the shape of leadership

How to Prevent Conflict Before It Starts

A pastor’s guide to sowing peace through relational wisdom

Ken Sande on April 21, 2021

The past 12 months have been rife with conflict. The pandemic, racial tensions, economic setbacks, and the most polarizing political season in recent history have triggered strife across the United States, spilling over into local churches.

Disagreements over these issues and others have disrupted many congregations. Pastors have spent untold hours talking with frustrated parishioners, deflecting personal attacks, and trying desperately to rebuild unity within their leadership teams and congregations.

Serious conflict is also occurring in Christian homes — which often adds to the pastoral counseling workload. Along with marital and family strife, there are financial pressures, workplace tensions, layoffs, and struggles with alcohol and drugs.

Navigating discord with godly wisdom and grace has never been more vital for church leaders. Having conciliated hundreds of church, family and legal conflicts over the past three decades, I would like to describe 11 relational principles that have proven effective in preventing and resolving many of the disputes that arise among believers.

1. Include God

When we get into a conflict, most of us focus obsessively on two things: our self-perceived righteousness and the other person’s wrongs. As the accusations and defensive arguments volley back and forth, the relational rift grows larger.

However, God calls us to view relationships three-dimensionally, always remembering He is present when we interact with one another.

Teach church members to remain self-aware, other-aware, and God-aware during every personal interaction, especially when facing conflict.

This three-dimensional perspective on relationships is evident throughout Scripture. The Bible teaches us to guard our hearts and exercise discipline in our actions, to view and care for others compassionately, and to remember, honor, and serve God in all things.

These principles lay the foundation for six aspects of relational wisdom: self-awareness and self-engagement; other-awareness and other-engagement; and God-awareness and God-engagement. Some passages of Scripture address all six of these (e.g., Exodus 20:1–21; Matthew 22:37–39; Ephesians 4:30–32; and Philippians 2:1–11).

The more people develop the habit of thinking three-dimensionally in all situations, remaining mindful of God’s presence and purposes (Philippians 4:1–7), the more likely they are to manage their thoughts, emotions, and words in a way that honors God and preserves peace with others.

2. Remember the Golden Result

You know the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). But do you know the Golden Result? It’s a corollary to the Golden Rule: Other people will usually treat you the way you treat them. This is not always the case, of course, but it often holds true.

Blame others, and they are more likely to blame you. Admit it when you’re wrong, and you may be surprised how often others will do the same. Listen patiently and openly to others, holding off on making premature judgments, and others will be more inclined to extend you the same courtesy. Setting the right relational tone will open the way for understanding and increase the likelihood of agreement.

When facing possible conflict, exercise self-awareness by asking yourself, How would I want to be treated? Then engage others by treating them the same way. You’ll be amazed at how often this simple course readjustment prevents conflict and promotes peace.

3. Lead With the Gospel

Our tendency is to resort to the Law in times of conflict. We love to use God’s Word to show where we’re right and others are wrong. However, this two-dimensional approach only drives us further apart.

Show your people a better way. While acknowledging the need to obey God’s commands, teach people how to let the gospel inspire and guide them in every interaction.

The gospel reveals God’s patience, mercy, kindness and forgiveness toward us. God treats us better than we deserve. He calls us to do the same with one another. Colossians 3:12–14 offers this exhortation:

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Living in such a way inspires hope, reduces defensiveness, provides space for confession and forgiveness, and demonstrates Christ’s love.

4. Examine the Heart

James 4:1 provides a key insight on conflict: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”

The desires themselves may not be sinful. They may be good things that we want too much, or for the wrong reasons. Thus begins a downward spiral: A good desire turns into a consuming demand that leads to judging others, and eventually punishing them if they don’t give us what we want.

Encourage your people to do some honest heart examination when they feel inclined to engage in conflict. This starts with asking introspective questions like these: What do I want in this situation? Has this desire begun to control me? Do I want this so much I’m willing to hurt or break relationship with others?

As we grow in self-awareness by learning to examine our hearts, we can dethrone selfish desires before they lead us down the path of conflict.

5. Practice Self-Control

Peter’s denial of Christ is a classic example of what psychologist Daniel Goleman calls “amygdala hijacking.” The amygdala is the part of the brain that activates the fight or flight response. In times of stress, the amygdala may overrule more rational cognitive functions, triggering an impulsive, and often regrettable, response.

It was Peter’s fear that led him to blurt out, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72,74). Afterward, Peter was deeply sorry.

Most of us have experienced these types of impulsive reactions in our marriages, as well as with our children, co-workers or fellow church members. During these tumultuous times, we are especially prone to letting our emotions lead.

The good news is we can avoid this destructive dynamic and take control of even the most intense emotions. One way to do this is to learn to recognize and name emotions. We can then evaluate their source, anticipate the consequences of following them, and direct their power on a more constructive course.

For example, suppose a parishioner accuses a pastor of adopting a “lazy” building project pace. This word triggers a flood of emotions, and the pastor is ready to lash out in response.

Instead, she takes a deep breath and evaluates what she is feeling: Anger and defensiveness. I’m not lazy! I don’t deserve that kind of disrespect!

There is also a sense of sadness and insecurity. School teachers used to call me lazy when I was struggling with an undiagnosed learning disability as a child.

Recognizing what the emotions are and where they are coming from gives the pastor a chance to reign them in before saying something that will only escalate the situation.

She maintains control, and chooses a better response: “I respect your opinion on the matter, but we’ve worked hard to develop a timeline that will allow us to raise the necessary funds for each phase of this project.”

