What Leaders Can Learn from the Fire Tetrahedron for the Good of the Church
By Walt Wilcoxson
Heat, fuel, oxygen, and a chemical chain reaction. These four factors comprise the fire tetrahedron, which is basic knowledge to every firefighter and the basis for the plan of attack for fighting every fire. Even rookie firefighters know that if you can eliminate any single part of the tetrahedron, the fire will go out. Or, if any of these four elements is missing, there will be no fire.
In church conflict, leaders have a tetrahedron to consider as well. They need to be mindful of four factors as they carefully watch how others are following. The four sides of the conflict tetrahedron are the heat of emotions, the fuel of relationship, the oxygen of talk, and the chemical chain reaction of timing.
The fire of conflict can come into play anytime. But it most often raises its ugly head when decisions have been made by leadership, changes are announced, or a new direction is being taken—those times when the Spirit is on the move to take ground for the Lord. Make no mistake about it, conflict shows up because the enemy of the cross is working overtime to steal, kill, and destroy. People are involved, of course. But the problem is spiritual as much as it is worldly.
The individual sides of the tetrahedron—emotions, relationship, talk, and timing—benefit both the individual and the body of Christ in a spiritually healthy environment. The church needs passionate people, relationships that are strong, people sharing their faith and pulling together at the same time. But when Satan gets a foothold and causes all four of the elements to come together sinfully, they ignite a fire of conflict and divisiveness that can consume everything in its path.
Factor One: The Heat of Emotions
The heat of conflict is emotion—more specifically, unhealthy, inappropriate, and sinful emotions. Instead of joy, gladness, compassion, and empathy—virtues that promote unity—you find bitterness, sadness, and anger wrapped in legalism, selfishness, and self-promotion. The negative attributes all serve to supplant grace. Formerly healthy emotions once used to praise and glorify God and show love to our neighbors are twisted by Satan into unhealthy emotions that divide the flock, hurt the weak, and damage the witness of the body of Christ before a world that needs Jesus.
The heat of emotions, much like the buildup of hot smoke and gases in a house fire, needs to be properly vented to remove this side of the conflict tetrahedron. As a leader, this is a time for listening instead of lecturing. People often have amped-up emotions because they want to be heard. Leaders need to provide an environment that allows for the proper venting of emotions, a place where you can listen earnestly.
The venting sometimes occurs by spending time one-on-one with an individual. At other times, the heat of emotions has gotten so intense that an entire group needs to have the opportunity to be heard. As a general rule, the larger the fire, the larger the vent hole that is needed.
By listening and allowing others to be heard, the leader vents the fire of conflict and allows the heat of emotions to escape. Once that emotional heat is vented, work still needs to be done. The fire still needs to be extinguished. If not, the heat will build up again.
After listening, the leader needs to speak the truth in love. This can mean anything from correcting misunderstandings to acknowledging things that could have been done better, confessing personal sin that you (as a leader) become convicted of, or even confronting the sin of others. This action can finally separate the heat of emotions from the rest of the tetrahedron.
Factor Two: The Fuel of Relationship
The fuel in church conflict, the next side of the conflict tetrahedron, is relationship. And as in a real fire, the more fuel, the bigger the fire. The more relationships a person has, the greater the potential size of the conflict. This is why someone new to the church usually has less of an impact on the flock as a whole than a staff member or a ministry team leader.
Identifying relationship as the fuel for conflict may seem counterintuitive since the church is meant to exist in relationship. But the church is also meant to exist in unity (see John 17:23). And while healthy, God-honoring relationships are a fuel for spiritual growth and excitement, relationships that fuel conflict are relationships that exist, or begin to exist, outside of the desire for unity. They are relationships that have begun to be spiritually unhealthy. These relationships may have previously been beneficial, encouraging, and supportive for spiritual growth and ministry. These unhealthy relationships can exist in such places as small groups, ministry teams, or even relationships among staff. In the tetrahedron of conflict, once-healthy relationships become a source of fuel for obstruction, or destruction, of the objectives set forth by leadership.
It’s been said our greatest weakness is our greatest strength exploited by Satan. In conflict, Satan exploits healthy, supporting, and unified relationships and uses them to fuel conflict for the purpose of disunity and destruction.
