Your teaching partner is late. Again. Three times in five weeks.
She acknowledges her tardiness with a dismissive joke. You resent
having to set up the classroom and welcome all of the children
alone. Where is the “team” in team teaching?
The church service consistently runs late. The senior pastor
promised that if the team agreed to let the service go an extra 15
minutes, he would end on time. You sold the idea to your
volunteers, but he’s over time again! Now the teachers are
frustrated with you over not being able to make plans for Sunday
lunch because of inconsistent planning times. Cranky preschoolers
demand lunch and naps. You kick yourself for being stuck playing
John always dominates teacher training meetings. He inflicts his
perspective on the room with long stories. Through his ramblings,
you’ve discovered that you don’t condone his views on teaching.
You’re frustrated that his monologues thwart your agenda.
What do these scenarios have in common? Each one is an emerging
Most of us cringe at that word. Conflict invokes legions of
butterflies to possess our stomachs. Mouths dry. Palms sweat. Eyes
grasp for escape routes while avoiding contact with the opponent.
Hands reach for rocks of past offenses to hurl at the wrongdoer.
Conflict is scary.
Yet conflict is unavoidable — even in the church. The Apostle
Paul rejected delusions of utopia within the church and reminded
all of us that experiencing the quality of community that Christ
died for isn’t easy. In the face of conflict, Paul tells us to
overcome the fight or flight instinct and work it out.
So work it out with this five-step process to help you be a
STEP 1: SCREEN IT
You’re offended. Negative feelings well up. The first question
to ask yourself is, “Can I overlook this offense in love?” Proverbs
19:11 says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is his glory to
overlook an offense.”
But how do you know the difference between overlooking an
offense in love and being someone’s doormat? What’s the difference
between virtuous patience and boundary-free passivity? You’ll only
know if you screen it.
First, define the issues. Is the source of conflict a material
issue (an overtime church service that results in cranky volunteers
and children), or is it a personal issue (attitudes, values,
communication styles, and motives)? Describe the conflict in a
Once the issues are defined, determine if it’s really worth your
energy to be upset. Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries,
offers criteria for evaluating the significance of a conflict in
his book The Peacemaker.
If the conflict is minor enough to overlook, Sande says, “The
offense should not have created a wall between you and the other
person or caused you to feel differently toward him or her for more
than a short period of time. Second, the offense should not be
doing serious harm to God’s reputation, to others, or to the
If your issue passes Sande’s criteria and is indeed a minor
issue, then prayerfully let go of it. Ask God to restore your
positive regard for the offender.
STEP 2: CHUG IT
After screening it, you may decide that the offense isn’t minor.
You’re bothered, and you can’t shake it. The error that most people
make at this point is choosing to ignore the conflict.
Confrontation is a negative experience to most. Who likes to have a
showdown with a coworker, volunteer, or spouse? Many respond to a
potential face-off by minimizing the severity of the issue.
Conflict, however, is like a gallon of milk. Drink it fresh, or
stuff it in the back of the refrigerator and pretend it doesn’t
exist. Conflict has a limited shelf life. Keep conflict past its
expiration date, and bitterness and gossip sour it. A rancid smell
will ruin the taste of everything else in your heart’s crisper.
So chug the conflict. Embrace the conflict as a divine
opportunity to practice peacemaking. Stop viewing disagreements as
intruders in your day planner. Drink it in. Don’t lie to yourself
and pretend the situation will solve itself. As you chug it, you
reject the self- indulgent pleasure of being a passive victim, and
you take the first step to being a peacemaker.
STEP 3: TEST IT
Now that you’ve accepted that you have a conflict in your world,
the next step is to test it. Take a clear look at the issue and
decide what role you played in creating the conflict. When you’re
wronged, it’s instinctive to remodel your mind into a courtroom. If
you listen to your inner defense team, you insulate yourself from
seeing your contributions to the conflict.
Roger Connors, Tom Smith, and Craig Hickman write in their
hard-hitting work The OZ Principle, “To establish
ownership, then, you must have the heart to tell both sides of the
story, linking what you have done or failed to do with your current
circumstances. Such a shift in perspective requires that you
replace your victim story with an accountable one.”
Even Jesus confronted our refusal to see our faults. His picture
of a person wielding lumber in his eye while trying to remove
sawdust from his companion’s eye sizes us up accurately. Jesus
calls us to evaluate our role in a dispute before we begin to deal
with anyone else’s wrongdoings.
Test it. Have you contributed in any way to the issue gnawing at
you? Answer these questions to help you accurately see your part in
- Have you been in past conflicts with other people over similar
- Would you like the other person to adopt the tactics you’re
using to wrestle with the issue?
- Has the situation worsened because you didn’t deal with it
- When you retell the story in your mind, what parts are you
- Have you ignored any conviction from God regarding the
If you discover an eyeful of your shortcomings, confess them to
God. Confess these to the other party also. Nothing disarms a rival
more than yanking a plank from your own eye.
You may discover that you’re not at fault this time, but at
least you took time for moral inventory before diving into the
STEP 4: DO IT
It’s time to resolve the friction. You’ve done your prep work,
and you’ve committed to peacemaking. This commitment doesn’t
exorcise the butterflies in your stomach. However, you’re resolved
to have a face-to-face meeting.
