Lecture 03: Interpersonal Conflict in Ministry Contexts | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 03: Interpersonal Conflict in Ministry Contexts

Course: Small Group Dynamics

Lecture: Interpersonal Conflict in Ministry Contexts



Interpersonal Conflict in Ministry Contexts

A. A Definition of Interpersonal Conflict

The final segment that we will be talking about in this instruction is about interpersonal conflict in ministry contexts. I want to begin with a definition offered by Joyce Hawker and William Wilmot that is I believe the best definition of interpersonal conflict. It says: “Interpersonal conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce rewards, and interference from the other party.”

A few years ago I was invited by a church to do a session for the adults about managing church conflict, and why is church conflict so hard, and what can we do about it? One hour before I was speaking to that adult group, I sat in the two-year-old Sunday school room with my own daughter and a number of other children. Then I made a mistake you never want to make in a two-year-old Sunday school room. I asked, “Who wants a story?” At this point, I was inundated with two-year-olds, including one cute little girl who said, “I want a story, I want a story” and she climbed up on my lap. When my daughter saw this happen, she turned from her position in the corner and glared at the child who was on my lap, stomped over to the child, grabbed the child on my lap by her sweater, pulled her off of my lap and said to the little girl, “My daddy’s lap.”

An hour later I went upstairs and sat in a room with 200 adults and I told that story. Then I said, “Only the particulars change. What you have just experienced is the basic anatomy of conflict.” Now what I want you to do is think about a conflict episode that you have had with another person. Get a specific instance in mind. Then we’re going to use my story and your instance to see if we can’t understand more completely this definition of interpersonal conflict.

It starts with an expressed struggle. In conflict, there has to be some kind of expression. That expression can be verbally with words, or it might come nonverbally without words. Either way, or most often both ways, there has to be expression for there to be conflict. Without expression, you don’t have conflict, what you have is emotion. You can have the emotions of anger, rage, resentment, and frustration, but all you have is emotion until it gets expressed somehow. In the story I told you, the expression of the struggle came both verbally and nonverbally. Verbally it was my daughter saying, “My daddy’s lap” to the other little girl. Nonverbally it was her pulling the girl off my lap. You think about your situation and think about how struggle was expressed verbally and/or nonverbally; most often it is both.

The second part of the definition says that the expressed struggle happens between at least two interdependent parties. The important word here is “interdependent.” Interdependence is a concept that means, what I do affects you and what you do affects me. We still make choices, but we affect one another. Interdependence is both the good news and the bad news of conflict management. It is the good news in the sense that we are able to affect one another, therefore we are able to manage conflict effectively. It is because my apology can have an affect on another that I can help to manage conflict. That is good news. Interdependence is also the bad news of conflict in the sense that if we weren’t interdependent with one another, there would be nothing to have conflict about. It is the fact that the one little girl’s behavior affected my daughter that created conflict. So interdependence is both a root of all conflict and it’s also one of our primary means of managing it.

The third part of the definition says that these interdependent parties perceive incompatible goals. “Perceive” is a keyword. Our goals in the conflict episodes we have don’t actually have to be incompatible. All it takes is the perception that they are incompatible. If I believe that they are incompatible, whether they are or not, I am set up for conflict with another. Goals can be incompatible in one of two ways. Goals can be incompatible when you and I want different ends. You believe that money should be spent on buying Bibles for the home church. I believe that money should be spent buying food for the widows. If you and I have different ends, those goals could be incompatible. But a second way that goals can be incompatible is that you and I want the same thing, but believe we both can’t have it. For example, you and I both want to be the primary leaders of the house group,  but we believe we both can’t be. We want the same thing; but if we believe we both can’t have it, we are set up for conflict. In the story that I told you about my daughter, though she perceived that the goals were incompatible, whether they were or not, she perceived that they were, and that is all it took.

