriptural foundations for seeking a final resolution.

Every mediation organization and mediator conducts mediation according to their preferred methods. However, Christian mediation generally includes the following phases:

  • Introduction of the mediator and the establishment of ground rules set forth by the mediator (utilizing prayer, Scripture, and biblical principles);
  • Opportunities by the parties to share their story and understanding of the dispute with the mediator;
  • Solution exploration with the mediator that allows the parties to help formulate a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict; and
  • An agreement that resolves the dispute.

This is often an emotional experience for the parties. While leading the parties to a resolution, the mediator maintains a neutral perspective—applying biblical principles to help guide the parties toward resolution—while underscoring the ultimate goal of glorifying God in the process.

Christian Arbitration: The last resort.
Almost all such disputes should be resolved by the time the parties conduct mediation. In the unfortunate event that resolution remains elusive, Christian alternative dispute resolution enters a third stage: Christian arbitration. Similar to mediation, through careful guidance from legal counsel, a church will obtain the services of an experienced  Christian arbitrator. Arbitration represents a legally binding judgment that is enforceable in a secular court. Arbitration is essentially a private opportunity to litigate the conflict under the guidance of a Christian arbitrator.

In arbitration, the arbitrator makes a formal and final decision after hearing the parties and examining any evidence. The parties are bound by the arbitrator’s decision. Accordingly, the parties agree to use a mutually acceptable arbitrator to resolve their dispute. Although the arbitrator is the final arbiter, the arbitrator guides every decision through the lens of the Bible.

Unlike the United States civil court system, Christian alternative dispute resolution in all its forms (conciliation, mediation, and arbitration) dispenses with secular and often anti-Christian dispute resolution methods by allowing the parties to resolve disputes, both large and small,  to work toward resolution using their faith.

The Scripture makes it clear that public lawsuits between believers should be avoided at all costs.:

 I Corinthians 6:1–8 plainly says, “When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?  To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”

Blessed are the peacemakers . . . .
Christian alternative dispute resolution helps encourage conflict resolution efforts, but seeking and making peace—even if it might mean you lose financially—brings along other positive blessings in life. Traditionally, the costs to the church and the parties are significantly lower than secular alternative dispute resolution or litigation. The parties avoid extensive secular arbitration and civil litigation rules, procedures, and document preparation. Furthermore, the resolution process is much faster, more efficient, and less time-consuming for everyone involved in the dispute. This is important because it helps “right the ship” for the church by getting past the matter and returning to doing the Lord’s work. On a critically personal level, Christian alternative dispute measures also preserve confidentiality by maintaining the parties’ privacy throughout the applicable sessions. True privacy allows the parties to resolve their conflict peacefully without external pressures. And you will not have the stress of living in conflict and under the onerous burden of being a litigant in a court matter, which on average lasts for 1–3 years.

Each faith tradition or denomination may have specific guidelines and practices regarding Christian alternative dispute resolution. Churches are encouraged to consult with qualified legal counsel to assess the church’s Christian alternative dispute resolution program to ensure such standards satisfy all applicable laws and mitigate risk to the church.

Should you have a dispute and need Christian dispute resolution, our firm would be honored to assist and help—biblically and in a way that honors God—resolve this dispute.