Ministers as Conflict Managers
By Norris Smith
Managing conflict is not an option for ministers. It comes with the calling. As long as people relate to each other and have strong beliefs about issues in the life of the church, conflict will occur.
One writer said that “conflict happens when two pieces of matter try to occupy the same space at the same time.” Simply stated, not everybody can have his or her way all the time.
Decisions must be made to solve the problems that arise. Making good decisions in the midst of conflict is an art that must be learned. Some ministers learn fast, others slowly, and some seen never to learn. The following information will help you become a more effective conflict manager.
Start with self evaluation. The better you know yourself, the more effective you’ll be. A healthy self understanding is the greatest resource you bring to the ministry of conflict management.
Start with your temperament or emotional disposition. Recognize the things and people who upset you emotionally. List specific behaviors you express when upset. Do you become passive, aggressive, angry, or detached? Do you personalize the conflict and become combative? All ministers experience some negative emotions, but they can be overcome with awareness, understanding, and a desire to change.
Preparation also involves knowing your conflict management style. Each minister has a style that is comfortable as well as a style that is uncomfortable. You can identify these by taking a conflict management inventory. One such inventory is “Discover Your Conflict Management Style” by Speed Leas.
Gain as much insight as you can about the personality of your church. Your church’s members have a story to tell. Learn what it is. Show genuine appreciation for their history of service and sacrifice for the Lord. They will in time accept you as family and listen more readily to suggested changes without becoming hostile or resentful.
All conflict has symptoms. Identify them. People will inevitably communicate their displeasures and opposition. Learn how they express displeasure and what it means. Give attention to these conflict symptoms early. Don’t let them grow. Delay can distort the issue.
Addressing symptoms early not only helps you understand the issues, but allows you to make better decisions. Good diagnosticians make the very best conflict managers.
It is often assumed that all ministers follow biblical guidelines in resolving conflict. Not so! Some simply react. Others try to withdraw. A few will strike out in self-defense. But most try to search the Scriptures for help and guidance. As they search for biblical guidance they find help in time of need.
Solomon said, “Without wood, fire goes out; without a gossip, conflict dies down” (Prov. 26:20). When the conflict is one on one and very personal, don’t feed a person’s need to fight and hold a grudge. If you choose not to fight, they can’t. Exercise a strong, Christlike spirit and with self-confidence, walk on by. Let it go!
Jesus tells us, “If anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39). A right cheek slap is a very personal insult. Jesus tells us to absorb the insult and refuse to hit back.
Paul helps us further by listing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). He listed temperance, or inward self control, last. If there ever is a time for the minister to practice inward and outward self-control, it is during conflict. In so doing, he becomes a trusted, steadying influence.
As church conflict spreads, it must be handled differently. Regardless of the conflict’s scope, there is a principle to help you manage it and limit its destructiveness.
The common denominator in all conflict management is the biblical principle of containment. Containment is a strategy that Jesus gave us in Matthew 5:23-24 and 18:15-17.
In 1 Timothy 5:19-20 Paul applied the principle of containment to the minister. Containment keeps problems at a low level and helps focus on the primary problem. It also protects the church from division and damage to its witness in the community.
Wise is the minister who manages church conflict according to biblical principles.
Some ministers possess a spirit of godly wisdom beyond the average. Others gain wisdom by learning from their past experiences. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God … and it will be given to him.” Jesus said for us to “be as shrewd as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16).
As you manage conflict, consider the following suggestions:
. Your pulpit is the worst place to do conflict management. Your detractors will be infuriated since they can’t use the pulpit for rebuttal. Your supporters will be happy, thinking you have chosen their side. And those who do not know that there is a conflict will be confused and uncomfortable. Remember the principle of containment.
. Always be well prepared for every business session and prepare the people. Anticipate potential conflict and know how you’ll respond. Know when to vote and when to postpone a vote. Know when to refer to committee and when to table an issue.
. Know all of your church’s documents: budget, constitution, bylaws, policies, committee and job descriptions, and legal papers. Prevent decisions that are contrary to these documents. You’ll be better equipped to keep issues from becoming personalized, and guide the church in solving the problem.
. If you, as the minister, need to confront someone concerning his or her destructive behavior, revisit Matthew 5:23-24 and Matthew 18:15-17 before you go. Prepare yourself for the face-to-face meeting. Pray for a pure motive, and then make an appointment with the person. Inform them of why you want to talk. As you talk together, address what the person did and not why you think they did it. What deals with measurable and specific behavior? Why is subjective and tends to question motives. Stay with the what and let the other person confess the motive. Remember that the purpose of confrontation is reconciliation.
. When conflict creates factions, be humble and wise enough to call in an outside consultant or mediator. This is especially true when people are hurting one another or when trust is gone and people are leaving the church.
. Teach your people what the Bible says about resolving conflict. They probably don’t know. Guide them in an in-depth study of biblical conflict resolution and draft some guidelines for the whole church to follow.
. Sometimes legal services and counsel are needed. Know when to seek legal counsel and how to apply it to the conflict at hand.
. Be wise enough to know when to leave. Three indicators can help you determine when this becomes necessary. The first is when your ministry and leadership can no longer be effective. The second is when the conflict is dividing, damaging, or destroying the fellowship of the church. Third, when the mission of the church cannot be fulfilled, leaving may be the right conflict management decision.
There is another side to this issue. A pathologically dysfunctional church can damage your family and you. Don’t stay until you are seriously hurt.
Ministers who continually improve on their conflict management skills usually have longer tenures. They are better able to keep the church focused on kingdom growth. They become the living embodiment of the Beatitude that says, “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matt. 5:9, KJV).