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Managing Conflict in Ministry

By Dr. Megan Brown on Monday, February 17, 2020

Dr. Megan Brown
How does my ability to handle conflict well impact my ability to live out my calling? In this article, Dr. Megan Brown, associate Professor of Christian Ministries, discusses tools for handling conflict and confrontation well.

As a pastor, and, well, as a human, I’ve encountered my fair share of conflict.

I’ll never forget the hot summer afternoon I was leading an afternoon event for my youth group. Each summer as a youth pastor, before school started, I planned a week of events for the youth and children of the church as a final “hoorah.” This particular afternoon’s activity was a rubber band golf tournament.

The event was well underway, and I had divided the youth and children into groups—each assigned a leader to be the score keeper for their group. As my group began to round the corner of the children’s wing heading to the fourth hole, the pastor came barreling down the hallway. He was obviously angry. Really angry. In a commanding voice I heard him calling my name, which was quickly followed with the dreaded statement, “I need to speak with you. Now.”

I’ll spare you all the details, but there was, apparently, a disgruntled children’s leader who felt the children should not have been included in the afternoon’s events. Instead of approaching me about her discontent, she took it straight to the pastor.

The pastor did not have all the information and decided to confront me—in front of 20+ students and a handful of ministry leaders. I remember responding calmly as many heads were beginning to peer around the various corners of the church hallways, “Pastor, can we discuss this tomorrow in the office? I don’t think this is the appropriate setting for this conversation.” He, rather unsatisfied, spouted a few additional comments and reluctantly agreed to address the issue the following morning.

In ministry, and in life, conflict is inevitable. We will face moments when we do not agree with others, feel misunderstood, frustrated, unheard, and undervalued. However, the way we respond in those moments is of utmost importance.

Some of us are wired to react to conflict instead of respond. Sometimes this wiring is due to the way we observed conflict in our family-of-origin. Sometimes it’s linked to our ability to process emotions. Regardless of where the reactionary response comes from, we have to learn to respond instead of react in conflict situations—especially in ministry. But how do we do that?

One great way to learn to respond, instead of react, in conflict situations is by asking good questions. 
—Dr. Megan Brown, Associate Professor of Christian Ministries

One great way to learn to respond, instead of react, in conflict situations is by asking good questions. Most of us are inclined to become defensive in the midst of conflict. We begin by defending or justifying our side of the conflict. This behavior, typically, escalates the situation making a solution more challenging to navigate. However, if we begin by asking good questions, discerning where the other person is coming from, and gaining a fuller understanding of what the root of the problem may be we are better situated to respond well and find a solution that appeases all parties involved.

Another helpful tool in addressing conflict comes from Pastor John Maxwell, in the book Developing the Leader within You. In the book Maxwell suggests 10 Commandments of Confrontation, or conflict, that I’ve found incredibly helpful over the years.

1. Do it privately, not publicly. First, addressing the conflict in a private setting is usually the best policy. Approaching someone in a public setting, like in my ministry illustration above, can escalate the situation and draw in additional voices that are not necessary. Drawing in others can also create a “me vs. them” dynamic that creates a defensive flare in the conversation and prevents a solution being reached.

2. Do it as soon as possible. That is more natural than waiting a long time. Second, some personality types like to “wait it out” and hope the conflict will get better or just go away; however, conflict rarely, if ever, just dissolves without being addressed. So, the best policy is to address a situation as it arises. One exception may be if you struggle with reactionary responses is to give yourself a cool down period (say, 24 hours) and then address the issue. I’ve had some students tell me they wait months to address an issue with a roommate, only to discover that if they had just brought it up sooner, the issue could have been rectified much earlier.

3. Speak to one issue at a time. Don’t overload the person with a long list of issues. This one can be so challenging for some of us. Sometimes we think, “Well, if I’m going to do this and have an uncomfortable conversation, I may as well bring all the issues with me and put them all on the table at once.” However, this mentality creates a situation where the other person feels attacked. Addressing one issue at a time creates a healthier environment for conversation. Bringing up many issues can create an environment filled with tension, anger, frustration, and few solutions.

4. Once you’ve made your point, don’t keep repeating it. I love this little reminder. In the midst of conflict and confrontation it’s important to make your point, be clear, and then leave space for the other person to respond. Continuing to repeat your concern will not make the issue any easier to discuss.

5. Deal only with actions the person can change. Sometimes we have concerns that are beyond another person’s control. So, a good rule of thumb is, if they can’t change it, don’t bring it up.

6. Avoid sarcasm. Some of us, myself included, have the gift of sarcasm. However, in the midst of conflict there is no place for sarcasm. It often escalates the situation or is taken out of context and deflects from the actual issue at hand. If you, like me, struggle with this one, work to leave the sarcasm out of conflict and confrontation situations, especially in ministry.

7. Avoid words like always and never. They usually detract from accuracy and make people defensive. Using definitive language often creates a defensive environment as well. Just reflect on the difference in these two:

“You always forget to take out the trash!”

“I’ve noticed you sometimes forget to take out the trash.”

Using softer language often defuses the issue and creates space for solution and change.

8. Present criticisms as suggestions or questions if possible. Similar to definitive language, if we present criticism or concerns as character issues they are not received well. Instead, if we pose questions or suggestions the situation is often defused. For example, instead of saying, “Stop leaving your stuff all over the living room!” Try saying, “Would you mind putting your things away at the end of the day?” Or, “How could we work together to keep the common areas clean?” 

9. Don’t apologize for the confrontational meeting. For some personality types this is a huge hurdle to overcome. The issue is, if we apologize for the confrontation, or bringing up a concern, the other person may not see it as an actual concern. This will lead to frustration and continued misunderstanding. So, leave the “I’m sorry’s” out of the conversation.

10. Don’t forget the compliments. Compliment > Confront > Compliment. Finally, the classic compliment sandwich! I tell my students every semester, if you remember nothing else from this list remember this one! Most of us like to know what we are doing well. So, starting with a praise, bringing up a concern, and then concluding with a praise often leads to conversation about an issue instead of reactions. I’ve found this is especially effective in work environments.

As I teach these principles in my classes every semester I’m often reminded of the areas in which I too need to grow and develop. Perhaps a few of these can be implemented in your own life and ministry as you deal with conflict and confrontation. We all experience conflict! It’s just a matter of how we respond to it.