This past year has been a difficult one in many ways. The isolation, political divisiveness, the restrictions, personal issues, and struggles within the church have all seemed to heighten tensions and frustrations. With people more so processing on their own and not bringing others into their thoughts and questions, we are seeing conflict happen more frequently and more intensely.
Many of you have probably felt this within your churches and perhaps within your personal lives as well. Church leaders have taken hit after hit this past year, and it seems pastors and church staff are all weary and feeling the tension at deeper levels than ever before.
The easy response would be to dismiss the tension and conflict or just walk away. But that is neither productive nor uplifting for the body of Christ or individuals. So how do we handle conflict well? I am no expert at this, and arguably this past year has forced me to rethink and evaluate how I could handle it better. But what I’d love to share with you today are some steps that I believe if we implement, we will be able to handle conflict better holistically and prayerfully see the body of Christ encouraged, challenged, and built up.
This seems like an obvious choice but it is often one we miss, put on the back burner, or rush through. We all know that prayer is important, but we must be praying before, during, and after conflict as much as we can.
If you know you’re heading to a difficult meeting, pray before you get there. Allow your prayers to not be about your success or proving your point, but about honoring God and the relationship that this meeting represents. Pray during the meeting both in silence and out loud when needed. If the tension is elevating, pause and pray for one another. And pray after the meeting has ended. Pray for each other, for wisdom, humility, and restoration. Only through Christ will there be resolution and through our prayers God moves.
Hear, listen, and respond.
Whenever we are in a meeting, especially one that may be tense or have conflict as a part of it, we may feel pressured to push our responses, agendas, or points. But when we do that we not only make the other person feel unheard but also devalued. And that is not healthy nor representative of godly leadership.
Instead, we need to not only listen to someone but hear them. We should listen to what is said and seek to understand. Ask clarifying questions, repeat back what you heard, and look to know what is shaping their understanding and point of view. As you seek to do these things, your responses should be shaped accordingly. You aren’t seeking to win, but to honor God, understand, protect the relationship, and bring resolution. These can only be accomplished by first hearing and listening, then responding.
Processing is an important component of moving through conflict, and we cannot relegate the processing piece to only after the conflict. Part of preparing for and moving through conflict means you need to process what has been communicated and shared.
Often we are led into conflict when someone reaches out and shares about tension. So think through what they shared with you. Don’t over-analyze or assume, but process what was said or shared as you seek to understand. This applies to what is shared during the actual conflict or meeting. Seek to understand and not simply respond. Process and look for clarity before you draw conclusions. The same process should be applied to how you respond after the meeting has concluded.
Know your non-negotiables.
This past year has seen a lot of tension arise within the church as everyone has an opinion on what a church should be doing and how it should be responding. This period of time has taught our leadership to think through what our non-negotiables are and to not concede on them.
This same mentality can be apprised to conflict of any kind, but not in an aggressive or dominant way. It isn’t about control or winning, but knowing what cannot be compromised. Many of the conflicts I’ve dealt with recently centered around our church’s guidelines related to COVID. Knowing what we could be flexible on and could not change allowed me to be honest and clear on what and why we were doing what we were doing. So know what you can be flexible on and what you can’t change. This will bring clarity and helpful insight into the conversation.
Seek forgiveness when needed.
We all make mistakes, and many of us have made mistakes during times of conflict or tension. When that happens we need to seek forgiveness. We need to own when we speak out of turn, we must acknowledge if something we did or said contributed to the tension, and we should own our mistakes. Whenever we are contributors to the conflict or tension we must admit our faults and seek forgiveness. Doing this not only demonstrates leadership but also adherence to God’s Word in admitting when we are wrong or have hurt others.
Seek to keep or restore the relationship.
Tension and conflict can cause relationships to struggle or falter. Sometimes it is due to miscommunication or misunderstandings. At other points it may be because there are radically different positions being held. As much as you are able, seek to keep and restore the relationship(s).
I have had to dismiss leaders and volunteers for a variety of circumstances, but I always seek to honor the friendship and relationship that is there. They don’t always look the same as coaching or counseling may be needed, but it is so important to care for others and honor the relationship. There will be times that we cannot restore them because of the other parties involved, but in as much as you are able, seek to honor and restore the relationship.
Acknowledge and validate.
Sometimes we need to admit our wrongs but we also need to acknowledge when others are right and present good points or insight. Often we just think about apologizing and seeking forgiveness when something we stated or did was incorrect, but what about acknowledging and validating the other person?
When people share helpful critiques or insight or if they were right where we were wrong, we need to acknowledge that and validate what they said or did. This will not only help us show humility, but it is also healthy leadership. A good leader knows to acknowledge and validate their people when they share or do something right, and this must carry over into moments of conflict as well.
This is huge and honestly it may be one of the harder ones. If we leave a moment of conflict and it feels unresolved or there is hurt from that moment, we may not want to follow up. Our humanity will pull us from seeking to right the relationship and honor the other person. But as we die to self and seek Christ we should see that as followers of Jesus we need to follow up with our people.
Reach out. Seek clarity. Pursue the relationship. Honor the other person. In doing this you are not only showing humility but strong leadership and a shepherd’s heart. Follow up even if it’s hard. Lean into those moments as you care for your people and lead out. This step is the hardest but one of the most important, and I believe doing this will help to bring people in and strengthen our communities.