It plays itself out over and over again in our congregations: there is a disagreement, friction between the two parties intensifies; a series of hurtful exchanges follow; both sides dig in; finally someone or some group demands the other person’s removal or they threaten to walk out themselves. Can you identify? Instead of working through our problems, we have a tendency as human beings to become polarized in conflict. Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation remarks: “What creates polarization is not the actual content of the issue on which a family ‘splits.’ It is rather emotional processes that foster conflict of wills (efforts to convert one another). To the extent that a leader can contain his or her reactiveness to the reactivity of followers . . . intensity begins to wane, and polarization . . . is less likely to be the result.” Unfortunately, the goal in many conflicts is to win, where one party swims and the other sinks. In the words of Peter Steinke, “Conflict is no longer a time for learning but for conquering.” According to Steinke (Congregational Leadership for Anxious Times), the following behaviors are manifest in competitive conflict:
  • People function at the level of their primitive brain, breaking everything into this or that, black or white, plus or minus categories.
  • Passion knocks reason out of the picture.
  • Behaviors become more aggressive – shouting down the opposite side, using face-to-face tactics, belittling them.
  • Lying increases, taking many forms—half truths, withholding information, inflating claims, fabricating events, releasing publically that which should be private, double talk.
  • Self-righteousness emerges. One party thinks he can use any means to achieve his end because his cause is “right.”
So what is the answer? First, understand that a conflict free environment is  not the goal, nor is it realistic. Friends and spouses have conflict. Congregations and ministers have conflict. Perhaps we would do well to take our cues from Paul and Barnabas, two ministry partners who struggled with a difference of opinion. In Acts 15:36-40 we see two great men embroiled in conflict over whether they should take a young intern on their journey. I encourage you to read the brief account, and consider the following principles:
  1. Disagreements are inevitable, even among gifted leaders. In every disagreement, there is one issue, but several viewpoints. There is always something to be learned, just as there is something to be said. In a disagreement, each side has validity (think both/and, not either/or). The wise Solomon gives us good counsel here: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Prov. 18:2). “Understanding is a fountain of life to those who have it” (Prov. 16:22). When disagreements arise, work hard to see the other person’s point of view.
  2. Problems can become opportunities through the grace of God. Because of this conflict, we now have not one, but two missionary teams: Team 1: Paul and Silas, and Team 2: Barnabas and Mark. Someone said that if we can have more ministry teams, we need to have more conflicts. When both sides have validity, seek a wise compromise.
  3. When you disagree, the destruction of another’s reputation is not an option. Though these men disagreed, there is no indication that they tried to destroy the reputation of the other. Today we still give Barnabas Awards at banquets, and we name our sons Paul. When conflict persists, care enough to work it through rather than walk out.
Nelson Mandela wisely observed, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
  • Need help with ministry or staff conflict? Let our team of professional consultants work with you for a day or a weekend. We routinely work with elderships and staff members to tackle some of the challenges of ministry.