The next part of the definition says that these people who perceive incompatible goals also perceive scarce rewards. When we believe that there is not enough of something positive to go around, we set ourselves up for conflict. In this case, the reward was attention from me and a story. My lap is big enough for two two-year-olds. So the rewards was not as scarce as my daughter thought it was; but all it took was her perception that it was scarce.

The final part of the definition says, “These people who perceive incompatible goals and scarce rewards also perceive interference from the other party.” When we believe that the other person is getting in the way of us getting our goals met, we are set up for conflict. Here is the basic anatomy of interpersonal conflict: “An expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, who perceive scarce rewards and who believe that there is interference from the other party.” That is the best definition that I know for interpersonal conflict.

B. Five Mistaken Ideas About Conflict

Now I would like to engage with you five mistaken ideas about conflict. The first of the five is that conflict can always be avoided. The truth is that conflict cannot always be avoided. Rather, conflict is a part of all relationships and will be present in some form or another. When I use the word “conflict,” I am not only talking about escalating violence. It can be something as simple as moderate disagreement. But conflict is always part of the relational landscape and can’t always be avoided.

A second mistaken idea is that conflict always damages relationships. The mistaken idea is that the mere presence of conflict is damaging to human relationships. The research suggests to us that it is not the presence or absence of conflict that damages relationships, it is what you do about the conflict. Conflict simply is a relational reality.

A third mistaken idea about conflict is that it always occurs because of misunderstanding. People tend to believe that if we only understood one another, we would not have conflict. The truth is, sometimes the conflict is because of misunderstanding, that is true. And sometimes the conflict is not because of misunderstanding, it is because we do understand one another. Sometimes we are quite clear with each other about how we differ, how our goals are different, for example; and that produces conflict. But it is not always because of misunderstanding. Sometimes it is, but not always.

The fourth mistaken notion about conflict is that conflict is always the sign of a poor relationship. If we loved one another as brothers and sisters in Christ should, we wouldn’t have conflict. If we really cared about each other in the small group or the house group we are part of, we wouldn’t have conflict. It is not true that conflict is a sign of a poor relationship, necessarily. Again, what matters is what you do about the conflict.

The fifth mistaken notion about conflict is that conflict can always be resolved. When many people talk about conflict, they talk about conflict resolution, as if resolving the conflict is the only acceptable outcome. The truth is that some conflict will not be resolved. My mother is a devout Christian woman. She lived as an adult across the street from a devout woman of another faith. For the first decade of their friendship, they tried to convert one another. They had subtle means like books and audiotapes showing up on their doorsteps, unexpected visitors and people like that; and they had more direct means. For the first decade, they tried to convert one another. Then they came to the conclusion that that was not likely to happen, and they could still love one another. They discovered that their differences when it came to faith were not going to be resolved, but could be managed. So when I get to teach about conflict management, I use that language, management, not resolution because some conflict will not be resolved, but can be managed if people choose to cooperate.

C. Three Different Types of Conflict

In the realm of conflict with one another, there are three different types of conflict. The first type of conflict is called substantive conflict. Substantive conflict happens when we have disagreement about ideas or issues in our group life. An example of substantive conflict is when we have a disagreement about interpretation of a Bible passage. You and I may disagree about that idea and if we did, we would call that “substantive conflict.”

A second kind of conflict that happens in group life is called “procedural conflict.” Procedural conflict is when we disagree about the methods or the process that groups should follow in attempting to reach group goals. An example of procedural conflict would be, shall we use a rotating leadership or a single consistent leader?  If you and I differ about which form of leadership we should have, we have procedural conflict because it involves the process that a group should follow in reaching its goals.

Here is a hint: There are three primary kinds of conflict in group life. The first two I have just described. Both of the first two are far easier to manage than the third. Whenever possible, to keep the conflict centered on a substantive issue or on procedure, you are far better off and far more likely to have a productive outcome than if the conflict becomes the third type, which is called “affective conflict.” Affective conflict is conflict around personalities, communication styles and emotions of group members. Affective conflict is what happens when certain group members feel devalued or ignored or attacked. Once you get to affective conflict and personalities and emotions get involved, it is typically much harder to manage that kind of conflict than either of the first two.

