By Grant Crawford
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 this 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 recognize 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.”
FACT 1: 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’ frailties. We need to remember, that like us, our co elders are frail.
FACT 2: Where there is unity, God commands a blessing. Where there is strife, the Spirit of God is grieved.
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 2:11-22). 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, as Eph 4:1-3 says,
- Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called
- With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love
- Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace
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 its source at the fall of man. James 3:14-16 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. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice”.
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 4:26)
A culture that pre-empts strife:
- Honour: A young man who had recently joined our staff wrote me a letter the other day observing the marks of our church culture. 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 20:12, Deut 5:16). 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, and it means you treat the dishonourable with special honour; that means you don’t draw attention to and ridicule the weak. If sin is the cause of the strife, we are encouraged to rebuke older men gently (1 Tim 5:1) 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, and 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 5:11). 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 elders intervention in strife:
Elders ought to be able to bring peace into conflict, let’s see Paul in action writing to the Philippians 4:1-8
1: 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 expresses his affection; he is able to say he loves them
2: I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord
- Two prominent women in the Philippian church had begun to irritate each other
- Paul pleads for and sides with peace; notice he is not siding with any lady and he does not blame
- 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
3: 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 4:26 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 5:16)
- Elders are called to be peace makers and we do this by bringing the Prince of Peace into troubled situations.
4: 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 they are arguing before the throne of Jesus
5: Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;
- Most translations interpret reasonableness as “gentleness”
- He appeals to the fruit of the Spirit in the leader
- He doesn’t promote vengeance, remember vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom 13)
- “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
6: do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God7: And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus
- This verse speaks about your attitude in the context of conflict
- Pick your time, pick your place, and prepare your heart first
8: 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
- don’t generalise, e.g. you always… you never…
- The overriding key is that you be at peace with God and if you bring the Prince of Peace into troubled waters they will be stilled
If you are offended:
- Follow the biblical pattern
- Don’t gossip; don’t bring it into the public domain prematurely
- Ask the Holy Spirit to help you forgive (John 20:21)
- Most offenses don’t need dramatic intervention, but grace to absorb the 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 offense 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 is in the context of two couples as friends
- We jealously guard marriage, so texting, phoning, emailing, and any contact 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 recognize the husbands 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 done 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 your ability to deal with conflict in ministry. Feel free to print, edit and distribute this document.