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Conflict in Ministry

by Kurt Goble

Fourteen years ago I stepped into the position of Children’s Pastor at a 100 year-old church. My charge was to get our children’s ministry up-to-date. But there were some members who did not want to see change. So began my first season of conflict in ministry. Over the years, I have dealt with my fair share of conflicts between volunteers, coworkers, students, parents, church leaders, my staff and even my boss.

There is no standard rule or process that will guide you through any conflict perfectly. Each conflict we face is flavored by a unique set of circumstances and personalities. Effectively dealing with conflict requires one to successfully navigate the personalities and tactics involved. Addressing the situation at hand is easy. Coming up with a solution is not usually difficult. The real challenge happens when personalities clash.

Working through conflict requires us to categorize certain types of behavior and even certain types of people. The goal is not to be cruel, but direct. The Bible says, “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow up in Christ.” We are going to assume that we love the people we butt heads with in ministry. If we did not, we would not be in ministry. However, we must speak the truth, brutal as it may be. This makes it necessary to honestly address certain behaviors and personalities. The following are some of the most common types of conflict that we are likely to experience at some point in ministry. These are not mutually exclusive. One person may present a mix of personality types and tactics.

The Positional Negotiator
Everyone is susceptible to this flawed method of approaching conflict. Positional negotiation happens when one becomes more passionate about his position than his interests. Agenda blinds him to alternative solutions.

When a senior class is discontinued, the fellowship hall becomes available. Both the children’s and youth pastors would love to have the extra space. They currently meet in cramped adjoining rooms, where they are constantly being disrupted by the noise of each other’s programs as it penetrates the thin walls. Positional negotiation says, “I need thatspace! I need it more than she does.” It draws a line in the sand, and holds a position.

The trick here is to abandon the positional mindset and adapt one that is interest based. Instead of saying, “I need that space”, an interest based negotiator says, “I need a better ministry space.”

In this scenario, perhaps the wall that separates the two current rooms could be removed so that one group can move to the fellowship hall, while the other occupies a new and improved space. For more on dealing with a positional negotiator, read Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury.

The Unsatisfied Customer
Anyone who voices a valid complaint or problem is an unsatisfied customer.

Upon the implementation of a new computerized check-in system, a parent complains that the process is too slow. And it is. Your volunteers are still learning the system, and things are not flowing as they should be.

There are three things to remember when you have failed to meet an expectation or standard. First, do not make excuses. If you made a mistake, own it. Apologize and move on. Second, hear the person out. Sometimes a person’s need to be heard is greater than their desire for resolution. Simply listening to their complaints can make them feel better about you and your leadership. Thank the person for their input. Third, invite the unsatisfied person to become part of the solution. “We could use somebody like you on our check-in team to help us smooth out this process.” This is also a gentle and firm way to give somebody the opportunity to step up or back off.

The Complainer
This individual has demonstrated a pattern of complaining. No matter what you do, you get complaints.

First of all, assess the threat level of the situation. Is this person’s complaining destructive or benign? Is it an issue or merely an annoyance? If the behavior is destructive, church leadership should address it. Romans sixteen warns against those who create divisions and dissention in the church. The Bible even directs us to disassociate with these people. This is behavior that your church deacons or elders need to be made aware of.

If the complaints are benign, ignore them. It is probably not worth your time to deal with them. A nasty comment card or remark is not going to hurt anything but your pride. Grow thicker skin and learn to let it go. Remind yourself to stop being surprised when this person acts in a way that is consistent with what you know about them.

The Workplace Bully
This is a person who always seems to have someone in his or her sights. Workplace bullies actively attempt to establish and exercise power and control to push others around.

Workplace Bullying is driven by perpetrators’ need to control the targeted individual, and is initiated by bullies who choose targets, timing, place and methods. It escalates to involve others who side with the bully, either voluntarily through coercion, and it undermines legitimate business interests when the bullies’ personal agendas take precedence over work itself. ( workplacebullying.org)

This is not everyone who occasionally displays these behaviors. Bullies are consistent and have one or more targets they prey on. Their behavior will most likely be apparent to others, not just you.

If you have found yourself in this situation, do not take it lightly. This issue has the potential to drain your spirit and shipwreck your ministry. Read up on the suggested resources below. This is a serious matter. At some point you will need to “out” the bully. This means addressing his behavior, so that he no longer feels like he is getting away with it. Take your concerns to the top. Workplace bullying is a big deal, and you do not want to try to deal with it on your own. Read The Bully at Work by Gary Namie. Also, check out workplacebullying.org for more information and resources.

The Passive Aggressive
Passive-Aggression is a psychological mechanism for handling hostility or anger in an underhanded or devious way that is hard for others to prove.This individual talks about you behind your back or uses indirect nuances to get under your skin. This person can be very destructive, but never direct.

The first time I encountered this behavior, I was training a group of about twenty volunteers. The passive aggressive made a snide comment in the form of a question that undermined my agenda. She knew that it was a setting where confrontation was completely inappropriate. She knew that I was in front of a group of people, and therefore had to keep my composure. I had to behave. In the months that followed, she used this device on multiple occasions. When I addressed the issue, she denied her obvious intentions, and acted as though she was insulted. Later I found out that she was gossiping about me in different circles throughout the church.