What I would like for you to do now is to think back to the conflict that I asked you to generate, the concrete example that I asked you to generate earlier. Ask yourself, what type of conflict was I dealing with? Perhaps it was substantive. Perhaps it was procedural. Perhaps it was affective.

D. The Unique Nature of Conflict in Ministry Groups

The next topic that we take up in managing conflict is the unique nature of conflict in ministry groups or house churches. It turns out that conflict in ministry groups takes on a distinctive nature because of several factors. The first is that the group of individuals have diverse needs and expectations. People walk into a ministry group or a house church with certain expectations. Whenever somebody tells you, “I’m going off to a house group meeting, but I don’t have any expectations about what will happen,” they are not telling you the truth. Everybody has expectations. One of the expectations is, they will be positively greeted by somebody. If somebody tells me, “I’m going off to a house group meeting, but I don’t have any expectations of what will happen,” I typically say something like, “I’ll bet if you show up and they slap you instead of shaking your hand, you would be surprised. You do have an expectation.” Everybody has expectations. Now, the essence of frustration is unmet expectation. That is its nature. Frustration is unmet expectation. What happens in church conflict or conflict in ministry groups or home groups is that people come with a variety of needs and expectations, usually ones that they have not announced. What happens, sadly, is these unannounced expectations produce frustration and resentment and anger. Only after the expectations haven’t been met, do people articulate what the expectations were in the first place. This is why covenanting is so important. In the covenant, we get to establish what will be the expectations. But people come to home groups and churches with all kinds of expectations.

A second reason that ministry conflict is so unique is that the concerns are personal and passionate. Faith evokes passion. Faith involves issues about which people are passionate. Because of that, what isn’t a passionate issue in many places outside the church becomes a passionate issue inside it. Here is an example: If a grocery store decides to move from one location to another, people tend not to get so passionately upset about that move. If a church decides to move from one place to another, all of a sudden passions get involved. “My children were baptized in that church and now you’re going to tear it down and move it somewhere else.” So people have personal and passionate concerns that create a unique situation for church and house group conflict.

A third dimension of uniqueness in ministry conflict is how conflict gets spiritualized. Instead of having expressed disagreement occur around issues outside of us, in spiritualized conflict we present God as being on our side and now the other side is evil, they don’t care about the Kingdom of God and the conflict ends up getting a spiritual overtone to it.

E. Common Sources of Conflict in Ministry Groups

Some of the typical sources of conflict in ministry contexts are the following: One of the realities that we all live with in group conflict is that the fall, the entrance of human sin, has produced imperfect people. If we have a sane estimation of ourselves, we know that we are not perfect; we are broken, sinful people in the process of redemption. We should not be surprised that we come in contact with other broken, sinful people who are also in the process of redemption.

Another common source of ministry conflict is fear. People are afraid of change. People are afraid of losing their influence. They are afraid of the result that might occur if the church takes on this other ministry. The Scripture says that “perfect love casts out fear.” Fear is the root of one of the sources of conflict.

Conflict happens in ministry groups when we have an unclear mission and vision. If we don’t know what our group’s mission is, or what the ministry vision is, conflict tends to occur because people develop expectations. Sometimes we have conflict in ministry groups because we have unclear roles and responsibilities. If we don’t know who is responsible to do what, we tend to set ourselves up for conflict because people will take charge, people will take responsibility. And if we are not clear about what those responsibilities are, it is very easy to end up with a procedural or affective conflict.

Sometimes we have conflict because communication lines get blocked. People stop talking to one another. In the absence of talking and listening to one another, they form judgments instead. They form perceptions about the motives of others.

Another common source of conflict in ministry groups is what happens when leadership style clashes with a group. If a homegroup, for example, has been led for the last three years by somebody who has an authoritative style of leadership, they are used to telling people, that group gets used to receiving instruction very directly. The next leader who comes in has a consulting style of leadership. They don’t want to tell people, to impose their direction and their will. They want it to be a product of collaboration and mutual cooperation. That group and that leader will tend to struggle, especially initially, at getting used to the style of the other because the history has produced some expectations.