The more you demonstrate your credibility, compassion, and competence, the more people will open their lives to you.

This isn’t just a mental exercise. It requires daily reliance on the Holy Spirit. After all, self-control is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). As you teach and model this spiritual discipline, your people can experience the joy and peace that comes from taking every thought, emotion, word and action captive to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

6. Communicate Clearly

Poor communication — often by leaders themselves — triggers and inflames many conflicts in the church. We know what we intend to communicate, but we don’t always take the time to choose our words carefully.

As one of my mentors once taught me, “For a leader, it’s not good enough to communicate so others can understand. You must communicate so clearly that others cannot misunderstand.”

No one will land on precisely the right words in every instance, but spending a little extra time on an email, a sermon, or remarks you plan to make in a conversation or at a meeting can go a long way toward avoiding conflict.

7. Prioritize Respect

Most people involved in a decision-making or conflict-resolving process will focus their energy on achieving a particular outcome. But ultimately, not everyone will get their way.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t successfully resolve the tension. The way you treat everyone in the process can make all the difference. Even when a final decision is not entirely to their liking, people will often accept the result with equanimity if the overall experience was a positive one.

Listen to all sides, and make every effort to treat everyone fairly. Give each person an opportunity to talk and present his or her case. Maintain an atmosphere of courtesy, orderliness, equality, and grace. In other words, treat others the way you would want them to treat you.

Work together to arrive at a final solution that is as reasonable, just and equitable as possible.

When you give people the opportunity to share their views fully and candidly, and treat them with dignity, you may be surprised at how content they will be in the end — even if they disagree with the final decision. Model respectful dialogue, and you’ll be more likely to receive it in return.

8. Build Trust

Every time you engage the people in your church — whether during a counseling session, from the pulpit, or in times of fellowship — you are either building or destroying trust.

Before people will open up to you and let you mediate their conflicts, they need to have confidence in you. Most people want to know three things: Are you worthy of my trust? Do you care about me? Do you have something to offer that can help me?

Behind each of these questions are a number of related questions that are always rolling around in people’s minds as they interact with you and reflect on their past experiences. For example, Will you let me down like the last person in whom I confided? Am I more to you than just a number or a tither? Do you have the competence or life experience to advise me on this topic?

The more you demonstrate your credibility, compassion, and competence, the more people will open their lives to you.

9. Make Charitable Judgments

Many of the conflicts that arise in a church begin or escalate because people assume the worst about the actions or motives of others. Head off this tendency by teaching your congregation to make charitable judgments.

This means graciously striving to believe the best about those with whom you disagree. It requires a willingness to consider the situation from more than one perspective.

For example, if you’re the worship leader, you might feel as though the elderly man who is complaining to the lead pastor about the music is trying to make your life miserable. But what if he simply misses the beauty of the old hymns? Rather than reacting defensively, perhaps you should consider mixing up the worship set to include a few songs that appeal to the older saints. A more charitable view can turn enmity into empathy.

When conflict arises, seek to embrace positive interpretations over negative ones — or at least postpone making any judgment until you can learn more.

We would want others to give us the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, according to Matthew 7:12, this is how we should treat people.

10. Engage Scripture

The Bible provides plenty of guidance on how Christians can successfully negotiate the most challenging issues in life. Consider the words of Paul in Philippians 2:3–4:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Think of all the conflicts we could avoid if every member of the congregation took these words to heart. Of course, humanity’s fallen nature is inclined toward selfishness. But as Christ followers, we must constantly evaluate ourselves against God’s Word and seek the Spirit’s guidance so that we may become more like Christ.

That includes loving others as Christ has loved us. As 1 John 3:16 says, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

When you negotiate conflict, bring God’s Word into the discussion. Read aloud passages like 1 Corinthians 13:4–5:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Discuss how the guidance of Scripture applies to the dispute, and brainstorm ways to put these principles to work to resolve the situation. Guide the discussion toward biblical, practical solutions, and then pray for the Holy Spirit’s help in honoring one another and glorifying God.

Rather than allowing bitterness and anger to grow, use conflict as an opportunity to help your congregants grow in faith and maturity.

11. Diffuse Explosive Meetings

Have you ever been in a church meeting that felt like a powder keg? The tension builds with each comment. It’s only a matter of time before the explosion happens and someone says something hurtful. Once an outburst occurs, it’s often impossible to pick up the pieces.

Such outcomes are not inevitable. In fact, you can turn volatile meetings into times of humble self-examination and constructive problem solving by applying Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:3–5:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Summarize the topic of discussion, and then ask everyone who speaks to answer each of these questions:

  • Briefly, how do you feel about this issue?
  • What have you done that might have contributed to the problem?
  • What do you think would please God as we work through this situation?
  • What steps have you already taken to make things better?
  • What are you now willing to do to help resolve this problem?
  • What do you suggest others do to help resolve it?

This approach emphasizes introspection, respect, personal responsibility, and communication that is solution-focused rather than attack-oriented.

An Ounce of Prevention

There is one thing that is even better than successfully resolving a conflict: preventing a conflict in the first place.

Many church leaders are so busy putting out relational fires they barely have time for more important matters — like reaching the community with the gospel. Pastors can dramatically reduce emotional drains on ministry and get upstream of many conflicts by training their people to relate to one another according to biblical principles.

A proactive investment of time today could save you hundreds of hours of resolving conflict in the months and years ahead. As James 3:18 says, “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”

This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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