Healthy Conflict Resolution
What to do in ministry, family, and personal conflicts
Ministry in the 21st century is not for the faint of heart. In today’s culture, ministers are expected to fulfill a variety of professional roles — preacher, pastor, counselor, leader, recruiter, CEO, board chairman — in addition to personal responsibilities like spouse, parent and friend. But nothing keeps ministers up more at night than people problems, such as staff or congregant conflict. In fact, the pain of humanity and the betrayal of a friend is what kept Jesus up all night the night before His crucifixion. So how do we deal with the people pain of ministry?
Let me start by saying people pain in ministry is inevitable and unavoidable. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. Most of us in ministry wish people pain would go away. The pain of others, the pain others cause and our own pain. Yet when we look at the life of Jesus, we realize He was surrounded by people pain — the disciples, the crowds of people and the Pharisees. In fact, Jesus experienced what Sam Chand describes in his book Leadership Pain: “Leadership is bleeder-ship."
Leaders are going to hurt when people are involved. Chand goes on to say that in leadership, “you will grow only to the threshold of your pain.” In other words, your capacity to grow yourself, others and the organization you lead has less to do with your talent, skills or seminary training and more to do with your pain tolerance. In short, high-capacity leaders have a high pain tolerance.
To properly deal with the people pain of ministry, we must cultivate a healthy and biblical model for resolving conflict. Conflict is inevitable and unavoidable. If you’re a parent of two or more children, you understand this: Conflict never gets better by avoiding it.
In this article, let’s look at how to resolve conflict in the three major areas where every ministry leader experiences pain: staff and congregation conflict, family conflict, and personal conflict.
Resolving Staff and Congregation Conflict
When staff or congregation conflict arises, as leaders and ministers, we have a responsibility to address it. Great leaders confront conflict without being confrontational. In other words, leaders address issues without making them personal. Once a conflict becomes personal, everyone loses. You are safe when you stick to the issues.
The first step to resolving staff or congregation conflict is to start with your heart. The books Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability provide a great framework for how to communicate effectively when the stakes are high. Authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler encourage leaders to start with the heart and examine their intentions.
Conflict is inevitable and unavoidable.
In Psalm 139:23–24, David says, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Leaders must allow the Holy Spirit to search their hearts and intentions prior to any conversation with staff or congregants. We must deal with the planks in our own lives before we address the speck in someone else’s (Matthew 7:5). Healthy hearts produce healthy responses.
One leadership maxim that keeps my heart right is, “Don’t mistreat staff or sheep.” As the Golden Rule admonishes us, we should treat people the way we would want to be treated. When shepherds mistreat the people they lead, they undermine their leadership and hurt the people to whom God has entrusted them. Moses disqualified himself from entering the Promised Land because he struck a rock when he got angry at the Israelites for their grumbling. An unchecked heart wrecks lives.
Second, once you’ve examined your intentions, craft a conversation plan. Decide ahead of time what you want to say and how you want to say it. Write it down. Practice it with your spouse or a trusted friend, if necessary, to get comfortable with your content. Put as much effort into crafting a crucial conversation as you do a sermon, because careless words and actions are the quickest way to lose leadership influence.
On the other hand, leading well in difficult times is one of the best ways to build leadership influence. Proverbs 15:23 says, “A person finds joy in giving an apt reply — and how good is a timely word!”
Third, have the conversation. Be direct and firm. Clearly state the facts of what happened, what the culture is, and what you want to be different the next time. In other words, the conversation format for staff and congregant conflict is: facts + culture + what needs to be different next time.
For example, with a staff member, you could say, “Tom, you were late to the office four times in the last month. That’s not our culture as an organization. I need you to be on time from now on. Can you partner with me on that?”
With a difficult volunteer, you could say, “Jim, three people have told me in the last two months that you were loud and aggressive when you greeted them. That’s not our culture. I need you to greet people warmly and make them feel welcomed. I need your partnership on this.”
In short, solve the problem. Problems are no longer problems once you solve them. Repeated problems are patterns, and patterns are toxic. Solve problems, but confront unhealthy patterns.
Resolving Family Conflict
According to Barna Group, family problems are among the greatest stressors in ministry. Leaders who have difficulties at home will have a hard time leading.
In my decade as a counselor, I discovered most people have an unhealthy approach to conflict at home. In Crucial Conversations, the authors say when life gets difficult, most people either become silent or violent. They either withdraw or explode.