A final common source of conflict in ministry is that a lack of ownership produces withdrawal. Because people are not invested, because they don’t believe they are part of creating ministry, they tend to withdraw from it. That withdrawal comes in terms of their presence at home group activities, their emotional investment in what is happening, their financial investment in what is happening. In all aspects, they tend to withdraw.

F. Interpersonal Power in Conflict

One of the most helpful concepts for me in the last several years has been to understand the role of power in conflict and relationships. Power is not the only thing happening in relationship, but it is part of all relationships. When it comes to power there are three types of power that tend to emerge in relationship with one another. The first kind of power is called positional power. Positional power is power granted to people simply because of the position that they occupy. In some of the cultures that those of you belong to, your culture grants power to somebody because they are older or because they have a particular position in society. That would be an example of positional power. A second kind of power is called “allocative.” Allocative power is what happens when I have the potential to distribute material things that matter. Allocative power happens when I have control over a certain amount of money and can give it to one place or to another, or I control the flow of food from one place to another. Those are allocative resources. A third kind of power is called “interpersonal power.” It is power that people grant to one another. And it is interpersonal power that I want to talk with you more about.

Interpersonal power is possessing something that someone else needs or values in order to achieve their goal. In that category of interpersonal power, there are types of power. You have resource control, which is your control over material resources. If people value the resources you control, they may grant you power. Another kind of power is interpersonal linkages. These are the connections that you have with other people. When one of my students asks me to write a letter of recommendation because I know somebody at the school to which they are applying, I have an interpersonal linkage power with them. They grant me that power because of the connections I have with other people.

A third kind of interpersonal power is communication skill. If you value someone who can listen well to you, that person who listens well has a kind of power with you. If you value clarity of instruction, the person who is a clear instructor has a kind of power with you.

A fourth kind of interpersonal power is expertise. You possess some kind of special skill or knowledge that the other values. If, for example, in your culture somebody understands agriculture and how to grow a crop well, they have a kind of power granted because of their expertise.

So those are types of interpersonal power that emerge in relationships and will be a factor in conflict situations.

G. Misconceptions About Power

There are also some misunderstandings about power. It is a misconception that power is a fixed trait that some people possess and other people don’t. The truth rather, is that power is with people, not over them. I have power with people as they grant me power because they recognize that I possess something that they value. The example I often use in class is about whether as a professor, I have power over my students. The answer is, “no, I don’t have power  over them, I have power with them if they value what I possess.” If they value grades and I have some control over grades, then I have a power resource that they value. If they value the knowledge of the content that we are doing in our class, I possess a kind of power with them because of that knowledge. Both of those instances are power with, not power over. I have power with them, granted by them because I possess something that they value. If I don’t possess something they value, or they don’t value the things that I do possess, I don’t have power with them. The best example of power with, not power over, is the life of Jesus. Jesus came into a social structure which valued place and prestige and social power. Jesus did not give the same kind of value to those issues, so people like scribes and Pharisees didn’t have the kind of power with Jesus that they had with other people. He did not value what they possessed, so they didn’t have power with him.

A second misconception about power is that all power is limited and finite. Some kinds of power are finite – money; in some parts of the world, water, are two examples of some resources that are finite. But not all power is finite. Some kinds of power, like respect, love, are not finite. If we perceive that those kinds of power are finite, we set ourselves up for conflict.

The third misconception about power is that all power is inherently good or inherently bad. Some people believe that all power is inherently good. Therefore, they grab for and control as much power as they can. Some people believe that power is inherently bad. Therefore, they won’t assume any kind of power, even if it is appropriate for them to do so. The truth is that power is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Power simply is a relational force in all conflict situations.

