An ability to handle conflict is a critical skill for any leader. Marriages sink or swim on this ability. Churches split and friends tear apart when the ability is undeveloped.
The eldership team is a robust environment. Any strong team will feature people with different gift mixes, different personalities and the nature of ministry often includes spouses and children in the firing line. What compounds conflict in the ministry is that very often ministers are emotionally depleted. We absorb the stresses of others and are constantly dealing in the realm of raw emotions. Rejection, as people make choices of preference which exclude you, is also part of the territory. It is important for those in the ministry to recognise their frailty and the scale of what’s at stake if they are unable to bring healing to troubled relationships. There are times when you need to move on, realising that the person with a grievance against you is unwilling to walk with you, but these moments need to be few and far between, after every effort has been made on your part to bridge with “bonds of peace.”
1. FACT: team members will irritate you
There is no way that you will lead on an eldership team for any significant period without some co-elder letting you down or irritating you. Even if your team comprises amazing people, the Devil will ensure that you see your co-elders frailty. We need to remember that, like us, our co-elders are frail.
2. FACT: where there is unity, God commands a blessing. Where there is strife, the Spirit of God is grieved
Biblical reference: Ps 133, Eph 4 v 26- 32
If God lifts his blessing under strife and commands his blessing under unity, what is unity? It’s not uniformity, it’s not conformity, it’s not silence under duress, it’s not spineless compliance, it’s not ignoring sin and it’s not ignoring situations. Unity is covenantal in nature. Unity is made possible because of the work of Jesus (Eph 2 v 11 – 22). It is an expression of unconditional acceptance despite differences in style, opinion and conviction. It is an expression of honour of personhood which is not subservient to performance or reciprocal love. In that sense honour and unity can be offered unilaterally, and love always triumphs in the end.
practically this means that we need to do all we can to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 4 v 1)
The cause of strife:
Generally speaking it’s impossible for there to be strife solely because of the conduct of one party. So if you are caught up in a squabble, a self audit is in order. All strife has it’s source at the fall of man (Gen 3) . James puts it this way
But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (Ch 3 v 14)
In other words, self-centeredness is the cause. If everyone listened to Jesus words to “rather be wronged”, to count our rights as secondary to others, strife would not take a “foot hold “(Eph 4 v 26)
A culture that preempts strife:
- Honour: A young man wrote me a letter the other day, observing the marks of our church culture (he had recently joined the staff). He said I notice 3 things that define our culture: mission, relationship and honour. It was the last value that got my attention, HONOUR. Honour your mother and father and it will go well with you (ex 20). It is the first commandment with a promise. Honour brings blessing. Honour does not mean you cover over sin, but it does mean you compensate for weakness, it means you treat the dishonourable with special honour, it means you don’t draw attention and ridicule the weak. If sin is the cause or the strife, we are encouraged to rebuke older men gently (1 Tim 5v1) and those caught in sin in a manner that will be redemptive. Humour can be dishonouring. Leaving peers stranded, without support is dishonouring. Speaking badly of a peer is dishonouring, even if it’s to your spouse on your pillow at night.
- Humility: a humble man is able to say sorry, to admit he is wrong, to concede on small matters, to take the initiative when relations are strained.
- Service: a servant hearted leader is not interested in self promotion, which takes out much of the sting of a fight. If we are living for the success of our friends we are less likely to wind up in acrimony
- Encouragement: we are to encourage our brothers all the more as the day approaches. (1 Thes 5v11). Applauding peers in good times, builds bridges to drive over in hard times. If you have made no positive investment into someone’s life it is very difficult to handle the big problems
A case study in an elder’s intervention in strife:
Elders ought to be able to bring peace into conflict let’s see Paul in action writing to the Philippians 4 v 1-8.
V1 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
- He identifies with the church
- He connects emotionally with them
- He is able to say he loves them and expresses his affection.
V2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.
- Two prominent women in the Philippine church had begun to irritate each other
- Paul pleads, but notice that he is not siding with any lady, but siding with peace.
- Paul does not pretend the differences are not there, he deals with them.
- Conflict has its source in fallen nature
- Conflict has its source in defending ones rights
- Conflict often comes when you are drained or tired
- Sometimes conflict is a learned behaviour
- Notice Paul doesn’t try to blame he is pushing for peace
V3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have laboured side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
- He asks a fellow leader to intervene in the resolution, this is in keeping with Matt 18, since this dispute has clearly become a public matter.
Eph 4 suggests that conflict should be resolved without unnecessary delay not swept under the carpet, ” don’t let the sun go down on your anger”
- Confessing sin to each other hastens resolution (James 5 v 16)
- Elders are called to be peace makers. We do this by bringing the prince of peace into troubled situations.
V4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
- He takes their combat into God’s presence
- It’s a good thing to remind believers that they are arguing before the throne of Jesus.
V5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;
- Most translations interpret reasonable as ” gentle”
- Paul appeals to the fruit of the Spirit in the leader
- Vengeance belongs to the Lord ( Rom13)
- ” Reasonableness ” biblically translates to saying sorry, even if it’s for pain you didn’t intend
- Forgiving unilaterally, without condition
- Keeping no record of wrongs
V6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
V7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
- This verse speaks into your attitude given the context of conflict
- Pick your time, pick your place, prepare your heart first
V8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
- Finally, get perspective: Ask yourself, “Is this fight worth it? Is it worth divorce, pain, regret…”
- Help the fighting brothers to use words of life to solve problems
- Humble words
- Affirm their virtues
- Express hurt , not blame
- Be direct, hints just bring confusion
- Be polite
- Laugh at yourself if you can
- Be solution directed
- No generalising, eg ‘you always, you never.’
But the overriding key is that you be at peace with God. If you bring the prince of peace into troubled waters they will be stilled.
If you are offended:
Biblical reference: Matt 18 v 15
- Follow the biblical pattern
- No gossip, no bringing it into the public domain prematurely
- Ask the Holy Spirit to help you forgive. (John 20 v 21)
- Most offenses don’t need dramatic intervention, but grace to absorb weaknesses of others. Much of our role is that of a giant shock absorber
If you think you have offended someone:
- Pray, and make an effort to walk across the bridge. If it creaks, deal with it
- If things get really complicated you might need to involve another elder
If there is offence across the gender line on team:
- We have friendships on team with absolute freedom with others of the same gender. However friendship across the gender line are in the context of two couples as friends.
- We guard against jealousy in marriage, so texting, phoning and emailing across the gender line should be with the full knowledge of your spouse
- If offence across the gender line takes place, the husbands should meet and lead the reconciliation. No private fights or meetings should be taking place across the gender line.
- We recognise the husband’s role to protect his family and govern in such a way as to bring peace.
If you hear someone gossip about an elder:
- Gossip is not tolerated
- If an accusation is being brought, it should be one so in front of witnesses. We don’t “close rank” when sin is bandied about, we deal with it, but we don’t tolerate gossip.
We hope that this resource blesses you and the way you handle conflict in your leadership teams. Feel free to print, edit and distribute this document.
Feature image acknowledgement: www.heifetzphotography.com.au