Sometimes, by confronting the individual(s) involved in causing trouble, and exposing their sin, the sinner will graciously and genuinely repent and healthy relationships will be restored and again become beneficial to the work of Christ. However, at times it is absolutely necessary, because of a person’s unrepentant attitude, to remove the fuel and starve the fire. If this is the case, staff members sometimes need to be let go or reassigned, or ministry leaders replaced.
With a house fire, removing the fuel that is feeding the fire is often the most difficult task to accomplish. The same can be said for removing unhealthy relationships in the church. And while it should not be the leader’s first choice, it is often the only choice left. Sometimes, after our best efforts, we find ourselves having to accept the same advice that Titus received from Paul: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:10).
Still, even after letting a staff member go or asking others to leave the church, the leader needs to keep a careful eye on the relationship side of the tetrahedron. It’s likely that the catalyst of the conflict left embedded relationships in the church. It can be like separating a hot coal from a fire: One coal is removed but the others continue to smolder.
Co-workers, ministry teams, small group members, family, and friends all may continue to carry the offense of the one who was let go. The leader must guard against thinking the fire of conflict is out simply because someone is no longer around. A significant amount of time, effort, prayer, and wisdom will be needed to continue to deal with the remaining relationships so that they will return to health.
Factor Three: The Oxygen of Talk
The third side of the fire tetrahedron is oxygen, and talk is the oxygen in the tetrahedron of conflict. Sinful talk. Gossip that is fueled by relationship and heated by sinful emotions. Selfish talk. Talk helps ignite church conflict. Gone are these restraints of Scripture: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29); and, “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone” (Titus 3:1, 2). Is it any wonder James says of the tongue, “[It] is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6)?
Of course, talk is very difficult to control, because harmful chatter ultimately is not a tongue issue but a heart issue. “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34). Venting helps with emotions, and it also can help reduce or eliminate gossip. But the way a leader vents the conflict is important.
Proper venting of a house fire allows the buildup of heat and smoke to escape. But there are other benefits as well. Proper venting halts the spread of the fire and increases the likelihood victims inside the house will survive. Venting of conflict in the church produces similar benefits. Confronting the sin of gossip, slander, and backstabbing serves to halt the spread of conflict, dissipate the heat of emotion, and help prevent further hurt.
Some leaders resist venting conflict because they worry the fire of conflict will get out of control. But the truth is, it is already out of control. Even a small fire can be out of control. A small fire in a fireplace is beneficial. But a fire of the same size in the heart of your living room is out of control and has the potential to cause much more damage. In conflict, sinful talk and ungodly emotions are already stoking the fire! Better to vent the fire properly and control it than to let it grow and spread.
Giving people a place to vent their emotions and their words, while also lovingly and truthfully confronting the sins associated with the tongue, provide the leader the opportunity to influence future conversations so they can be godly and beneficial for the cause of Christ.
Factor Four: The Chemical Chain Reaction of Timing
The final side of the tetrahedron, timing, is the chemical chain reaction that takes place when the other three elements are present. But timing is not accidental. The enemy brings all these together at a time when God is moving and when ground for the kingdom is being taken. Timing is orchestrated by Satan, and because “we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11), the leader must always be vigilant.
A firefighter extinguishes a fire by systematically working his way to the seat of the fire. A leader, in a similar fashion, must work his way to the seat of the conflict. The leader must assess the conflict and determine the best way to deal with it. The best approach might be to remove a relationship, or vent emotions, or douse sinful talk with truth, or a combination of any or all of these three.
In the end, the seat of the conflict will inevitably be one or more individuals sowing discord and disunity. We see an example of the human element in 1 Timothy 1:3, 4, where Paul tells Timothy to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” because they “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work.”
There is, however, another participant in the fire of conflict, and it is Satan himself. We, as leaders, cannot approach conflict or view it from only a worldly, lower story, human perspective. Because the church is made up of flawed individuals we must, by necessity, confront the individuals causing the conflict. But we should remember the arsonist, the enemy, the one who strikes the match, is not the individual standing in front of us. It is Satan! The enemy of the cross (Ephesians 6:12). But there is good news! He has been defeated (Colossians 2:15).
Walt Wilcoxson serves as campus pastor at The Crossing, Lima, Illinois.