H. Some Conflict Management Skills

What I have tried to do so far is to describe the nature of interpersonal conflict, the nature of conflict in ministry situations, some types of conflict and the issue of power. We finish this session with what is in some respects the most important conversation and that is, how do we manage it? What can I do to more productively manage the conflicts that we experience? This conversation begins with Biblical mandates. If you have Bibles, I invite you to turn to Matthew chapter 18 and I’ll start reading at verse 15. The Scripture says: “If your brother sins against you, go show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over; but if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

In this passage, we see some Biblical mandates for managing conflict. The first mandate says, “If your brother sins against you…” If you have a perceived offense done by another, you don’t wait for them to come to you. Your job is to seek the conciliation first, regardless of what they do. The second principle that you see in this passage is that conflict management starts in private; not in public where humiliation is likely, but in private where people can restore relationships and save face. The circle of people involved in the conflict only grows as resistance to reconciliation is expressed, so begin small.

A second passage that we will consider in managing conflict is in Matthew chapter 5, I will read verses 23 and 24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.” This passage is an interesting complement to the one in Matthew 18 because this passage says, “If you are at the altar and remember there that your brother has something against you…” In Matthew 18 it was, “you have something against your brother…” Now it is, “your brother has something against you…” The point of these two passages put together says, it doesn’t matter if you are the one doing the perceived offense, or if you are the one receiving the perceived offense, your responsibility under God is the same. In both cases your responsibility is to seek reconciliation, to take the first step, regardless of what the other does, that you make the first step.

A third passage that we will consider as a Biblical mandate for managing conflict is in I Corinthians chapter 6. I will start reading at verse 1 and I will read verses 1 through 8. I Corinthians 6:1-8: “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life? Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church. I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another and this in front of nonbelievers. The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong and you do this to your brothers.”

This convicting passage makes the point that in the church we should go to people in the church first, rather than going to the civil courts. Some churches have taken this passage very seriously and set up in the church dispute management centers with people who are trained to help people manage their conflicts and to do so in church. Verse 7 of chapter 6 says, “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already.” Even if you win in court, you have already been defeated. The world is looking to the church to see whether we can manage relationships with one another, who we claim to be in our families, or whether we will be just like the world and live in the same kind of discord and rebelliousness as the world. Brothers and sisters, take care for how you manage conflict; and my encouragement is that you obey the Biblical mandates.

In addition to those helpful passages of Scripture, here are some other practical guidelines for managing conflict. My encouragement is that you seek consensus on the basics first. When you have conflict with another, begin with where you agree. That gives you a base of trust from which to begin the rest of the process. Instead of focusing only on where you disagree, begin with where you agree. Please, in your conflict, watch your attitude toward yourself, toward others and toward conflict itself. Remember this, conflict is a normal part of relationship. You aren’t unnatural or ungodly if you experience conflict, it is part of relational life. And when it comes to thinking about yourself, listen to this word from James chapter 1, verse 19. Here is what James suggests you do: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Be quick to listen. If your first response is to listen well, other people won’t have the same need to escalate their behavior. If they feel understood, received, if you have listened well, their need to escalate behavior goes down. Be slow to speak. Before you give verbal response, listen well and watch your emotions, be slow to become angry.

Another practical move that you can make in managing conflict, especially those of you who end up as leaders in home groups and small groups, educate your groups and model healthy conflict management. In the context of our life together in Christ, we should be receiving instruction in how to manage relationship with one another. God’s design from the beginning is that we live in shalom peace with God and with one another in the created order. That is part of God’s design for life. Here is an opportunity, those of you who have a place of leadership, this is an opportunity to educate people in what it means to live shalom.

My encouragement is that you intervene early. If you are unsure about whether something you have done has created discord or pain, or hard feelings for another, intervene early. Don’t wait for them to come to you. You lose nothing by initiating that conversation. If you go to another and say, “I don’t know if my words offended you, if they did, I am so sorry.” If they have offended the other, you cut it off at the very beginning of the process, you didn’t let it grow. If they haven’t offended the other, you haven’t lost anything. Intervene early.

