The previous post in this series was on the third mark of the church conflict. This week continues posts on conflict management with a post on basic conflict resolution.
1. There are many different reasons for conflict. In People Smart, Mel Silberman mentions four different categories of conflict: conflicts over 1) facts, 2) methods, 3) purposes, and 4) values.  The first is a conflict over data--what is the truth? The second kind of conflict agrees on the facts and even agrees on the goals. It just doesn't agree on how to get there. The third kind of conflict has to do with the goals and purposes. Where are we trying to go? Finally, conflicts in values disagree on what is important. What are the non-negotiables? When will we have failed?
I might add that some people like conflict for its own sake. If an argument always seems to erupt when a certain person is around or in a discussion on social media, then there is a fair chance that you have someone around who just likes conflict. This type of person should not be put in any kind of leadership and, like a cancer, should be marginalized from most processes that matter.
We still care for their souls. We are still called to minister to them. But they are one of the fools of Proverbs (e.g., Prov. 10:8; 15:2; 26:4-5).
2. We often think of conflict as bad, as something to avoid. If we are talking about war or about conflict that inflicts serious damage or harm on another person, then certainly it is much to be avoided. War always indicates moral failure on someone's part. Genuine harm to another person is always sin. Harmful conflict needs to be resolved, at times with the use of force or power.
However, conflict between individuals who are aiming for the good can be a great boon. If you are in conflict over the facts, it is in your best interest to resolve the conflict by discovering what the facts are. Disagreement over values and purposes can lead to greater clarity, which will only help you achieve better goals. Conflict over methods can result in a better method being found than might have otherwise. And when two parties can't come to an agreement, going your separate ways can actually multiply the mission, as we will see next week.
So conflict need not be bad. Bad conflict should be resolved. But good conflict can be very healthy and productive. It should rather be managed.
Of course we should not assume that we can reach agreement. Human nature being what it is, we are not primarily creatures of reason. If we think that conflicts can be resolved merely by rational argument, we will probably lose most of our arguments. We are far more creatures of affect than we are creatures of reason.
Let me suggest the following seven principles for managing conflict:
1. First, be aware of it.
Conflict often lurks in the shadows, under the surface. It can percolate and boil without you realizing it. This sort of lurking tension probably won't just go away without being addressed. It needs to be addressed before it explodes.
I know of a situation at a college where someone was hired although some on the campus had serious questions about the person. The leadership felt that those questions were unjustified from the standpoint of the facts. However, it would have been wrong to think that all that needed to be done was to explain rationally the reasons for the hire.
There needed to be opportunities for release, to bring the hurt and the questions out of the shadows and into the open, not in a way that escalated the tension but that relieved it. Revolutions happen in part when those in leadership have been ignoring the underlying tensions--or when leaders try to use force to squelch it.
Hidden conflict usually needs to be addressed, especially if it is a matter of genuine concern. People need to feel like they are being heard.
2. De-escalate the situation.
I did some substitute teaching in the public schools the year before I came to teach at Indiana Wesleyan University. One day I came into conflict with a sixth grader who insisted on leaving the portable in which I was subbing before he was supposed to at the end of the day. I got in his way at the door. I kept him from leaving with my size advantage.
He went crazy. He said he would go home and get a gun and come back for me.
Now it would be easy for me to pontificate about how bad kids are these days or about the moral degeneration of our society. But I know that there are plenty of teachers and social workers--including my wife--who wouldn't have let the situation escalate to that level. I failed at conflict resolution because my words and actions escalated the situation.
I think I have become better at conflict. I don't just give in to avoid it (which was particularly typical of my personality when I was younger). I don't fight back to make sure I win (which has been typical of some of my friends from time to time). Rather, I have deeply come to appreciate the proverb that says, "A soft answer turns away wrath" (Prov. 15:1).
The person who yells back only escalates the situation. If you respond in kind, the situation will only escalate unnecessarily. If you respond calmly and keep your cool, you have a key characteristic of a good leader, one who can de-escalate conflict.
It is important to show respect to the person with whom you are in conflict if you expect to resolve the conflict by anything but force. When you are the mediator, you must try your best to be unbiased and not take sides. This is true in parenting. It is true in pastoring. As an aside, this is a good reason for a pastor not to take sides too obviously in an election too.
Most important, the sides at odds must know that you care for both of them, that you truly want what is best for them and for the kingdom.
3. Know yourself.
Someone once said that when you point your finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. This is what Jesus was saying when he said to be careful about judging others because we will be examined according to the same standard. In psychology, we talk about projection, which is when you accuse someone else of something you yourself are guilty of. It is Hypocrisy 101.
It is important as a pastor to examine yourself before you go accusing your congregation of something. And it is important when you are in a conflict to stop and ask yourself, "Am I really in the right here?" It takes two to tango, and so most conflict is not really one-sided. Usually, we have some blame in a conflict that has gotten out of hand.
