We asked our bloggers to share what they have learned about managing conflict in ministry. Here are their reflections.
What have I learned about managing conflict in ministry?
I don’t like the idea of “managing” conflict. When you use that term — “manage” — you imply that there is some executive authority or supervisory control that one has over conflict. I don’t. We don’t. Conflict is its own thing that plays by its own rules. It is not something that can be “managed.”
I’m also acutely aware that when conflict is present in ministry, the pastor will always have at least one person (or one group of people) who are at odds with him or her. This does not place us in the best position to be a mediator. This does not place us in the best position to be a pastor, either. When conflict exists within a ministry, the pastor is typically a focal point whether it has something to do with that pastor or not. Sometimes this creates anger. Often this creates frustration. Always this creates tension.
Tension with a mediator. Being at odds with each other. Frustration bending towards anger. None of this creates a good environment from which we might be able to “manage” conflict.
Perhaps we should use the word “contain” when dealing with conflict. I like this terminology a bit more because I feel like it is a bit more honest. We try to hold conflict where it is. We try to separate and carry conflict far away if possible. We try to accommodate and compromise in the midst of conflict. All these things come naturally to us. We innately try to “contain” conflict when it surfaces. But this is helpful (and possible) only sometimes, not always.
Maybe our role is to “clarify” conflict. I think conflict has a way about it that confuses. The perplexing nature of conflict — how it spirals, evolves, and self-magnifies — is perhaps what gives conflict much of its power. Sometimes we need to “clarify” what the conflict is for everyone involved. Sometimes we need to “clarify” how it got to this point, where it stemmed from and why it popped up now. Clarity can be a holy thing in the midst of conflict.
When we have the opportunity to “direct” conflict or “steer” conflict, I believe we should. But sometimes, we must simply “cope” with conflict as we discern how to deal effectively with it.
We can look for opportunities to “grow” through conflict. It will be painful, but it will be possible… sometimes… .
I’m not going to be so bold as to say I have ever “resolved” conflict. The Spirit moves as the Spirit wills and sometimes this can “resolve” a conflict, but any role I might play in the midst of that would be very small.
For all the rest of the situations out there in which conflict persists, I propose that the best we can do is to “conflict” conflict. Let’s turn it on itself. Let’s use it for our advantage. Where can we make the conflict even more “conflicted”? For instance, that kid might not make the best decisions and I understand that you are worried about his influence on the rest of the youth group, but you did take baptismal vows to be there for him. Or, there’s that group in the congregation might come off as cliquish, but perhaps they are on the verge of experiencing some form of authentic Christian koinonia. How might we help them achieve it? Also, you may not like the hymns, but what does it say about you as a worshipper when you don’t participate in those sung prayers?
Sometimes, in certain situations, we might occasionally be able to “conflict” conflict just enough for the Spirit to stir a bit more smoothly. May it be so! Amen.
BRIAN CHRISTOPHER COULTER is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Aiken, South Carolina. He is a husband, father, pastor, author, blogger and pingpong champion who is pretty good at sidewalk chalk.