5 Steps to Conflict Resolution in Your Ministry and Church
Published: December 12, 2019
Follow these 5 steps to conflict resolution to experience being a peacemaker in your ministry.
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 the fool.
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 conflict.
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 peacemaker.
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 written paragraph.
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 offender.”
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
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 the dispute:
- Have you been in past conflicts with other people over similar issues?
- 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 promptly?
- When you retell the story in your mind, what parts are you leaving out?
- Have you ignored any conviction from God regarding the matter?
If you discover an eyeful of your shortcomings, confess them to God. Confess these to the other party also.
You may discover that you’re not at fault this time, but at least you took time for moral inventory before diving into the fray.
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.
How Jesus Wants us to Handle Conflict
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:
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 emotional baggage.
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 daughters.
Larry Shallenberger is an author in Erie, Pennsylvania.
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