Every church leader needs to learn how to diffuse conflict. It’s one of the most important ministry skills you can develop and rarely taught in seminaries and Bible schools.
Unresolved conflict will damage your ministry. You can’t be in harmony with God if you’re out of harmony with other people. 1 John 4:20 tells us, “If people say, ‘I love God,’ but hate their brothers or sisters, they are liars” (NCV).
The next time you find yourself in the middle of conflict—whether at home or at church—try these seven steps to resolve it.
1. Take the initiative.
Don’t wait for the other person to come to you, and don’t deny the conflict. Be the peacemaker God has called you to be.
I was terrible at this when Kay and I first married. When Kay would bring up issues, I became good at dodging them. But I’ve realized through the years that you never resolve conflict accidentally. You can only do it intentionally.
Of course, that kind of initiative requires courage when everything inside of you screams that it’s better to hide. The Bible says that love gives us that kind of courage. John writes, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18 NIV).
When your love is greater than your fear, you’ll take the initiative to make peace in your relationships.
2. Confess your part of the conflict.
The other person may be 99 percent at fault, but we should humbly confess our 1 percent first.
Jesus reminds us in the Sermon on the Mount that we all have blind spots. We must take care of those blind spots before we move on.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3-4 NIV).
Often, relationships get into traffic jams. We get stuck and we feel trapped as we wait on the other person to make the first move. One sentence can break that traffic jam: “I’m sorry.” Give it a try.
3. Listen for the hurt.
If you’ve followed my Ministry Toolbox articles for a while, you’ve read this phrase before: “Hurt people hurt people.” I say it regularly. It’s an important truth to remember. If someone is hurting you, it’s because someone hurt that person. Maybe it was you; maybe it was someone else.
James 1:19 reminds us how to respond to the pain of others: “You should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry” (CEV). God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. We need to listen twice as much as we speak. That’s the key to defusing conflict.
When you’re listening for the hurts of others, focus on two specific areas—their doubts and fears. “We must bear the ‘burden’ of being considerate of the doubts and fears of others” (Romans 15:2 TLB). When you uncover someone else’s doubts and fears, you’ll often bring conflict.
4. Consider their perspective.
To do this, we need to make an important change in how we deal with other people. Instead of trying to get other people to notice our needs, we need to notice the needs of others first. Paul writes in Philippians 2:4-5: “Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (NLT).
We’re naturally selfish people. We want to make sure someone pays attention to our needs because we’re often afraid that our needs won’t be met. But God is always in touch with the details of our lives. Nothing escapes his sight. The Bible says, “You notice everything I do and everywhere I go” (Psalm 139:3 CEV). When you realize God will meet every need you have, it frees you to focus on the needs of others.
5. Tell the truth tactfully.
It’s not enough to just speak the truth. In a verse I’m sure you’re familiar with, Paul tells us to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). If we’re not speaking the truth in love, we’re on the wrong side of the conflict.
Speaking the truth in love isn’t just what’s right. It’s also what works best. Truth without love is resisted; truth wrapped in love is received. You must show someone you love them before that person will listen to the truth you want to share.
6. Fix the problem, not the blame.
You only have so much emotional energy. You can either resolve the conflict or fix the blame. You can’t do both. So you need to ask yourself, “What’s more important?”
To make sure you don’t move into blaming, it’s important to set some ground rules. Certain actions should be off the table when you sit down with someone to resolve a conflict. For example, you don’t threaten to end the relationship. Nor do you belittle the other person.
Paul gives us a list of out-of-bounds ways to engage others in a conflict: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips” (Colossians 3:8 NIV). Those actions all lead to more conflict, not less.
7. Focus on reconciliation, not resolution.
There’s a big difference between reconciliation and resolution. Reconciliation happens when you re-establish the relationship. Resolution means you will no longer have any disagreements.
You’ll never make it to a complete resolution because you’ll never agree on everything. We all have different personalities and different life experiences.
But you can have a loving relationship, even if you can’t agree on everything. You can disagree without being disagreeable.
As church leaders, we need to be peacemakers. Jesus tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9 NIV).
Conflict seems to be everywhere in our communities. We can choose to just opt out and ignore the conflict. We could even make the conflict in our world worse.
Or we could let the Lord use us to resolve conflict. That’s the decision that honors Jesus.