Called to Pastor, Inclined to Argue

When I was graduating from college in the mid-2000s, I was encouraged to take a career test to determine where my personality type would fit in the working world. My #1 option shouldn’t have surprised me (but absolutely did). A lawyer. Like my dad. But I was following my calling—to seminary and, eventually, into ministry. 

But that career test did get one thing right. When conflict emerged, I was more inclined to argue and debate than offer counsel and comfort. 

Taking it Personally

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I vividly remember being advised by my seminary internship supervisor that when someone comes to you in anger, that it was more about what was going on in their life than it was anything to do with my own. Now obviously, that’s not always the case. Sometimes we are the problem. New stories break seemingly every day of pastors abusing their roles for their own gain. But for me, who felt like the criticism was almost constant, I used that pastoral advice to justify my own defensiveness. In other words, they were the problem, not me.

And I did get defensive. The problem started the moment I took the criticism personally. Once I did that, the conflict became not just about whatever the issue was, but also about me. Instead of employing techniques to “lower the temperature,” I would enter mortal combat, argument-style with my sparring partner. I would do everything I could to prove that I was right and they were wrong.

This didn’t happen regularly, nor did I ever lose my temper. But as you can probably  imagine, it’s hard to be the pastor of a person that you just tried to defeat in an argument. And then, during my second call as a solo pastor, I was ambushed by a few of the leaders of the church. 

Two fighting antelope lock horns in combat.

That betrayal led to us leaving that church. And while their actions would never be justifiable, I realized that this was an opportunity for me to look in the mirror and see if any changes might be necessary for me to grow as a leader. Ultimately, I realized I had to find a different way to deal with conflict. I only wish I had come across this quote earlier in my ministry:

When you take “personal” attacks personally, you unwittingly conspire in one of the common ways you can be taken out of action—you make yourself the issue. Attacks may be personal, understand that they are basically attacks on positions you represent and the role you are seeking to play. [1]

 I was guilty as charged. Perhaps I also should have looked to 1 Peter 3:8-11 for guidance on conflict: 

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For “Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it.” (ESV)

These complementary approaches to conflict couldn’t have been more different from my natural defensive style. For my part, the learning was painful, but it was also quite helpful as I recognized some of the unhealthy patterns I had brought from my childhood up into my ministry.

 

Strategies to Succeed in Conflict

So how do we keep ourselves from getting enmeshed in the inevitable conflicts that crop up in ministry? How do we keep ourselves from taking conflict personally and ratcheting up the intensity, risking the very ministry Christ has called us to?

Here are a few strategies I have learned to employ:

  •  If you have already taken conflict personally and it has impacted your ministry, it may help to stop and take stock. Take time to identify the thoughts and the feelings that arise when someone confronts you. If you can identify the shame at the core of your response, it will help you handle the conflict in a calm and collected way. This is probably best done with a counselor or a spiritual director.
  • As you process the conflict out of the heat of the moment, what thoughts and feelings emerge? Are your thoughts about the disagreement and the other party accurate or has the conflict itself distorted your perspective? Try to find someone you can safely process your thoughts with. They can provide a point of view that will help you tell whether your perceptions are sound or skewed.
  • Don’t view the person as the problem. Rather, see the problem as the problem. Often, at the root of conflict is a misunderstanding. Rarely is the other person a “bad egg” that is just trying to hurt you or your ministry. (I try to visualize the problem from a third-party’s perspective, rather than just seeing the issue being me vs. them. This helps me keep the focus on the subject of disagreement rather than on myself and the person I am engaged in an argument with.)
  • Pay attention to what triggers your defensiveness. If you are having trouble staying calm and objective about the conflict, you may need to exit the situation so that you can return in a more healthy frame of mind. It is ok to say, “I hear you. I’d like some more time to think about this.” Allow yourself to take some time to process the negative thoughts and feelings. This can help you come back to the table in a healthy way, thus increasing your chances of resolving the conflict and keeping peace. Of course, if you do have to step away, offer the other party a time to continue the conversation with you.

One of the hardest, but also most important, aspects of being a pastor or ministry leader engaged in conflict is that you are never simply trying to resolve

A paper heart, cut down the middle and stitched back together with thread.

a conflict. How this conflict goes may affect this person’s relationship to not only you, but the church and the Lord. You are not only sorting out a controversy, but tending to the soul of one of the Lord’s sheep. Will you care for them or remove yourself as someone they feel they can trust as a pastor?

This is part of why the stakes are so high in ministry conflict. A broken relationship with you can lead to not only the fracturing of that relationship, but also may fracture the relationships that person has developed with others in your church.

So we must remember: even in conflict, our goal is to minister. Walking alongside another person in a conflict can actually bring two people together, so long as we respond with a gentleness and willingness to hear their complaints. So don’t take conflict personally! Address the thoughts and feelings that make you defensive and do your best to make the conflict the problem and not the other person. When you do, you are building up the body of Christ.

References

[1] Ronald Heifetz, Martin Linsky and Alexander Grashow, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organizationand World (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.

In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.

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