Conflict will always be in our lives. It is not something that goes away as we grow older or deepen in our sanctification. Knowing that conflict will always be with us, it is important for us to learn both the primary causes of conflict as well as the ways that people typically respond to conflict. As we learn more about the underlying components, we will naturally become more equipped to handle conflict resolution in the church and in our personal lives.
As ministry leaders, we deal with conflict more than most. Senior leaders have potential conflicts from staff members, the elder board, church members, and even those outside of your church. Ministry leaders typically have potential conflicts with other staff, volunteers, and those they minister to. In some cases like family ministry, you also have potential conflicts with parents and family members as well. In order for us to be effective ministry leaders, we have to be equipped for when conflict does arise. In this post, we’ll dive into some core concepts in personal and organizational conflict resolution in the church.
Three Ways That People Respond To Conflict
Ken Sande, in his book The Peacemaker, reveals that there are three basic ways people respond to conflict. There are escape responses, attack responses, and peacemaking responses. Sande illustrates these responses by charting the differing categories into a semi-circle which he refers to as a hill. The escape responses are shown on the far left juxtaposed to the attack responses on the far right. In the middle are the peacemaking responses. In fully expressing the hill illustration, he tasks the reader with envisioning the hill covered in ice. In doing so he shows that, if you are too far on either side and away from the safe peacemaking section, you will likely fall off the hill.
Escape responses are typically used by people who desire to avoid conflict rather than resolving it. The most common of these responses are flight and denial. Perhaps the most easily recognizable response to conflict within the church is flight. I have certainly been guilty of this in my own life where I have decided that it would be easier to leave a ministry than commit to a plan of conflict resolution with the other party. This, in my experience, is usually preceded by a prolonged season of denial where one or both parties discount the offense that they feel towards the other. Neither of these responses are healthy and should be avoided.
Attack responses on the other hand are typically used by people who desire to win an argument rather than maintain a relationship. The common attack responses listed by Sande in his book are assault and litigation. While these are certainly a reality and by no means do I want to discount their severity, it does seem that this section of the book is in need of updating. In today’s social media and internet driven world, the more pressing attack response seems to be an attack of words through social media posting. In the eyes of the attacker, their desire is to sow discord and for their side of the story to be accepted as the truth of what really happened. This response typically leads to a peacemaker attempting to intervene in the situation, but more often than not the desire to win the conflict is too strong to reason with.
Finally, we must discuss peacemaking responses, which are the appropriate responses that we should have to conflict. Peacemaking responses are typically overlooking an offense, reconciliation, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and accountability with the first three being labeled as personal peacemaking responses and the latter three labeled as assisted peacemaking responses. Sande strongly asserts that, “these responses are commanded by God, empowered by the gospel, and directed toward finding just and mutually agreeable solutions to conflict.” These responses should be our primary responses to conflict. Yet, these responses do not come naturally for us. We must grow in our ability to put aside our natural inclination toward escape or attach responses and instead strive to embrace the peacemaking responses in our lives.
Four Causes of Conflict
Now that we understand how people typically respond to conflict, let’s dive into the four causes of conflict. These are misunderstandings resulting from poor communication, differences in values, goals, gifts, etc., competition over limited resources, and finally, sinful attitudes or habits.
Each of these causes are presented in a seemingly equal manner among conflicts that we face. Misunderstandings from poor communication are typically the result of a lack of love on the part of both people involved in the conflict. Instead of assuming the best or asking the other party to clarify, we assume the worst and attempt to attack or tear down the other person for what is usually a simple misunderstanding.
Conflicts resulting from a difference in values, goals, etc. are typically a failure to value each part of the body for who God has called them to be. While there are certainly times where conflict from differing values can be corrective, it is often a result of a failure to see the other person’s perspective from who God has uniquely called them to be. We all have different functions with differing gifts, values, and callings. As we learn to embrace our differences, we will embrace the differing perspectives of others and will grow in unity within the body of Christ.
Conflicts started from competition over limited resources can be especially difficult within the church. As a ministry that is full of people, we are all constrained by limited resources. Paid staff can only be in so many places at once, and not every program under the sun can exist within every church. We become possessive over ‘our’ programs and needs instead of looking to how God could want to move differently within our churches. We must learn to look toward the needs of others before ourselves.
Lastly, conflicts caused by sinful habits and attitudes are perhaps the most destructive within the church or among personal relationships. These conflicts typically involve a lot of pride and failure to admit wrongdoing. Reasoning with the sinful party can feel like an exercise in futility and leave the other parties feeling defeated. While these situations can often feel hopeless, we must remember that our first response should not be to act in a similar fashion. Instead, we must first look toward God in prayer.