Pastors often like to assume themselves a persecuted prophet. "I'm trying to do the will of God and the congregation doesn't see what I see" or "Satan is using the congregation to fight against God's direction for the church." Maybe. Or maybe it is you who don't see or that Satan is trying to use.
We must always ask ourselves the question in a conflict: "Am I entirely in the right here?" "Are my motives entirely pure here?" "Could my opposition actually be right about something?!"
4. Find common ground, "win-win" strategies.
Compromise is a dirty word. Except it isn't. Sure, we don't compromise on core values. But most of the things we fight about aren't core values. They're about better and worse methods. They're about better and worse priorities. They're about which value is most crucial at this particular moment.
The balance of powers in Washington is part of the brilliance of our Constitution, and it also ensures that very little will get done in Washington unless politicians learn to compromise, to seek common ground and "win-win" strategies where opposing parties both get something but rarely get everything they want.
There is gridlock in Washington because no one will compromise. From a Constitutional perspective, we don't need "stronger" leaders. We need leaders who can give and take. The only way for it not to be that way is to set up a dictatorship. But dictators are not good leaders.
And so it is that good leaders will often meet opposing sides half-way. They will give and take. They will try to meet in the middle. Occasionally, an issue may be important enough for a leader to use his or her power to go against the will of the majority or without any compromise. But leaders cannot do so too often, or else they will cease being leaders.
To resolve conflict, it is important to find common ground in a way that creates "win-win" situations for both sides.
5. You don't have to be right even when you're right.
When the Corinthians were taking each other to court, Paul suggests the radical Christian teaching that it's better sometimes to lose than to be right. That is to say, Paul tells them it would better for them to lose their court battle, even though they think they are in the right, for the greater good of being a good witness to the world (1 Cor. 6:1-8).
Arguably, the evangelical witness in America right now is largely burnt over ground with younger non-believers because a certain segment just has to win, even at a horrendous cost for our witness.
This way of thinking is incomprehensible to some of us. "But I'm right!" someone might protest. Who cares, if it is not a matter of the utmost importance? It is an all too easy confusion of facts with values. The value of harmony at times is more important than the value of truth, at least when we are just talking about facts.
I was on a committee once with someone who had the personality that, if he was convinced he was right, he felt that his perspective had to prevail, no matter what. Sometimes I agreed with him, but we would still lose the vote. He couldn't handle that. "But I'm right," he would reassert. "Let me explain it better."
But it wasn't a matter of the others not understanding him. They just didn't agree. There are much more important things than winning, and there is a time to lose even though you are right. There is a time to submit willingly to authority that is wrong. 1 Peter 2-3 say as much to slaves and wives in such a situation.
6. Submit to the verdict.
Represent your position strongly in debate. "Iron sharpens iron." The outcome won't be as sharp if you have not fully represented the strength of your argument with a good attitude.
Then comes time for the decision. Perhaps there is a leader who makes the final decision. Perhaps there is a vote. Then it is time to submit to authority. It is time to agree to disagree. If it is a matter of principle, then you should go your separate ways, as Paul and Barnabas did.
In the 2000 election, Al Gore did not agree with the conclusion of the Supreme Court as to who had won the election. But he conceded the election with honor. He agreed to disagree and submitted to defeat for the greater good. This is the Christian way.
So it is that we should not continue rehearsing the old argument, replaying the old debate, re-opening the old wounds once the debate is over. We agree to disagree and move on.
7. Be reconciled.
Finally, agreeing to disagree means that we continue without hatred toward each other in our hearts. Although Paul disagreed with Barnabas over John Mark and other things, we find Paul commending Mark in Colossians 4:10. No grudge was held. They were reconciled.
We will not always be able to get the other side to shake hands. We will not always get an apology when we think we deserve it. Wisdom may say that we do not re-engage some people.
But we can give it to God. We can move on. We can forgive even when we cannot forget. We show that by the way we act toward the other party. We show that by praying for them, by asking God to help them.
Next Week: Pastor as Leader 25: Leadership and the Gentile Mission
 People Smart: Developing Your Interpersonal Intelligence (San Fransisco: Berrett & Koehler, 2000), 150. They themselves were following Jean Lebedun, Managing Workplace Conflict (West Des Moines, IA: American Media Publishing, 1998).
Leadership in General
- The Mission, Great and Small
- Identifying Mission
- Casting Vision
- Vision Statements
- Thinking Missionally
- Evaluating Strengths
- Identifying Core Values
- Setting Goals
- Leading Change
- Evaluating Progress/Resetting Goals
- Managing the Church
- Leadership in the Early Church
- Leadership Structures in Church History
- Church Position Descriptions
- Leading Healthy Teams
- Good Communication
- Hiring, Recruiting, and Firing