How you work out the conflict is crucial. The processes you use
to resolve the disagreement are more important than the issue over
which you’re fighting. Swedish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote
a chapter titled “The Road Is How” in his book Truth and the
Passion of Inwardness. In it, he masterfully retells the story
of the good Samaritan.
Although five made the journey to Jerusalem, Kierkegaard points
out, only the Samaritan was in holy pilgrimage. Trafficking
well-worn religious paths does not make the pilgrim. The pilgrim
creates his or her road by the quality of the walking. You create
the quality of the walking with the peace you apply in your
dispute. It’s your call.
Jesus cares about what kind of road we build. He is both
engineer and foundation of the church’s human architecture. In
Matthew 18:15-17, he gives the “how” of conflict resolution.
Jesus adheres to the least amount of force. The first step is to
talk with the person in private — “just between the two of you.”
By confronting someone discreetly, you preserve dignity. You create
a safe environment to deal with issues without either party having
to deal with embarrassment in front of peers. A private
conversation is always the first step.
If the two of you can’t get on the same page, it’s time to get
help. Find a third party to help break the stalemate. Seek out a
mature, unbiased person to help both of you work through the issues
and police the quality of the communication. This person is a coach
to help parties do it in a biblical and healthy process. For many
churches, the logical person would be the senior pastor or a board
member. Other churches are beginning to train people to be conflict
mediators. The mediator encourages both parties to stay engaged and
not walk away from the process. The mediator’s role is to help both
parties build a straight road to peace.
The final stage is the most intrusive. If the two parties can’t
be reconciled with a mediator, the conflict is told “to the
church.” The goal remains restoration. However, at this phase the
parties at odds begin to lose their freedom to negotiate and are
subject to the prescriptions of the governing body. If one party
refuses to admit fault and correct the behavior, that party is
temporarily removed from the benefits of Christian community. The
church rarely uses this power and only for warning the guilty party
of the gravity of his or her spiritual condition.
Jesus’ process is seldom practiced. The deliberate and
controlled path from private to public intervention runs counter to
our intuitive fight or flight reactions. It’s easier to fall into a
number of the following destructive habits, so avoid these patterns
at all costs:
Triangulation The triangle is the cancer cell
of the body of Christ. Party A is upset with Party B. Instead of
directly confronting B, A complains to C. Call it venting, problem
solving, or sharing a prayer request, but it’s really sin.
C forms a negative opinion of B and unwittingly joins the
conflict. If C tells the story to D, a new cancer cell is born.
Triangle cells multiply at the speed of sound and can take down a
ministry or church in days. If you find someone trying to
triangulate you, gently point out what’s happening. Refer the
person to the Matthew 18 principle. Offer to call in a few days to
make sure the person initiates the biblical process.
Hit and Run Avoid confronting with letters,
email, or voice mail. Dialogue is the lifeblood of good
confrontation. The written word is easily misinterpreted. Short
circuited dialogue leaves the other person stuck carrying your
The Gladiator Don’t confront in an arena of
spectators. The goal will subtly shift from peacemaking to winning.
The victim will resent the public humiliation, and everyone in the
room will feel awkward. If you find yourself facing a Gladiator,
you have a few options. Disarm by hearing the person’s complaints
in a nondefensive manner. Acknowledge valid points. Schedule a
meeting to discuss the issue further. If you witness a Gladiator
attacking someone else, ask the attacked person if he or she is
comfortable with how the discussion is going. Encourage the
Gladiator to continue the discussion at a later time.
STEP 5: FINISH IT
History teaches that today’s wars are born from yesterday’s
faulty peace. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles after World War
I planted seeds of resentment that helped spark World War II. It
could also be argued that the recent bombings in Iraq were the
result of an inconclusive end to the Persian Gulf War.
What’s the end for your conflict? Conflict prematurely ended is
like a broken bone set poorly. Someday the sham peace will need to
be broken again. Resetting it will be difficult and more painful
than the original break. Test how resolved your dispute is with
these diagnostic questions:
• Have I said the final 10 percent? This
question nobly serves the leadership circles of Willow Creek
Community Church. Most people find it easy to say 90 percent of
what’s bothering them in a disagreement. However, root issues,
questions over motives, and spiritual concerns reside in the final
10 percent of the issue. Fear and the desire to avoid emotional
injury seduce us not to speak the entire truth in love.
Consequently, imagined-away fault lines have the potential to
rupture relationships and organizations unexpectedly.
• Did I listen? Speaking your peace is only
half the battle. Did you hear the other side of the story, or did
you merely inflict your “victim story” on the other party?
• Did I restore the relationship? Make sure
you’re in contact with the other individual following the
confrontation. Ask if he or she needs to air anything. Perhaps you
did some damage of your own during the disagreement. Never forget
that the goal is reconciliation instead of victory.
If any of these questions points out a need to finish a conflict
you’ve recently tried to resolve, do it over. Cutting relational
corners and placating only create temporary emotional relief.
However, peacemaking is like dieting. The scales never lie. You get
out what you put in.
The road is how. Blessed are those who take care to build
smooth, straight roads that connect people in harmonious
relationships. These people measure their steps and walk in the
light of God. They refuse to create bends in their road by
wandering after safety or revenge. God calls these people sons and
Larry Shallenberger is a children’s pastor in Erie,
Pennsylvania. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses,
and prices are subject to change.