By Shan Caldwell
It is time for the church to begin taking part in MORE conflict—to the glory of God.
Growing up, I used to listen to a song by Kenny Rogers called “The Coward of the County.” In it, a young man’s courage is called into question because of a promise he’d made as a 10-year-old to his dying father that he would always “walk away from trouble.” However, when the girl he loves is attacked, the “coward” doesn’t walk away—he stands his ground for her sake.
Now, I don’t generally live my life according to the ethical codes of country songs, and I’m not suggesting we lock the barroom (or boardroom) doors and duke it out. But I do believe the church would be a healthier place if we fought more. I know, I know. We’re supposed to love one another, right? But sometimes conflict can be exactly what we need to strengthen that love—and advance the gospel.
Many Christians have drawn the false conclusion that love and conflict are mutually exclusive. This view ignores the benefits of healthy conflict and keeps the church constantly focused on issues other than its primary purpose of reaching the lost and building disciples. It is time for the church to begin taking part in more conflict—to the glory of God.
Christian leaders often take Scripture’s command for us to live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18) to such an extreme that they ignore the injunction to be unified (Ephesians 4:3). Unity comes in different forms. Sometimes unity is the product of a dictatorship in which, in order to avoid conflict, all other parties stay silent and give in to the will of the leader. In the church, “unity” is often maintained when people capitulate in premature compromise in order to avoid dreaded confrontation.
The healthier alternative is unity formed by collaboration and the inclusion of differing opinions, resulting in the best solution.
Is this easy? Not at all, but it cuts down on the very source of conflict—the desires that battle within us (James 4:1-3)—and allows the work of the Holy Spirit in multiple believers to come together for the good of God’s kingdom.
In his book The Peacemaker, Ken Sande defines conflict as “a difference of opinion or purpose that frustrates someone’s goals or desires.” In both this definition and in James 4:1-3, we see the use of the word desire. The word desire does not necessarily indicate malicious intent or ill will. It does, however, hint at a lack of humility and the ability to see that others may have something positive to add to our thoughts.
Unhealthy conflict typically stems from our desire to be right. This may be, for example, the belief that we know the best way to evangelize our neighborhood. If, however, our desire to reach our neighbors becomes less important than our desire to have the “reaching” done our way, unhealthy conflict ensues.
Unhealthy conflict pulls Christians and churches off target. Community is destroyed, ministries become ineffective, problems go unresolved, and resources (time and energy) of the church are diverted from the mission. Polarization and division take hold, and eventually, if no one intervenes, churches split or even close their doors. In any case, this unhealthy conflict encourages the world around us to identify us as Christians not by our love, but by how divided we are.
Philippians challenges us to be God-centered in our conflicts: “Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose” (2:1, 2, New Living Translation).
A majority of Christians take these verses to heart. The fear of the split, the fear of not being compassionate, the fear of not working together, and the fear of confrontation compel us to keep our ideas to ourselves in the name of “unity” and “love.”
This conflict avoidance, even if rightly motivated, can lead to the ineffectiveness and even irrelevance of the church in our communities. A majority of Christian leaders can easily identify unhealthy conflict, but in doing so we typically ignore the fact that conflict has a healthy side that can move the church ahead by leaps and bounds.
Healthy leaders are those who respect each other and do not doubt the motivation of the others they are serving alongside. When this is the case, leaders feel free to lead from a place of vulnerability. This vulnerability leads to trust within the leadership. As trust grows, passionate debate is not just allowed, it’s encouraged. Debate leads to resolution of the issues and increased involvement by a wider range of leaders who have been allowed to share their thoughts and feelings on an issue.
When the leadership of a church is allowed to disagree but still be at peace, wonderful things happen for the kingdom of God. Leadership legs are stretched and leadership skills, long repressed or suppressed, emerge and expand. Closer relationships tend to appear among the leaders as the load and responsibility of leadership is spread throughout a team that is working together. As communication improves (never a simple task), misunderstandings diminish and anger wanes. Those who are being led develop greater trust for the leaders they see as unified—leaders willing to address issues directly and without gamesmanship. There develops a sense of community based on love and peace instead of obligation and fear.
I have been blessed to be a part of an executive team that believes in practicing healthy conflict, and yet manages to leave the room united around a common decision. The six of us meet regularly, and often the discussions are difficult, but we refuse to shy away from speaking our mind on the topics facing the church.
