“I’m so sorry, but I must ask you to step down from the board until we sort all this out.” I spoke gently, but still Barbara’s blue eyes brimmed with tears. Then she forced them back and declared, “No, I’ll resign. I’ve had it! Ministry isn’t supposed to be like this.”
You’re right, I agreed silently. It sure isn’t.
Serving as women’s ministry director was usually my life’s delight—but on that day it was anything but delightful. I had dreaded our meeting, especially as I remembered Barbara’s two years of wholehearted service. But her outspoken disagreement with several staff members and her continuous, public undercutting of authority made this day inevitable. Barbara and her family left the church. What a waste. What a loss.
It’s More Common Than You Think
For 20 years, I have served as an overseer for five parachurch women’s Bible studies and for seven of those years in a megachurch women’s ministry. While I would not describe these years as full of conflict, often—too often—conflicts have arisen. Many have been minor, but others have threatened the life of the ministry.
- One member of a leadership team, which was formed to improve a particular ministry, didn’t like some of the proposed changes and met secretly with the pastor, maligning the ministry. The leadership team felt betrayed, and the ministry was temporarily sidetracked.
- A Bible study planning committee could not agree on next year’s curriculum, expressing its foundational differences in constant, petty skirmishes. The next year, many of the leaders resigned.
- Two unrelated Bible studies met in the same church. One group charged the other study with false teaching. Even though the pastor dismissed the accusation as untrue and asked the groups to coexist in harmony, factions were birthed and slander spread. The leadership was saddled with helping those involved work through some intense emotions.
- In a Bible class, two people embroiled in a theological discussion over the sovereignty of God and free will ended their debate by taking swings at each other. Imagine trying to explain that to visitors!
Causes and Complexity
Conflicts vary in complexity. Some are between those who serve and those being served. At other times those serving together as leaders cannot agree. Then there may be friction between ministries within a church.
Conflicts may stem from doctrinal differences, personality clashes, or different ministry philosophies, styles, and traditions. Typically, each party is sure it is on a mission from God and that He is on their side.
Can Conflict Be Prevented?
Sometimes I see disagreements resolved graciously and the parties grow from the experience. Just as often, it ends like Barbara’s case—in disaster! The wounded limp away, often never to serve again. The world hears one more account of how Christians “just can’t get along.”
It’s time to get serious about managing conflict before it’s out of control. We need to recognize the early warning signs of conflict and understand how to address it when it erupts. Certain biblical principles should be a part of our basic training.
One of the most familiar passages on resolving conflict is Matthew 18:15–17. Jesus prepared His disciples and us with these words, which are hard to obey, but we often ignore them to our peril. Verse 15 says, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
Step One: Go and Show
First, note that there are two parties in the conflict: the offender and the offended. Both are assumed to be Christians, as indicated by the term “brother.” Jesus instructs the offended to be the initiator in the peace process. If you are wounded, you are to go to the one who hurt you.
Notice also that the offense is termed a sin. What constitutes a sin? Sins listed in the Bible include sexual immorality, debauchery, coarse joking, theft, drunkenness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, anger, selfish ambition, envy, bitterness, slander, gossip, quarreling, and pride (Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 4:31; 2 Cor. 12:20). Is the offense truly a sin, or could it lead to sin? Are you evaluating an action you have observed or a heart attitude you suspect?
Also, you must decide if you can overlook this offense. “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov. 19:11). Ask yourself, “Can I chalk this up to a bad day? Can I interact with my offender without this offense coloring our relationship?” If you can, forget it! If you can’t, you should initiate a meeting with your offender to offset problems later.
Many people would prefer to resign from their commitments rather than discuss the conflict openly with their offender. The thought of expressing the hurt face to face is ranked with having a root canal or giving a political speech to an audience of opponents—no one looks forward to the experience. There is a possibility of greater misunderstanding and even rejection. But with prayer and Christlike love, you may leave the meeting with a more intimate, authentic friend than before.
The Principle of Containment
“Just between the two of you…”
Jesus limits the first meeting to the two parties—and no one else should know about the conflict. When I am hurt, the first thing I want to do is call my closest friends or corner my spouse and unload. I may try to fool myself into believing that I am doing this to gain wisdom or convince myself I need a sounding board. Sometimes that is true, but more often, I want to give my listener the gift of carrying the offense with me. Unfortunately, if the conflict is resolved, my listener, who was not privy to the peace process, may continue to carry the offense long after I and my offender have laid it down.
Step Two: Take Witnesses
“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matt. 18:16). Jesus says that if the first meeting is unfruitful, the offended party is responsible to call a second meeting and invite witnesses. Who are these witnesses? In this verse, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 19:15. According to Mosaic Law, when an accusation was made, witnesses were to tell any related truth. A witness is there to testify to the truth or falsehood of the offender’s account, and to help the two parties see the conflict honestly. Jesus is asking those who may have insight concerning the offense to join the parties and help sort out relevant details. I am astounded at how differently Christians view events, actions, attitudes, and even the Christian life. Witnesses can serve as catalysts to bring about truth and a joyful resolution. But there are no guarantees!
Step Three: Take It to the Church
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…” (Matt. 18:17). If Jesus’ instructions have been followed, there are still no more than five people aware of the conflict. Now they are told to “tell it to the church.” What does Jesus mean?
Two hard-working, respected women were unable to settle their dispute in the church at Philippi, and Paul placed the issue squarely in the laps of the leadership. “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel…” (Phil. 4:2–3). Whom-ever God has placed in authority over you in the church is now in charge. Courtesy dictates that all parties are heard at the same time, and godly people follow the directives of their leaders. Then we can rest in the assurance that the outcome will ultimately be God’s best for us.
What blessings can we experience as we learn the skill and art of peacemaking? Through conflict, we can see God at work in issues and relationships; we can learn more about His character and faithfulness as well as more about ourselves. Conflict resolution can mature and equip us. It can prepare us to minister in the real world. Although we often tend to view conflict negatively, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).