First Person: How to navigate conflict well

Part 1: An Overview of Conflict

To be completely honest with you, I have not always handled conflict well. Many of us must grow in the area of conflict resolution or we will be consumed by our own reactions. Furthermore, being spiritually, emotionally and relationally healthy are vital to peacemaking. This week I will share preliminary thoughts and add bullet points for handling conflict well next week.

An overview of conflict:

1. Defined: “Conflict happens when you are at odds with another person over what you think, want, or do.” (The Peacemaker, Ken Sande) Conflict is an inevitable part of life: personally, relationally — family and church. Every world system is infected by conflict.

2. Origin: Genesis 3 outlines the fall of man. Notice again the key parts of the story: temptation, pride, selfishness and lies. The consequences affected relationships — separation from God and from each other, shame, guilt, blame … Paradise lost. The enemy continues to use the same tactics with the message that life is all about “me.” Satan’s temptation is that God is holding something back from YOU. In conflict, you and I may think, what is the other person/group holding back from me?

3. Christians and Conflict: In James 4:1-2, we read, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask” (NKJV). It is important for each of us to realize the depth of reason behind conflict. See beyond the person or circumstance in front of you.

4. Types of Conflict:

  • Intrapersonal: Within yourself
  • Interpersonal: You and another
  • Intragroup: Within a group
  • Intergroup: Between two groups

5. Good News: Through the gospel, God treats us with kindness that is beyond human reason or what we can imagine — unearned kindness. And his gracious response to us gives us power to respond to others in an entirely new way.

Peacemaking is not natural. In the Spirit and in concert with obedience to God’s word, we work out disagreement more effectively.

Part 2: Handling Conflict

Conflict is inevitable; therefore, how we handle conflict is the key. One expert stated: I receive the conflict call three days after the church burns down. Why do we wait so long to confront conflict in church life? One reason, we tend to view all conflict as bad. Often we don’t know what to do. Here are some pointers.

1. Start handling conflict within yourself. What is your default way to handle conflict? Extreme responses include Flight and Denial or Blame and Assault. Anxiety and other emotions will keep you from reacting to conflict correctly. Know how you respond, and BE PREPARED!

Here’s a better way (from “Resolving Everyday Conflict” by Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson):

  • Go Higher: How can I focus on God in this situation?
  • Get Real: How can I own my part of this conflict?
  • Gently Engage: How can I help others own their contribution to this conflict? (You may need the involvement of another leader or leaders.)
  • Get Together: How can I give forgiveness and help reach a reasonable solution?
  1. Know when to gently confront. When a wrong is … damaging your relationship with a person, hurting other people, hurting the offender, or significantly dishonoring God, those are times to gently confront.
  2. Keep conflict within a small circle. Matthew 18:15 is the principle to be followed. Train and model the idea of conflict being solved one on one. Many issues/conflicts in large groups could or should be handled in smaller settings.
  3. Pray, pray, pray. Find those who pray. Be intentional about what to pray. Have seasons of extended prayer. Do not make prayer about conflict — but seeking the face of God, His will, and obedience to His Word. Two good resources are “40 Days of Seeking God” by Gregory Reed Frizzell and “Come to the Lord’s Table” by Claude King.
  4. Major on relationship building. Primary causes for pastor and staff termination: Control issues, poor people skills, and pastor’s leadership style (too strong or too weak). Be self-aware and seek to grow in the area of good communication and relationships.
  5. Take a hard look at values, mission and purpose. Then realign around renewed values, mission and purpose. Again, one expert in church conflict has stated that he has never witnessed a major conflict in a church that clearly knows and fulfills the intended mission.

As you navigate the difficult waters of conflict, take a long view. Give yourself grace as you manage conflict. Changes in personal behavior are not easy. Church culture will take time to transition to a healthier way to handle conflict. The book “Resolving Everyday Conflict” by Ken Sande and Kevin Johnson can be used for a churchwide study. And finally, faithfully model the life of a peacemaker.

These articles first appeared in Ministry Moments, a newsletter of the SBOM Offices of Church Health and LeaderCare. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.