Doug Stevens runs the leadership consulting group The Leadership Connection. Today, he sent out his e-newsletter (sign up here) with this article on how to handle conflict in a healthy and constructive manner (with TB edits):
We have a decision to make about differences. They can create problems … but are the differences themselves the problem? And who says problems are bad things? We all prefer an easy life, smooth sailing, effortless compatibility and guaranteed success. And we would never grow or reach our real missional potential if the world was arranged to insure our personal comfort.
We need differences, we need challenges. We need stress. Not distress, but the stimulation of regular real-world stress that causes us to turn to God for security, strength, insight and stamina. We need to equip ourselves and rouse ourselves to fight — to fight for, not against.
Amy and Don are constantly clashing. Though they share a common faith, they are often surprised and frustrated by the actions and/or inactions of the other. Amy is an activist. Let’s get it done. Let’s go now. Don is an analyst. Let’s think about this and evaluate all the options. Amy thinks Don is unnecessarily slowing down the team and Don believes Amy is impulsive and even dangerous.
Can you see a fight brewing here? Of course! So let’s acknowledge it and get ready to fight it out. Amy with Don, Don with Amy … and the rest of the team, as well, in supporting roles. No one should miss the fun.
What usually happens is that this human difference and the normal conflict it generates remains unaddressed. And undetectable except for all the anxiety, resentment and dysfunctionality created by their unwillingness to engage in direct Christ-like combat.
If we love each other, and if we believe that the Holy Spirit is ready to host an honest conversation about our extreme (our word for any uncomfortable disagreement) differences, why wouldn’t we welcome this timely opportunity to gain understanding, resolve our current impasse, detox the atmosphere, and grow in our appreciation of the gifts each of us can bring?
Eventually, and because she’s unwilling to fight right…
Eventually, and because she’s unwilling to fight right, Amy unleashes a barbed quip about Don’s irritating style that wounds him. Don, who is equally unwilling, glares at his critic, retreats into the pain, privately rehearses the perceived insult, and begins to plot his revenge (he would never admit this).
Someone on the team wonders out loud if something unhealthy and unedifying is going on here — but because he’s unwilling to fight for Amy and Don and the well-being of the team, his legitimate concern is translated into gossip. The teammate who’s listening to this slander decides to take sides (so slanted is the report and so sinister the sound of it) and confides his damaging judgment to yet another teammate, who is now infected with the virus that is one part ignorance, one part meanness and one part cowardice. And a sin against the community of faith.
Amy, go direct with your thoughts. Share your perceptions of Don with Don and the effect of his behavior on you. Don’t disparage his character and don’t speculate about his motivation. Claim your opinions as your own (and not the final answer) and listen to his response (and his heart). Fight for this relationship (proving you care about your brother in Christ), for this partnership (that is crucial for this ministry), and for this church (that desperately needs leaders who live authentically and act with integrity). Fight for the Gospel — for the credibility of the claim that Christ’s coming makes a redemptive difference! Don’t fall into cynicism (oh, he won’t listen, he doesn’t get it) or pride (I’m the only one who really knows how to get things done).
Don, let your guard down. Listen to your sister in Christ. Consider what she says — even if her thoughts are not completely comprehensible to you, or convincing. Ask God for the humility and insight to learn something new about her, about yourself, about the team, about the task at hand. Don’t react and don’t take offense (you’re prone to do that). Fight to gain discernment and a larger perspective. Fight for every inch of understanding and empathy you can get. Fight out in the open, because going passive-aggressive is unfair and unproductive and unworthy of your calling.
Life in Christ is supposed to be a struggle — a joyful, worthwhile struggle. The God-given name “Israel” means: he wrestles with God. Our engagement with God is demanding by design. And listen to the Apostle Paul: To this end I labor, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works in me … I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. [Colossians 1:29 and 2:1]
You say you don’t want to fight, to make the effort, to work hard for reconciliation and restoration and a new season of fruitful collaboration?
Then you don’t belong in ministry. You’ll undermine it, kill it, and make yourself (and the rest of us) miserable.
In the middle of the mess you don’t want to face, there is a formidable foe who must be defeated. It is not the problematic person on staff, not the difficult church member, not even the non-believer who disrespects everything you stands for. Your battle is not against flesh and blood (other people) but against dark spiritual forces that seek to sabotage our character, our relationships, and all of our efforts to reach the world with a compelling demonstration and undeniable proclamation of God’s love. This fight must include our resistance against the enemy who seeks to divide and dishearten us, as well as our undying commitment to heal and rebuild the Body of Christ.
We’re not allowed to use conventional weapons — indifference and exclusion, contempt and ridicule, politics and power plays, hate and hostility. Check yourself here. This fight for Kingdom values is waged with prayer and vigil, faith and forgiveness, confession and repentance, love, joy, peace and patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control. Choose your weapons wisely. You are responsible for your contribution to the outcome.
There may come a time to quit the fight. Most of us give up way too soon and for reasons that betray our lack of faith and confidence … and before we see the fruit of perseverance. But even when it becomes clear that it is time to end the partnership — because a serious, sustained process suggests a transition — the determination to restore a relationship is never-ending.
Make the decision. Go into training. Man up. Woman be brave. Fight the good fight!