Managing Conflict With Christlike Compassion and Wisdom
If you live in the world and have relationships with people, you will experience conflict at some point. For pastors seeking to minimize confl ict in their congregations, the strategies recommended in this article are worth considering.
by Anthony J. Fagan
For leaders seeking to minimize conflict, here are important strategies worth considering.
If you live in the world and have relationships with people, you will experience conflict at some point.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). That trouble is not limited to job security, financial pitfalls, health problems, or the loss of loved ones. Where there are people, there are different personality types, opinions, and viewpoints. When conflicts arise, those who are mature in Christ have a responsibility to manage those disagreements with compassion and wisdom to bring about the best resolution possible.
The Book of Matthew provides an example of conflict resolutionthat honors Christ. “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him — work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love” (Matthew 18:15–17, The Message).1
Unfortunately, conflicts often are not resolved in a timely manner. That’s because many people have a strong fear and disdain for confrontation. They confront the issue only when the situation gets bad enough or they grow frustrated enough. Because of fear, they allow very small hurts to fester into gaping wounds. The hurt and frustration build and suddenly come out in a much more combative manner. As a result, small things turn into heated battles. Strong disputes develop, leading to hurt feelings and destroying relationships.
Knowing that most of us don’t like conflict makes it even more imperative that we deal with disagreements as quickly aspossible. James explains that sin starts as temptation and grows into sin. “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James1:15,16 NLT).2
Even the worst transgressions start with small temptations. But as people explore and follow those temptations, they grow into somethingawful. The same is true of disagreements and conflicts. If we settle small, simple disputes immediately, they never grow into something that festers and becomes a bigger problem. But when we don’t deal with a situation quickly, we dwell on what we should say and how we were offended, and it snowballs from there. In a short amount of time, we blow the offense way out of proportion. The end result is just like sin. Something that started small gives birth to a deep hurt leads to the death of a relationship. What could have been resolved easily destroys what was once there.
I have always been a peacemaker. I never wanted to see anyone disagree. I was the go-between and “counselor” of many boy vs. girl relationships, beginning in elementary school. I always dealt with conflict by talking things through and trying to find a resolution to the problem. To this day, I have never had a physical altercation with anyone because I never needed or wanted to fight.
However, being the mediator isn’t always easy. I wanted to help others resolve their conflicts so we could all get along. This invites trouble and frustration. Over the years, I’ve learned that unless you want to lose your nose you shouldn’t stick it into someone else’s conflict. That does not mean you can never step in as a peacemaker. But you should avoid offering advice without someone asking. Otherwise, you will likely get hurt.
When two cats fight, it is an all-out battle, with fur flying, shrill screeching, and teeth and claws everywhere. Most intelligent people would let them have it out, but there are a few who feel so sorry for the cats they try to separatethem. Invariably, they end up with bites or scratches. People are no different. If you step in the middle of a fight uninvited, you get injured. The wounds may not be physical, but they are just as real.
Of course, if you are in leadership very long, you will have to moderate conflicts. In these situations, it’s important to know both sides. If you are familiar with one individual’s story, but have not taken time to listen to the other person’s perspective, you are setting the situation up to fail and ultimately escalate into a bigger problem. As the moderator, you become the key listener for both sides. At this point, you should be taking notes and writing down the areas where there is disagreement, as well as questions or accusations that arise. A good moderator asks questions or makes statements like: “Am I hearing you correctly when you say .…” or, “Let me paraphrase what you just said ….”
This helps you understand the individual’s perspective and builds a level of trust in your ability as a leader to handle the conflict appropriately.
Right or wrong, we all hold different perspectives on a situation. Conflict is often the result of failure to see through someone else’s perspective, or the lens with which they view the situation. With that in mind, moderators who truly want to resolve a conflict try to see all sides through the individual lenses represented.
Many factors — including history, knowledge, and experience — shape our lenses. One person’s background may be one of peaceful conflict resolution. Another person may only know conflict that was never resolved. One individual may believe from experience that people can be trusted. Another may have deep trust issues. When we look through another person’s lens, we slowly begin to understand their perspective. It’s a little like putting on another person’s glasses. It may be difficult to see at first. But if you keep them on and allow your eyes to adjust, you slowly begin to view the world — however imperfectly — through their lenses. When we consider another perspective, it’s easier to engage in gracious, passionatedebate without disrespect or slander.
Remember, where there are people, disagreements will arise. But conflicts don’t have to be drama-filled. Yelling and throwing punches may be the way action movie characters deal with conflict, but this doesn’t work in real life. The biblical model Christ established for the church allows for disagreements that maintain respect and do not try to run someone’s name or reputation in to the ground.
I have been a part of many sharp disagreements that resulted in no hard feelings. Handling conflict properly makes all the difference. When we listen, allow debate from all sides, and respectfully consider other perspectives, our arguments can be peacefully resolved.
There are times when we need to say we’re sorry. None of us are always right. There are times when we mess up, make mistakes, do something that we thought was right at the time, or just make the wrong decision. When this happens, we must be willing to apologize. Admit you are human and prone to mistakes. Then ask for the grace and mercy of the individual you offended. Such an apology reveals a heart of repentance.
Regardless of who is to blame, address conflicts quickly, with compassion and respect for all parties involved. Your relationships will be deeper and stronger, and you will develop a greater level of trust in others.
For leaders seeking to minimize conflict, I recommend two important strategies.
1. Take Good Notes
When a situation arises, make a record of it. Record as many details as possible, including notes about how it came to your attention. As you take notes, it will help you process the situation and consider the validity of the offense. It also adds a level of protection for you as a leader.
My lead pastor requires our staff to write a weekly report outlining areas of ministry and any trouble spots. When a conflict with a history arises, I sometimes search my reports and find pages of documentationregardingthe parties involved.
The first time this happened I went in his office, gave him a hug, and said, “Thank you for making me write these stupid reports for all these years!”
Something I always saw as a nuisance was now my ally and protection.
2. Know What You Stand for and Why
If you know why you do what you do and the values for which you stand, you will be honest in trying to live by those values and standards. You can be confident in any conflict as you stand for what you believe in and know is right. If you are dishonest or make it up as you go along, you will have big problems dealing with the conflicts that come your way.
1. Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
2. Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright Â© 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.