According to marriage researcher and author John Gottman, most people in marriage respond one of four ways when conflict shows up in the marriage. In the Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work, he calls these four responses the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. The first two are when people get silent and pull away. The last two are when they get aggressive and attack. Whether passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive, these are not healthy reactions. We must be assertive in our responses.
Leaders who have difficulties at home will have a hard time leading.
In family conflict, we must adjust the conversation plan listed previously to include sharing your feelings. Here’s the conversation format: feelings + facts + what I want different next time. For example, you could say, “John, I was disappointed (feeling) when the trash wasn’t taken out (fact). Next time, please make sure to take out the trash (different).” Or you could say, “Amy, I was frustrated (feeling) when the bill wasn’t paid on time (fact). Now we have a late fee. Next time, please create a reminder to pay the bill (different).”
However, the best way to have a proper response in marriage is to ask the Holy Spirit to lead your marriage. John 2 records Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana: “Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding” (verse 2, emphasis added). We must daily invite Jesus not only into our ministry but also into our marriages.
I’ve discovered that I make a mess in my marriage whenever I fail to invite Jesus into my words, attitudes and actions because matters of the heart are always the heart of the matter.
If you have a mess in your marriage, I want to challenge you to invite the Miracle Maker in. Set aside some time to pray as a couple. In his book Marriage Done Right, Jim Daly says a couple that reads the Bible and prays together has a less than 1% chance of divorcing. Invite the Holy Spirit to lead both of you in your marriage, and then pray for your relationship. He can take an ordinary marriage and make it extraordinary.
When it comes to parenting, Paul admonishes us in 1 Timothy 3:4–5 that every overseer “must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?).”
Our ability to lead God’s church is directly dependent on how we lead in our family. On one hand, we must make sure our children obey us, but on the other hand, we cannot be heavy-handed. Paul again admonishes us in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
Parents, we must love and correct well. Love without limits leads to lawlessness, and limits without love leads to legalism. Yet love and limits lead to righteous living. John 1:14 says Jesus was “full of grace and truth.” To raise responsible adults who love Jesus, we too must be full of grace and truth, love and limits.
Healthy boundaries are essential, as Henry Cloud and John Townsend write in their books Boundaries with Kids and Boundaries with Teens. Sometimes we love them best when we say, “I love you too much to let you do this. We are [insert your last name], and we don’t do this.”
When we live out love and limits in our parenting, we provide them with a template for healthy relationships. We also say to them, “Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NLT). Children follow what parents model.
Resolving Personal Conflict
Unresolved personal conflict is toxic to you and everyone around you. You may think no one knows, but someone does. They may not know exactly what is going on in you, but they know things aren’t settled within you.
James 4:1 asks two insightful questions: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” Some of us are fighting with others, not realizing we are warring with ourselves. The war on the inside is always greater than the perceived battle on the outside. If you master the battles of the heart and mind, you can address the challenges around you. Inner battles will sap your strength and steal your joy.
Unresolved personal conflict is toxic to you and everyone around you.
Fortunately, James 4:7–8 provides a three-step solution to our struggles: submit to God, resist the devil, get close to God. To stop sinning, we must start by submitting. Surrender is saying, “You are God, and I am not.” If we are unwilling to submit, we can’t get close to God because God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Surrender then gives us the strength to say “no” to ourselves and to the enemy. Don’t let your flesh or the devil drag you down. Some of you need to say, “Not today, self, and not today, Satan!”
Finally, we must make the first move back to God. James 4:8 says “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” Proximity produces intimacy. Get close to God again. Return to your first love. Spend time connecting with the Holy Spirit. Process your pain and disappointments in the presence of Jesus. If you don’t, you will process them in unhealthy ways or in unhealthy relationships.
For some personal challenges, professional counseling is recommended. Two times in my adult life, I have gone to a professional counselor — and I am professional counselor myself. It was hard, but I needed help, and my counselor helped me get better. I am also not opposed to going and getting professional help in the future.
James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Be willing to find someone safe to talk to because secrets make you sick. Find a Christian professional counselor who can guide and encourage you and, if necessary, correct you. Private correction is preferable to public reproach. According to Ephesians 5:13, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible — and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” Shine a light on your personal struggles in private and get healed.
Do yourself, your family and the people you lead a favor, and get help. If you need professional help, visit our friends at Emerge Counseling Ministries (emerge.org) or the Christian Care Connect portal of the American Association of Christian Counselors (connect.aacc.net). In the words of Pastor Craig Groeschel, “Everyone wins when the leader gets better.”
Finally, know that I am praying for you. As Philippians 1:3–6 says, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
This article will appear in the April 2020 issue of Called to Serve.