As you communicate with people in conflict, my encouragement is that you establish supportive environments. Here I am drawing on the work of a communications scholar whose name is Jack Gibb, who contrasts supportive and defensive environments. There are attitudes and behaviors that invite people to be defensive; and attitudes and behaviors that invite people to be supportive. Here are some of the defensive and supportive environments. When people feel evaluated, judged, measured and condemned, they tend to become defensive. If you can frame your communication, not in terms of evaluation, but in terms of description, you invite supportiveness. Here is an example: If the treasurer of your house group has not given an account of where the money went, an evaluation sounds like this: Why have you been so irresponsible? Irresponsible is a judgment on their behavior. A description sounds like this: It has been three months and we haven’t received a treasurer’s report. That is not an evaluation, it is simply a description of what has happened. If you can keep your communication description, you tend to invite support, rather than evaluation, which invites defensiveness.

A second environment is the difference between your agenda and what you need. When people believe that you are pursuing your own agenda, you have an outcome that you want to achieve; when that agenda becomes primary, people tend to get defensive. If instead of agenda, you consider what you need, expressing needs tends to be met with supportiveness. Here is an example: When our children were in high school, we had one car that they shared. One child would wake up in the morning and say, “I’ll be taking the car today because I have to get to practice.” The other one says, “You can’t have the car because I have to get to the mall.” They get locked into their agendas and can’t see options. Instead of focusing on agendas, we tried to train them to focus on needs. The first child said, “I’ll be taking the car.” I would say, “What do you actually need?” What they needed was to get to practice. They didn’t need a car, what they needed was to get to practice. What the other child needed was to get to the mall. They didn’t have to have a car, what they had to do was get to the mall. If you think about the situation through needs, all kinds of options present themselves that would not be apparent otherwise. One option is, one of the children drops the other off at where they need to get; or they could get a ride from somebody else; or they could ride with Mom and Dad somewhere else. All kinds of options emerge if you start to think about what you need, not what your agenda is.

Here is my encouragement. When you meet a conflict situation, first ask yourself, what is it that I really need? Put your finger on the need and all kinds of options will open up for a supportive environment.

A third distinction that Gibb draws is between the defensive environment of strategy. When people believe that you have ulterior motives and you are being strategic in a way to manipulate those ends, they will tend to become defensive. The supportive environment is one of spontaneity; that is, creativity and openness that lets things emerge. Here is an example of strategy. Congratulations on the money you just inherited from your grandfather. Would you like to be part of  the deacons’ board to give money to the church? That communication is strategic. It says my interest in you has a motive beyond you. We are after in conflict situations a spirit of spontaneity and openness.

A fourth distinction is between neutrality, which is perhaps better thought of as indifference, and empathy. When people believe that you are so neutral that you are indifferent, you don’t care one way or the other, they will tend to get defensive. If people believe that you are trying to be empathetic – that is, to think about how the world looks and feels from their point of view – they will tend to be supportive. Here is an example of a neutral response. Somebody has been attending your house church and is discontent with the amount of prayer that goes on. They come to you and say, “I’m so sick and tired of having prayer dominate our small group. If we spend 20 minutes praying one more time, I’m not going to be part of this group anymore.” Neutrality is a response by which you would say, “Well, that is up to you. You can come or you can go.” Empathy is a response that would say, “Tell me a little bit about what is problematic for you with the prayer.” At least I try to understand the other, rather than dismiss them and be indifferent to them.

The fifth contrast is between a spirit of superiority, which tends to invite defensiveness, and a spirit of equality that tends to invite supportiveness. When people believe that your intent is to demonstrate yourself to be superior to them, they tend to become defensive. Superiority in a house church looks like this: You are studying a passage of Scripture that you, the leader, have spent much time preparing and processing. Superiority is a response that says, “Oh, your belief about this passage is naïve and if you knew more about the Bible like I do, you would know that you are wrong at this point.” Equality is a spirit of humility that says, “I might have something to learn from you. Even if we disagree about this issue, I might have something to learn.”

