Have you ever whispered to yourself, “I didn’t sign up for this?”
I confess those words have passed through my mind more than once over the years. When I started out in ministry, more than 30 years ago now, I didn’t anticipate how much energy would be spent navigating strife within the church and on our team.
The Oxford dictionary defines strife as an angry or bitter disagreement over fundamental issues. In one word: conflict.
As leaders, our love for Jesus and His people brought us into ministry. However, because we are human (and sinful), it is inevitable that issues will arise. When they do, we may feel discouraged, frustrated, angry, or misunderstood. I resonate with James 4:1, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”
Our temptation is to respond in unhealthy ways: to lash out, isolate, be passive-aggressive, withdraw, and even gossip. Yet, I am convinced that deep down we aspire to apply the words of Paul recorded in Philippians 2:14, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.”
As I write this, our congregation is searching for a new Worship Director. Those involved in the search, all well-intentioned folks, have a wide array of opinions as to what type of leader we need moving forward. The anxiety is palpable, and with it, occasional flare-ups, and miscommunication. Resulting in, you guessed it: strife!
What time and experience have taught me is that: one, I DID sign up for this, and two, working through strife, in a Godly way, provides an opportunity of growth for all involved.
So, how can we avoid strife and create a culture of working through issues in a healthy way? I’d like to suggest a 5 Step process that our leadership team uses to cultivate a healthy work environment.
When you experience strife on your team…
1. Get Clarity
1 Corinthians 14:33a says, “For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.” Before speaking with anyone else, narrow in on the problem. Take 10 minutes (more if you need it), then write down the specific issue in one sentence. Ask yourself: What is the problem? Why is it a problem? Who does it involve? How is this issue affecting our relationship(s)/team dynamics? Getting clarity helps take the emotion out of the situation. It prepares you to move to the next step.
2. Pray about It
Sounds like something a Pastor would say, right? Sure, but don’t skip over this step! James 1:5 tells us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to you.” Ask Jesus: Am I reading the situation clearly? Is my heart in the right place (my motive)? What is the best approach in addressing this issue? Pray for the person(s) involved, for sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, humility as I bring the issue forward, that everyone would feel valued and listened to.
3. Schedule a Time
Contact the person(s) involved and get a meeting on the calendar. Allow enough time for the conversation. Then decide on an appropriate location, one where you will have enough privacy, as well as be free from distractions.
4. Lead with Affirmation
The purpose for starting out the conversation this way can, on the surface, seem a bit like a “bait and switch.” Hoping that by saying a few nice words about the person(s), that I don’t really mean, their defenses will go down. Then I’ll hit them with the “real” reason we’re meeting together. No! In fact, it’s just the opposite. When we lead with affirmation, it reminds us that people aren’t the enemy, but that the enemy (Satan) is the enemy.
I like the visual illustration of sitting at a table together. As colleagues, we sit on the same side of the table, addressing the problem on the other side. The point being, we aren’t adversaries sitting across from one another. We are teammates, sitting on the same side of the table, facing the problem together. We use specific examples of why we value the person we are having conflict with. As Blaise Pascal once remarked, “Kind words don’t cost much. Yet they accomplish much.”
5. Communicate Clearly and Listen Actively
On the chance the other person(s) is unaware of the conflict, begin by sharing specifically what the issue is (from your perspective). But remember, when you share, only use “I” statements. For example, “I felt hurt when you said…” or “I was disappointed that you didn’t come to me directly….” Don’t assume malicious intent. Give your teammate the benefit of the doubt. Avoid using “You” statements. And for that matter, “Always and Never.” For example, “You NEVER consider how your behavior affects other people.” Using language such as this will only put them on the defensive.
If the other person(s) is aware of the strife, give each person an opportunity to speak. Decide on which of you will share first and who will listen first. And then switch. Seeking understanding and showing empathy go a long way. My mentor and friend Dr. Roger Tirabassi, in his book titled, “Seriously Dating or Engaged” calls this the “Mirroring exercise.” Afterward, the person who had been listening, repeats back, “What I hear you saying is…., did I get it…., is there more?” Once both/all parties have been heard, offer apologies where needed, then ask for forgiveness. Discuss what you will do should strife rear its head once again.
It is amazing what God does when we courageously step out in a posture of humility and deal with conflict head-on. The Bible instructs us to bring contentious issues into the light. With mutual love and understanding, we work through strife in healthy ways which deepen our commitment to one another, strengthen our trust, and ultimately, glorify our Heavenly Father.
Now that is something we can all agree on!
Mike Kenyon is the Executive Pastor of Discipleship, Evangelism and Multiplication at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana, California. His ministry passion to equip leaders, and coach individuals to walk in the way of Jesus. Mike studied at Fuller and Rockbridge Theological Seminaries, receiving his MDIV and has a B.A. from Concordia University in Irvine.
Mike is married to Allison. They have two children, who are both in college.
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