Conflict Happens

Upon arriving at our first church after graduating from seminary, the engine on our 1970 240Z hadn't yet cooled before the first conflict set in. Patti and I arrived in San Diego in 1982 to take our post on John Maxwell's staff. My best one-word description of myself as a leader at that time is green. I remember my first meeting with the Sunday School board, then led by Marte (Kirchmann) Phillippee. She and a host of 16 volunteers awaited me, the new guy, for our first meeting. Armed with my briefcase full of experience--1 whole day--I dazzled them with unbelievably brilliant organization and strategy. Within a few days, I got my first report card. Marte reported to John, "We don't like him." (The good news is that Marte and I are dear friends today, but the road wasn't easy.)

If you have been in leadership for any time at all, you have probably received a similar evaluation at some point. As I consult with pastors across the country, it's amazing how many pastors leave their churches due to serious conflict, believing their departure is what's best for the church. They also believe that their new church will offer a relatively problem-free fresh start. They discover, however, that they have only jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Any pastor in church ministry or leader in any environment knows that conflict is part of the reality of leadership.

 It is impossible to avoid conflict and be alive at the same time. Leaders cause motion and motion causes friction. Conflict happens. The goal is not to avoid conflict, but to learn to resolve it. The absence of conflict is not a good sign. It only reflects the calm before the storm, or a church in the comfort zone. The churches I visit that are growing and seem to be relatively free of conflict are actually reflecting a mature ability to resolve conflict quickly and smoothly. The environment is so unified and filled with grace that conflicts are merely momentary stumbling blocks. These churches have a deep and abiding sense of unity and maturity.

It's important to remember a few general principles before I get specific about how to resolve conflict. If you've ever put off handling a conflict, you know that procrastination makes conflict worse. You can't run and hide. Conflict will hunt down even the most innocent lamb. In fact, it is often the nice guy who gets creamed because he never saw it coming. If you have a situation where conflict is brewing, deal with it immediately.

Another universal principle is that pressure uncovers the origins of conflict. James 4:1-2 says, simply put, conflict comes when we don't get what we want. I've seen godly men and women argue over the size of the new kitchen oven and freezer! They were mature enough to work past getting what they wanted, but the added element of financial pressure pushed them over the edge. In other words, the issue wasn't the issue. It wasn't about ovens and freezers; it was about a serious shortage of money.

The confrontation is usually not as bad as you anticipated. It's worse. Just kidding. Seriously, when handled correctly and with maturity, conflict often results in individual and group health and growth. John and I had to release a staff member and it did not go smoothly. Two of my close friends in the church dearly loved this staff member and did not understand why the decision had been made. They were not supportive at all and our friendship was tested. We went through an awkward period, speaking only briefly in passing. Finally, we sat down for a long talk, and when eyes met eyes and hearts met hearts, even though we did not agree, the relationship was restored. The meeting wasn't nearly as difficult as any of us had imagined. Lack of communication was far worse than difficult communication. When we are left to our imaginations and start to fill in the blanks on our own, we almost always fill them in incorrectly.

Nine Steps to Conflict Resolution

Josh McDowell said in his book Secret of Loving, "It's better to resolve a conflict than to dissolve a relationship." I believe that, and with that thought in mind let's go through nine steps that outline the basics of conflict resolution.

1. Speak the truth in love.

Ephesians 4:15 sets the stage. "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ." The first question is instead of what? Verse 14 speaks of "craftiness" and "deceitful scheming." Conflict. (I know the context was about doctrinal truth, but I'm confident that conflict was involved.) Speaking the truth in love brings about maturity, the principal ingredient of conflict resolution. This truth includes any Biblical principles that are relevant to the issue at hand. Do your homework--search the scriptures to see what God has to say about the issue, but do not club the other person with your Bible. Remember, the verse says "in love."

2. Seek to understand the other's point of view.

Conflict will never be resolved if defenses are running high, and emotional blinders are preventing you from seeing the other person's vantage point. "But they are clearly wrong." I've heard this statement more times than I can count. They may be wrong, but I promise you, the issue is not remotely clear to them. Perception is a live grenade. If you don't handle it correctly, it will explode. You can say, "But he was wrong" all day long, but at the end of the day, everyone is still blown to bits.