The challenge for us has been in bringing together six individuals who are willing to share their hearts in the face of debate, but who also trust and respect each other enough to know each person is putting the best interests of the church ahead of his own. We don’t always succeed, but the success we have seen makes the risk of some losses more than worth it.
This leadership team, in particular our senior minister, recognizes that leaders who are not “yes” men and women are leaders who will take Spirit-led risks. As opinions differ, because of life experiences and spiritual history, we find we are led to conclusions that no one person could arrive at alone. As we see God work through these team-created conclusions, we recognize God has indeed worked through healthy conflict to break down barriers and improve our ability to lead the work of the church.
This is the purpose of the unity Jesus called for in his prayer, “So that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
The Teamwork Advantage
Healthy conflict is essential to effective teamwork. Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Advantage, writes, “It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” Lencioni writes for organizations that are not necessarily Christian. If this advantage is coupled with the work of the Holy Spirit, we can expect God to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). Yet a lack of teamwork devolves into unhealthy conflict and the ineffectiveness of the church.
Two primary forces are at work in teams: trust and fear. Effective teams trust each other and work through the issue of fear. Lencioni states that no characteristic is more important than trust. Do our teams trust each other enough to be vulnerable with each other? Trust means we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and work though the fear that comes from making ourselves that way. The fear of losing one’s position because of having an opposing viewpoint must be eradicated. That fear shows that one party or another is not leading from a position of humility.
In Galatians 6:1, Paul writes concerning our responsibility to lead back to God people who have been caught up in sin. He says he is writing to those “who live by the Spirit.” That means those who are Christians, and especially Christian leaders. He says we should seek to restore a person gently. Some translations also add the word humbly. The New International Version then adds the sentence, “But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” I always thought this was an odd statement, because I wondered why I was in danger of falling into the same sin as my struggling brother. I now believe Paul was warning against the sin of spiritual pride.
Spiritual pride is the primary obstacle to healthy conflict. When I am unwilling or unable to see that God may want to work in my heart to make me a more effective leader and follower through the input of others, I am falling prey to this pride. When we are guilty, we need to repent of this sin.
As Christian leaders, the practice of trust, the overcoming of fear, and the characteristic of humility equip us to use conflict as the springboard through which God purifies our leadership of selfish desires that battle within us; it clears the church of obstacles and impediments to its mission. Moreover, by engaging in healthy conflict, we allow multiple points of view, led by the Holy Spirit, to create initiatives and solutions unhindered by pride. When no one “owns” an idea, the glory is given all the more easily to the one who deserves it.
Shan Caldwell serves as executive minister, programming, with The Creek in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Helps for Building Healthy Conflict
1. Managing Conflict in the Church by David W. Kale and Mel McCullough (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2003). This is an excellent resource regarding all aspects of conflict in the church. Chapter 2 deals specifically with the positive outcomes of healthy conflict.
2. Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators by Patrick Lencioni (SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005). A follow-up book to The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, this book gives more guidance into how leaders can build trust and use conflict to the benefit of their organization.
3. The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Lencioni (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012). Written for leaders, this book explains how and why it is not enough just to be smart in our work; we must also be healthy. Health includes the ability to handle conflict in a beneficial way. A national best-seller with huge applicability to the local church.
4. peacemaker.net. The website of Peacemaker Ministries provides educational resources and conciliation training to help Christians with conflict. Beyond the free resources, training, and conflict coaching, mediation and arbitration services are also made available to the church.
5. rw360.org. The Relational Wisdom 360 website offers Bible-based tools and training for Christians to know how to better relate both to other Christians and our culture in general. Addressing these issues biblically helps to prevent unhealthy conflict and encourages healthy interaction.
6. The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict by Ken Sande (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007). Written by the founder of Peacemaker Ministries, who is now director of Relational Wisdom 360 (rw360.org), this book provides practical biblical guidance for both healthy conflict management and unhealthy conflict reconciliation. Chapter 1 provides insight into the opportunities provided by healthy conflict.
Pointers for Building Trust and Mastering Conflict
From Patrick Lencioni, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators:
• Trust is the foundation of teamwork. On a team, trust is all about vulnerability, which is difficult for most people.
• Building trust takes time, but the process can be greatly accelerated.
• Like a good marriage, trust on a team is never complete; it must be maintained over time.
• Good conflict among team members requires trust, which is all about engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate around issues.
• Even among the best teams, conflict will at times be uncomfortable.
• Conflict norms, though they will vary from team to team, must be discussed and made clear among the team.
• The fear of occasional personal conflict should not deter a team from having regular, productive debate.