The sixth contrast is between being closed and being open. Closedness tends to promote defensiveness. Some people are so sure they are right that they won’t entertain any other ideas. When they present themselves as so confident that they are right, that they are closed to any other ideas, people tend to respond defensively. Openness does not mean that you are being relativistic. Openness means, in humility I am open to hear the views of another. I may have something to learn. So what we strive for in conflict management is environments that encourage supportive behaviors.

Another move that you can make in conflict management that may prove productive is to distinguish what we call triggers of the conflict from the actual causes. A trigger in a conflict situation is the immediately preceding event, right before the conflict erupts. The trigger, the last thing that happens before the conflict erupts, is not always the same thing as the cause. Here is an example: Someone has been attending your house church. You sing a hymn that they dislike. They storm out, saying “I will never come back to this group again.” Probably you are dealing with a trigger, not the actual cause of the conflict. One of the ways you know the difference is when their response is out of proportion to the offense. Probably you are dealing with a trigger, not the actual cause of the conflict. So when a conflict emerges, you want to ask yourself,  am I observing the trigger, or is this the actual cause of the conflict?

Another move that you can make in managing conflict is to defuse yourself. To defuse means to take the explosive potential out of a conflict situation. You can defuse yourself by asking some questions like these: Have I listened well before I have responded? Have I understood the other? You can diffuse yourself also by asking a question like, how important is it to me to win in this conflict? You can ask a question like, am I really part of this conflict, or did I just happen to be the object at which they vented? You can also diffuse others, pull the explosive potential out of others. The best way to diffuse others is to listen well in private.

You can help to manage conflict productively if you deal with conflicts as they arise, rather than letting them grow. Ephesians 4:26 says, “In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Deal with conflict as it comes up, don’t let it develop over time.

Finally, in managing conflict, you can agree to disagree. We don’t have to be in complete agreement with all our brothers and sisters in Christ about everything. It is to our shame that the fellowship in Christ is severed by issues that sometimes are not very significant, but issues that we allow to separate us. I sometimes take students to South Africa on a study program that Whitworth University does. The last time I was in South Africa, we met with a South African theologian whose name is John De Gruchy. De Gruchy said, “When the apartheid system got overthrown, people were free to resume normal relationships. The trouble is, those normal relationships produced as much segregation as apartheid did.” Then he said, “The body of Christ is not called to normal relationships. We are called to supernatural relationships.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, we should be living in such a way that the world is stunned that this collection of people could be together -  people of different political preferences,  of different music preferences, of different family structures. The world should be stunned that people in Christ can come together. What holds us together is the Person of Christ. To our shame, we allow all kinds of minor issues to divide us. May that not be. Jesus the Christ is the source of our supernatural fellowship with one another, of our community that defies explanation by the world.

Today it has been our privilege to consider community the way that God intended from the beginning, what it means to participate in the image of God, who exists in the eternal Trinity community. We have tried to talk about some of the foundational issues of group life. What are the qualities of effective group life? How do you start a group or a home church? What should you do in the first meeting? How do you engage the process of covenanting? We have talked about the concept of leadership, some of the realities and obstacles of leadership, how leadership emerges and some of the tasks of leadership and how one leads a discussion. We have talked about the nature and types of conflict, why conflict in the Body of Christ ends up being so problematic so often. We have talked about the role of power in conflict and some of the conflict management skills that might be used.

All of this is not for the purpose of our groups alone. All of this, like all of life, is for the purpose of building up, pointing to Jesus Christ, building up the Kingdom of God, participating in God’s already existent process. My hope, my prayer is that the result of this will produce edification for you and glory for God.

Please pray with me: “Lord God, thank you for the privilege of being involved with you. Forgive us for the times that we step ahead. We are your followers. Do with us as you will. Make of us what you will. In all things, in all ways, may You be glorified. Thank you for the miracle of relationship, for how it reflects your glory, your created order, Yourself. God, will you give us grace to live with integrity in those relationships, always returning glory to you because you deserve it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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