If you've been married for more than five minutes, you understand this principle. People see things differently. My wife Patti and I have differing perspectives on capital punishment. We really disagree. Early in our marriage, both of us were devoted to convincing the other that we were right. Can you guess how far that got us? Today, we have learned to seek to understand the other's point of view, and while we still disagree, this understanding resolved the conflict. (By the way, you have to guess which one is for and against capital punishment.) The interesting thing is that the more we understand the other's point of view, the less dogmatic we are about our own.

3. Seek common ground.

This is the best way to defuse the situation quickly so you can communicate. Find out what you do agree upon. For example, one group may want to rent a bus for the teens, while another group may want to purchase a bus for the youth activities. It would be easy to mount an argument for either side. However, if that is the focus, it becomes a debate, not a conversation, and can escalate into a battle, if not a full-scale war. Find the common ground. In this case it would be safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation for the kids. Focus on the welfare of the teens and the good of the church and go from there.

4. Make your desires and expectations clear.

We have established from James 4:1-2 that when people don't get what they want, conflict is often the result. None of us will get everything we want, nor should we, but that is quite different than expressing what you want. It is healthy, good and normal to express what you want in a direct manner. Conflict cannot be resolved if either or both parties don't know what the other really wants. Again, mutual satisfaction may not be achievable, but it is impossible if it is not clear. Honesty and clarity are essential. For example, if you are frustrated because a key team member is consistently late, it is important that you express that frustration. Not in a manner that insists you get your way, but in a manner that seeks to understand why. Once you have learned this, pursue a solution. You may find that you are dealing with a sanguine, happy-go-lucky personality that has no clue they are late and wonders why you are so uptight all the time. You might discover that their desire and expectation is for you to relax. From this vantage point, you can make progress.

5. Stay focused on the issue at hand.

This step is perhaps the easiest to understand but the most difficult to follow. We all chase rabbit trails that have nothing to do with the issue at hand from time to time and we all know that if you chase two rabbits, you catch neither one. Take a moment, often, to make sure you are focused on the real issue.

6. Maintain direct communication, no third parties.

Alerting the media does not enhance conflict resolution. The local Atlanta police, just like every other police department, do not want the media to show up at a crime scene, or worse, in the midst of a crime in action. The issue gets distorted, blown out of proportion, and the truth is buried. Involve only the necessary people to resolve conflict. Don't seek out your loyal friends and supporters to side with you. While that might feel good, it won't help the situation. In fact, it will make things worse.

7. Listen and don't respond defensively.

Listening is difficult when emotionally charged issues are on the table. Try using this approach, and coach others to use it, as well. While you are carefully listening to the person(s), have a notepad with you and jot down comments and questions you wish to make. This allows you to listen without interrupting, to pay better attention, and will prevent you from worrying about forgetting to say the important things you want to say. When it comes to note-taking, don't go overboard. Don't look like a court stenographer. Just jot simple, abbreviated words to remind you of what you'd like to say when it's your turn. Maintain good eye contact and when it's time to respond, don't be defensive. Admit to your mistakes, or whatever you might have done to contribute to the issue. Rarely is conflict 100% someone else's fault. Take responsibility for your own actions, and don't begin sentences with an accusing sounding "you." If you sense yourself getting angry to a point of blowing up, step out of the room for a few minutes, collect your thoughts and return. When you return, offer to pray for the Holy Spirit's presence and guidance in the conversation.

8. Make a commitment to what is in the church's best interest.

I have personally seen this point save the day many times. When the parties in conflict agree up front to ultimately set their personal agendas aside and aim for the good of the church, resolution is already in sight. This does not necessarily mean to sacrifice or completely abandon your big-picture goal. Leaders have vision and goals--that's how things get done and progress is made. The point is to never allow your agenda to rise above the good of the church. This goes for all persons involved.

I worked with a church where there was bitter disagreement between the choice of chairs or pews in the new worship auditorium. They were clearly at an impasse when discussing the issue from a personal preference bias. But when they analyzed what was best for the church, it went from a 50-50 split to about 90-10 in favor of chairs. There may be a way of accomplishing the desired results that is different from any of the original desires. A completely new option is often the result of good conflict resolution.

9. Always reflect to discover and apply what you learned.

Conflict can be a wonderful way to learn and grow. When defenses are low and grace is high, receptivity is enhanced. When receptivity is enhanced, there is much greater potential to learn something new. At the end of the process, take some time to reflect upon what you gained, what new insights you gathered, what you might do differently next time, what you learned about yourself, and how you can use this situation to become a better leader in the future.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at I hope this is helpful to you, the next edition of The Pastor's Coach will cover the topic of ministry values.