Sande suggests that we “look at conflict as an opportunity to glorify God, serve others, and grow to be like Christ.” This certainly is not an easy task, but it is one that is immensely rewarding. As we learn to bring about conflict resolution in a way that honors God, we will become a people that more closely resembles him. There will be times that we fail to live up to this standard, but in those failures, we can rest in God’s grace to gently restore and correct us.
Five Biblical Truths About Conflict
Understanding conflict is key to effectively resolving it. In order for us to be able to resolve conflict in our own lives and help others navigate through conflict, we must look to the biblical truth about conflict. In his book Making Peace, Jim Van Yperen highlights five biblical truths about conflict that are beneficial for us to understand. While some are straightforward and easy to digest, others require more wrestling in order to receive.
Van Yperen starts out by stating that, “All conflict involves broken relationships.” This is straight forward; however, it does not always present itself as such. There are undoubtedly times where two people who care for one another deeply find themselves in conflict. On the surface, it can be difficult to identify the broken relationship. Yet, when we dive further into the conflict it becomes easier to see that one or both parties are failing to value the other person above themselves. This seemingly insignificant contention creates strife and turmoil within relationships. When we value others and seek to reconcile relationships first, conflict quickly fades away.
But, conflict does not just involve broken relationships. In listing the next truth, Van Yperen reasons that, “All conflict is in some measure about spiritual warfare.” There are times when conflict is not so straight forward, and the underlying issue requires more digging to discover or confirm. Sometimes seemingly unconnected events or stories are enough to bring to light the spiritual aspect of a conflict. We must be sensitive to the spiritual nature of conflict and remember that we are not merely working with people, but that there are also spiritual forces at work.
Next, Van Yperen shares what we already know – all Christians will encounter conflict. We will always have conflict on this side of eternity. Conflict will always happen, but that should not scare us or surprise us. However, it should incite us to prepare to resolve conflict when it does inevitably arise.
Rather interestingly he also points out that conflict is necessary. He writes that, “Without sickness, we do not know health. Without evil, we do not know good. Without conflict, we do not know peace. Conflict is necessary for God to shape us.” During conflict we always yearn for peace. Yet, while at peace we often take it for granted. We grow and are molded into who we are out of our response to conflict. For better or worse, conflict changes us. Yet, with every conflict there is an opportunity for us to grow in holiness, faith, and love.
Along those lines, Van Yperen arrives at his final point. He argues that, “Most of all, conflict is an opportunity to trust God for positive change – to make peace.” Every conflict brings about a decision that must be made – trust God or trust self. While conflict is inevitable, our response to conflict is still up in the air. Will we choose to respond positively and make peace? Or will we respond in selfishness and seek to win without any regard for consequence.
Trusting God in Conflict
Conflict is not only an opportunity for us to show our love for God by placing people first, but it is also an opportunity for us to trust God. Out of our love for God and others, we may choose to overlook a trespass in order to bring about conflict resolution, yet that conflict may leave hurt within us that we ultimately take out on God. This is a key to conflict – it is not only about doing right, but also about believing right.
Conflict resolution does not start with action – it starts with belief. Sande puts it this way, “the more your trust [God], the easier it is to do his will.” Trusting God is a precursor to dealing with conflict in a true spirit of peacemaking. If we only do what is right out of our own willpower, we will ultimately create more conflict down the line due to unresolved hurt. We know by now that conflict is inevitable. We must also realize that hurt from conflict is also inevitable. That is not to say that hurt cannot be healed or resolved, but it will occur within the context of conflict. Sande argues that, “The fact that God is good does not mean that he will insulate us from all suffering. Rather, it means that he will be with us in our suffering and accomplish good through it.” God will always create a way for our suffering and hurt to be used for good; however, the realization of that good is ultimately a choice we must make by choosing to trust in God and submitting our pain and suffering to him. In the moment, we may not be able to see the good that God is going to do out of the conflict. This requires faith on our part.
Ultimately a right belief in God is necessary for us to deal with conflict correctly. Sande puts it this way, “If you believe that God is sovereign and good, you will be able to trust him and obey him, even in the midst of difficult circumstances.” The posture of our heart is revealed in conflict. If we want to respond to conflict well and be peacemakers, we must first reconcile that while God will make all things work for our good, we will inevitably face trials, sufferings, and hurt. By choosing to trust God ahead of conflict, we allow ourselves to more easily respond to conflict in a manner that is worthy of the gospel.