Dealing with Dissenters

Knowing when and how to stand your ground in difficult issues

TWO THINGS-GUTS AND GRACE–that’s what we Christian leaders need when we face conflict. We must have the guts to take important issues and the grace to a Christ-like attitude while we’re standing.

The real questions for most of us when we handle difficult issues are

(1) when to take a stand and

(2) how to handle dissenters gracefully. We want to act with courage, but we don’t want to be arrogant or abuse our power. We want to share our insights, but we don’t want to damage the relationships we’ve developed.

The bottom line is that when conflict arises, we want to take a stand and strengthen unity at the same time. How can a leader know when to stand up and how to do it with grace and finesse?

Although no method is foolproof, there are things that can help you with this difficult balancing act.

1. Understand the issue. The most common cause of confrontational blunders is a lack of understanding of the issue involved. Before you tackle any dispute, be sure you clarify vague areas, have all the facts and get the other person’s side of the story.

If you’re inclined to confront people while you’re angry, don’t do it. That almost always causes damage and makes the controversy harder to resolve (see James 1: 19-20).

2. Ascertain who has the greatest influence. To accurately assess a potentially divisive situation, you will have to determine who has the greatest influence in the church or ministry-not the highest position or title.

If you have the most influence, then be careful. The more influence you have, the more selective you should be about using it.

Ask yourself, “Who will this affect positively and who will it affect negatively?” Considering such questions sensitively will help you guard against abusing your authority or monopolizing power.

Often the person in the top leadership position is not the one with the most influence. That can be a problem because the person with the most influence generally wins-whether they are right or wrong.

If that is your situation, as it is with many church and ministry leaders, consider these questions before you confront a dissenter whose influence is greater than ours:

Is the issue worth standing up for? Some conflicts don’t really matter because they don’t significantly affect the ability of your group to fulfill its mission. If the issue is insouciant let it go.

Is the dispute so important that it must be confronted regardless of the cost or the outcome? Matters that involve morals or conscience cannot be left unchallenged. In such cases, you have no alternative but to take a stand.

Do I have prior unsettled issues with the person who has the most influence? If old personal problems are involved, make every attempt to settle them before you consider the current dispute.

Is my agenda personal or corporate? This is a crucial question to ask yourself. If the controversy is personal and doesn’t affect the
congregation or organization, swallow your pride and let the issue go.

What is the likely outcome if there is a confrontation? Predicting an outcome is usually as easy as counting up who will follow the dissenter and who will follow you.

If you determine that you’re likely to lose, but the matter is nevertheless worth pursuing, what should you do? Before confronting
the dissenter, you may need to meet individually with the people who still can be won over to your way of thinking.

Timing is important. Positive momentum in the organization can work to your advantage. Even the right decision, if made at the wrong time, can cause trouble.

3. Show respect for dissenters and believe the best about their motives. When you determine that it’s time to take a stand, you need to do it with grace.

Start by assuming that the dissenter’s motives are good. This will foster a climate of love and understanding with the other person rather than suspicion and defensiveness.

Likewise, show the dissenter that you value him and his position. When it’s time to confront him, express your appreciation for him, explain that you understand his point of view, express how difficult it was for you to make your decision and then reaffirm his value.

It’s vitally important that you speak from your heart to the other person’s heart. Be sensitive to his feelings. When you’re done, you may even be able to ask for and receive his support when it’s time to explain your decision to others.

4. Before you stand up on an issue, you first have to live it yourself. As Norman Vincent Peale said, “Nothing is more confusing
than people who give good advice but set bad examples.”

If you set a good example and your credibility is intact, you are well on your way to approaching difficult issues successfully.

5. Put the dispute behind you. After you’ve taken your stand, move on. Never bring up the conflict again unless it reoccurs or it can be used to affirm positive change and growth. People will respect you for that.

In any congregation or organization, there will be dissenters from time to time. Leaders with guts and grace, who know when and how to respond, can help restore unity and momentum so the church can return to its mission.