By Dave Earley
A few years ago, I surveyed a group of 25 successful, veteran pastors who were leading a variety of healthy churches. I asked a few simple questions.
One of the questions was, “Please list the three things you did not learn in seminary, but wish you had.” I was surprised that there was one response given by all of them: Learning to resolve conflict effectively.
Most pastors leave a church because of unresolved conflict. One seasoned church consultant told me that he discovered that, regardless of the size of the church, once a pastor has seven cases of unresolved conflict, the stress of the pastorate increases to the level that he feels the need to leave.
Biblical pastoral leadership requires getting along with others and helping others get along with each other. Effective pastoral leadership is often about resolving conflict and making peace.
Conflict Is Inevitable
If two people are around each other very long, conflict will result. We are all different. We have unique personalities, tastes, habits, preferences, experiences, passions, and ways of looking at and navigating life. These distinctions create differences.
Beyond that, most of us live at a very fast pace which naturally creates friction. Plus we live in a fallen world and have fallen natures. The world throws us stressful situations and painful circumstances. We are not always at our best all the time. As a result, conflicts arise. Someone feels misunderstood, wronged, denied, or unappreciated.
As relationships start, they are usually built upon three factors. First, there are the things we have in common. Second, there are the things about us that are different, yet complementary. Third, there are the things that are different, but not complementary. The third factor causes friction.
No matter how deeply a man and woman love each other, no matter how long two friends have known each other, no matter how mature two Christians are in spiritual matters, they will eventually have conflict in that third area. It is unrealistic to expect otherwise.
Conflict That Goes Unresolved Devastates Relationships
Conflict in and of itself is not a problem. It is neutral—neither bad nor good. The badness or goodness of conflict all depends on how we respond to it. If we fail to make peace effectively, our relationships will suffer.
Unresolved conflict is the ugly white elephant and lethal cancer in too many of our failed relationships. Unhandled conflict will eventually erode the joy, rob the peace, and shred the commitments from our relationships.
Conflict Is an Assignment, Not an Accident
Ken Sande is the founder of Peacemaker Ministries. He joined with a group of pastors, lawyers, and business people who wanted to encourage and assist Christians to respond to conflict biblically. As part of the peacemaker’s pledge, he states that “conflict is an assignment, not an accident.”
Our sovereign God might not necessarily create conflicts, but He often allows them to arise in our relationships for our good and His ultimate glory. Therefore, we need to realize that conflict is always an opportunity.
Conflict can either be very destructive or very beneficial, depending on how it is handled. Every conflict we experience has great potential. When handled well, conflict can make us better people, give us stronger relationships, and glorify God.
Jesus applauded peacemakers. In His teachings on true happiness He said that peacemaking is an opportunity for us to discover ourselves and our place in God’s family, experience deeper personal satisfaction, and reflect the image of God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt 5:9 NIV)
Jesus also prayed for peacemakers. In the agonizing prayer He offered to His Father just hours before dying on the cross, Jesus prayed that His followers would become peacemakers and thereby experience true unity.
I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in Me through their message. May they all be one. (John 17:20–21)
Conflict is a necessary part of close relationships. It is always an opportunity to grow and to glorify God. Learn to view it as an assignment, not an accident.
Conflict Does Not Resolve Itself
The path of least resistance is not the solution to relational conflicts. Some, when faced with conflict, try avoiding it entirely. Pretending that conflict does not exist, however, does not solve the situation and will ultimately only make matters worse.
Others acknowledge conflict exists, but refuse to take action. This only accelerates and compounds problems (Gen 16:1–6; 1 Sam 2:22–25).
Still others try to escape conflict by ending the relationship, quitting the job, filing for divorce, or changing churches (Gen 16:6–8). Their world gets smaller and smaller as they bail out of every relationship when it starts getting difficult.
Conflict Cannot Be Ignored
Conflict must be courageously addressed. Jesus made it clear. You cannot have a bad relationship with people and maintain a good relationship with God. Your horizontal, human relationships impact your vertical, spiritual relationship with God. Jesus told His followers that attempts at making peace would need to be taken before they could freely and fully worship God. In fact, He even said that their vertical worship of God was to be immediately halted until attempts were made to resolve a personal conflict with someone else. Only then could they return to worship God.
So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23–24)
Jesus taught us that there comes a point when action must be taken whether we are the offender or the offended. If we are the offender, we are to interrupt our worship in order to go and make things right. In the same way, if we are the offended because someone has significantly hurt us, we are obligated to go to them privately, share with them how they have hurt us, and seek resolution to this conflict.
If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. (Matt 18:15)
Putting these two passages together, it becomes clear that conflict must not be ignored. Whether we are the offender (Matt 5:23–34) or the offended (Matt 18:15) we are to take the initiative to make peace. Ideally, both parties are to meet in the middle as they run to each other to make things right.
Conflict Must Be Handled Wisely
Conflict is inevitable, so the issue is not if you will have conflicts in your relationships—you will. The issue is how you will handle the conflicts when they arise. People with good relationships handle conflict wisely. People with poor relationships do not. Successful relationships are the result of making peace without leaving scars. Good relationships result from learning to fight fair.
Let’s think in terms of marriages. All couples fight. Good couples fight clean. Bad couples fight dirty. Research indicates that “being in love” is a very poor indicator of marital happiness and success. Far more important to the successful survival of a marriage is how well couples handle disagreements.
Dave Earley is pastor of Grace City Church in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Adapted from Pastoral Leadership Is… (B&H Publishing Group, 2012)