Although she always denied her behavior, and insisted that my interpretation of her comments was mistaken, I continued to call her out. I would say things like, “Did you mean to imply that…?” and, “It sounded to me like you were suggesting…” Each time she would deny her passive aggressive behavior. But eventually the behavior subsided.

Passive aggressive people are typically uncomfortable with open, honest and direct conflict. They thrive on nuance and inference. If you show them that they will be consistently called out, their behavior will likely improve for fear of open conflict. But if you cannot keep your cool, avoid interaction! Your visible reaction is a reward for the Passive Aggressive. Read Safe People by Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

The Direct Aggressive
Although this personality trait can be quite intimidating, many people come to appreciate it. You always know where you stand with this person. They love open, passionate and productive conflict. Sometimes they may seem like they enjoy conflict and choose to instigate it. This individual feels like he or she respects you enough to push you and challenge your ideas. Often, they want you to push back. Those who are uncomfortable with this sort of verbal exchange, often avoid interacting with these people.

Try to match the passion and energy that the Direct Aggressive initiates. Do not be a pushover. Push back; match their forcefulness, but do not exceed it. Remember that for this person conflict is almost never personal. Your passionate and forceful interactions will not affect the way they feel about you personally and they do not expect it to negatively affect the way you see them. For more information read Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick M. Lencioni.

The Misbehaved
Sometimes great people mess up. When this happens, the most common mistake we make is letting it slide. But every time we avoid addressing a behavior it makes us look like we do not care about it.

Your youth minister and coworker is a great guy. You think highly of him. However, he constantly borrows supplies without returning them and occasionally you find yourself having to clean up after him. Initially try addressing the issue without making a big deal about it. Drop an informal e-mail. Say, “Hey John, could you be sure to return my equipment next time you use it? You are always welcomed to use anything I have got. I just like to keep tabs on where it is. By the way, that video you guys shot was hilarious! Are you going to put it on You Tube?”

If that fails, get more direct. If the behavior persists, you will feel more comfortable being direct because you were gracious about it the first time. Remember that every time you fail to address a behavior, you passively affirm that the behavior is acceptable.

The Ego
The Ego has strong opinions and undervalues the opinions of others. This person is so strong in his opinions, that your thoughts and opinions are irrelevant. We are dealing with someone who is highly egocentric. Their own worldview is the only one that makes rational sense, and the idea that conflicting opinions may hold some value does not occur to them.

Do not base anything you say on your own thoughts and opinions or those of others. Stick to facts. This will require preparation and research. Do not say things like, “I would like a significant increase in my budget this year because I feel that we need to take our programs to the next level.”

Rather, say “Children make up 22 percent of this Church and Children’s Ministry recieves 4 percent of the budget; while Youth Ministry represents 14 percent of the congregation and receives 9 percent. We are disproportionately funded. A 20 percent increase might seem large in those terms, but we are talking about a move that would take us from 4 percent of the church’s budget to 5 percent.”

Chip away. Even hard facts will not convince the Ego overnight. It will take time, energy and research to persuade this person of anything.

The Creative
Creative people often feel the need to be part of every solution. This can become frustrating because Creatives will often reject your solution in favor of one that they had a hand in developing.

Two words: play along. If you have a situation with a fairly obvious solution, let them have it. Present the problem only and let the Creative tell you the solution you were thinking in the first place. Give them credit. Give them praise. And go about your business.

You can also accomplish the same thing by asking their help in removing a practical obstacle. So instead of saying, “I really want to hang a banner up there,” say, “I would love to hang a banner there, but I do not think there is any way to mount one.”

Typically, the Creative will start thinking about how they can prove you wrong with their creativity. While this may seem manipulative, remember that this is a person who thrives on coming up with ideas. For the Creative, it is not about showing you up or not allowing you to have an idea. It is about helping you through creativity and innovation. I should also mention that these people will often come up with great concepts that would not have crossed your mind.

The General Idea

While it is impossible to address every tactic or personality type in one article, there are some general ideas here that hold true. First, recognize that most conflicts are not created when interests or ideas clash, but rather when personalities clash. Spend time thinking about the personality you are up against and how you may be wise in your dealings. Second, remember that you might change a mind, but only God can change a heart. Douse your conflict in prayer, and seek God’s guidance and intervention.

Finally, whenever possible, have your conflict at point easy. The longer you wait on an issue, the more you stress out about it. This builds up the confrontation in your mind and gives all parties a chance to stew in the juices of their bitterness and anxiety. React promptly with grace and respect. When an attitude or behavior needs to be addressed, address it as immediately as you can. This is point easy. And after point easy, the conflict will only become more difficult to initiate.

Kurt Goble

Kurt has made more mistakes than anyone in the history of Children’s Ministry. But he loves sharing what he has learned from all those mistakes. For thirteen years Kurt has served as Children’s Pastor at First Christian Church of Huntington Beach. For more about how to deal with conflict check out his breakout at CPC San Diego, or visit our store to get the MP3.

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