PASTORS DEALING WITH CONFLICT
By Randy Nabors
Recently I was asked to speak to a group of church planters and their wives about conflict. Ted Powers must have assumed that after 36 years as a pastor I must have had some along the way. I thought I would share with you the gist of what I said on that day.
I know that folks at Peacemakers have given lots of thoughts to these things so if you are interested in really working on this subject I suggest looking at the work of Ken Sande. My field has especially be in the area of racial reconciliation.
Let me shape my remarks in ten points:
1. We need some Gospel and spiritual preparation for dealing with conflict. It is important that as believers, and especially as pastors, we make some preparation for the conflicts that are to come. One of the key words to remember when it comes to conflict is the word “identity.” Identity is a tool that can be used by either side in spiritual warfare, especially where it is exposed and made tender in interpersonal conflict.
a. Our identity in Christ is a marvelous protection for our hearts when we enter into conflict. If you don’t know who you are in Christ you inevitably fall into ego competition with your antagonist. This is dangerous for ourselves and it leads to a host of temptations of fear, defensiveness, anger, etc. I can think of no better chapter to meditate on in this regard than Romans 8. We are sons of God, and no one can take that away from us, and no one can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
b. The identity of our real enemy is important to keep in mind so we realize quickly what is going on in, behind, and through the circumstances of the conflict. The book of Ephesians chapter 6 teaches us that we “wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of darkness in this world.” The Apostle Paul is speaking about the Devil, and we can often forget that he is the real enemy. This is great protection from the temptation to hate people and to have some measure of sympathy for them, as we hope they might have for ourselves because the reality is that sometimes we too can be used as Satan’s instruments when we are sinful. Ministry is rife with spiritual warfare, it is always in play, and the Evil One is always looking for a chance to use conflict to break our unity and fellowship and to grieve the Holy Spirit of God. One clue that he is involved is when our opponent is always being accused in our minds because that is the Devil’s work.
c. The identity of our human opponents is also helpful to us to keep us from making total jerks of ourselves. People are created in God’s image, they belong to him as he is their master and it is to him they will stand or fall (not to us). Believers are people for whom Christ died, and non-believers may just be His elect who haven’t realized it yet. All of them are people whom God loves, and they are our neighbors and people we are commanded to love as ourselves.
2. Conflict is inevitable, especially in ministry. Some fights you cannot dodge. If the pastoral ministry is one in which you must preach, lead, and engage with the flock as the flock, and the flock as individual sheep, then sooner or later someone is going to have a problem with you. It may be a totally imagined problem, you may simply be a symbol of authority, they may have “daddy” issues, whatever; conflict will come. Sometimes you will be at fault, it is a fight you started, and you may be right about the issue but go about it in the wrong way. My point here is that it will come because James teaches us no one can control the tongue, and you have one, either in your mouth or through what you write, or even in the looks you give.
3. Conflict is not always bad for there are some battles you will need to fight. If we are to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort…” it is going to cause conflict, even if you do it with “great patience and instruction.” If you by personality are someone who loves to quarrel, if you love to correct others and straighten them out, if you are contentious then there is a good chance you don’t belong in the ministry at all. However, our call is one in which we are called to declare God’s Word, we have to call sin, sin! Often people take that kind of thing personally. If we fail to stand for what is true, and right, and good, then we are cowards. Sometimes it comes to pursuing the conflict or losing a whole church to evil and discord, and that we cannot allow. One specific thing that must be confronted is gossip, and sometimes we have to do that “head on.”
4. Avoiding conflict tends to create it. If you keep dodging confrontation it is going to make other people nervous about your leadership and the direction of the church. People will lose respect for you and you will lose respect for yourself. Take strength in the power of God, in the vindication of his Spirit, and trust Him no matter what it costs you.
5. “People pleasing” is exactly the opposite of your mission. We are called to please God, and loving people pleases Him. Attempting to keep people happy and mollified is not the same as loving them. How can we disciple people in the faith if we never tell them the truth about areas they need to address and change, even if we do it with gentleness? I like Paul’s comments in 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6 “…We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, no did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.” Enough of glad handing and plastic smiles and tip toeing around touchy leaders and big tithers, be genuine and loving but tell the truth.
6. Failures in conflict resolution create consequences, usually bad ones. If you run away from the conflicts you should have, or start ones you shouldn’t due to your anger, or handle them in an unbiblical way they will leave bad memories and emotional scars in yourself, and in other people. We are to “seek peace and pursue it.” Most people recover from conflicts handled well, and in fact grow from it, and even gain respect for those they may have once disrespected.
7. Healthy conflict doesn’t always look successful. The reality is that people have pride, and they don’t always handle things well. Sometimes it simply takes time, and lots of prayer, to realize someone else was correct in what they said to you. So, fi that is true for you then give other people time, and protect their dignity. Humiliating someone, or even having them admit to every fault and giving you due recognition that you were absolutely right, is not the vindication you should seek. We cannot fix everyone or every situation, and sometimes the loose ends have to be left with God.
8. We need to clarify what a successful outcome might be in…
a. Ourselves –that we did not sin, that we were personally willing to take the loss, that we were and are ready to forgive and reconcile, that we have confessed our sins and admitted our fault, that we stood for the glory of God.
b. In others- that they have been heard, that they have been respected, that we have made an honest and clear attempt to make sure they understand our position, that they have been assured of the grace and love of God.
c. In the church- that we have sought the unity and peace of the body of Christ, that we have sought the purity of the church, that we have sought the restoration of sinners and that we have done things in an open, honest, and non-manipulative manner.
9. We might learn how conflict was handled in the Bible, and I point you to three stories that you might read and think about how the Apostle Paul recorded his conflicts.
a. Paul’s conflict with Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41
b. Paul’s conflict with the Apostle Peter in Galatians 2:11-16
c. Paul’s desire to see conflict ended between two women in Philippians 4:2-3
10. I end my comments with referring you to what I recommend to all couples that I have counseled prior to marriage. I think Ephesians chapter four could be called “the communications chapter of the Bible.” Look for every admonition and teaching about how to relate, react, treat, and communicate with others in this chapter and I think you will see what I mean. “Forgiving each other, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.”
One of the constants of pastoral ministry is grieving, because there will be losses along the way. Some of these losses will be from people who abandon the church, and thus abandon you. Friendships that had seemed firmly established can end suddenly, and people who were in a Bible study for years, always over your house, people with whom you shared family vacations never speak with you again. Your wife will especially bear this grief, and it will be hard for her.
Another constant is criticism, and again your wife can bear this disproportionately. People can criticize her performance as a wife and mother, or her activity or non-activity in the church. People will test your confidentiality by asking her seemingly innocent questions to see if you have told her about their issues. You cannot protect her from everything, but be careful what you bring home as you seek the support of your closest confidant and ally. Try to protect her from thinking she has to protect you, and make sure neither she nor yourself is a gossip.
Yes, you can have dear and close friends in your church and it is not healthy to simply engage in protecting yourself and family emotionally by being closed and acting invulnerable. Let the Lord be your hiding place, it is always safe under the shadow of the Almighty.