Handling leader conflict

By Craig Tuck

Conflict is inevitable. Jesus said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come…” (Luke 17:1). As leaders we have a responsibility to teach our congregations to work through conflict and shepherd them through conflict. If we are to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:3) elders and leaders need to model and implement gospel realities to lead toward conflict resolution. How should leaders lead through conflict with one another?

Identify the type of conflict.
Not all conflicts are equal. Not all conflicts are necessarily sinful, but all conflicts are rooted in “self will.” Self will is something everyone struggles with regardless of one’s position in the church or years of spiritual maturity. Studies have shown that one of the most common conflicts among elder leadership is not over doctrine or personal convictions but rather over differences of personality and preferences that drive sinful responses.

During the days of training my children, my wife and I would seek to discern whether their self-willed behavior was childish or foolish. Each root required discipline, but the type of discipline required differed. Childish or immature behavior required a formative approach, foolishness required a corrective response. Children will be childish and immaturity will grow into maturity. However, foolishness must be rooted out as “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice Proverbs 12:15. In order to preserve and pursue unity, leaders must know how to discern the type of conflict in order to apply the appropriate biblical resolve.

Bring the gospel into conflict.
Because the gospel redeems all things, there is a remedy for all conflict. “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).

If the conflict is over differences, the gospel calls us to forbearance. In the same way that “divine forbearance passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25), so must leaders increase the grace they extend to each other in order to overlook offenses that come due to differences. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:9).

If these differences bring about sinful responses and conflict is motivated from sin or is sinfully communicated, the only remedy is repentance. This must come from repenting of sinful reactions and replacing them with righteous responses that lead to new behaviors. As Paul said, ”Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).

Practice open and honest communication.
Go back to the basics! We cannot judge someone’s heart, but we can ask one another what are the motivations that come out of it. Ask more questions of yourself, and others and be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19). Change requires that we abandon ways of communicating that lead to division, we must adopt different listening approaches that are based on grace and repent of reacting and not listening or seeking to understand others.

Here are some practical questions and principle approaches can help filter through our self-willed ways and create a new culture of open and honest communication:

· Is it really true? Do I have all the facts?
He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him (Proverbs 18:13).

· Is what I would like to say profitable? Will it help or hurt?
Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edificationaccording to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear (Ephesians 4:29).

· Is it the proper time to say it?
A man has joy in an apt answer, and how delightful is a timely word! Proverbs 15:23.

· Is my attitude right? 
But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ… Andbe kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you(Ephesians 4:15, 32).

· Will the words I use the best way to say it or should I wait?
Like apples of gold in settings of silver, is a word spoken in right circumstances (Proverbs 25:11).

· Have I prayed about it? Am I trusting God?
Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person (Colossians 4:2-6).

Mine for hidden conflict.
Silence is not always golden. Because it is the nature of sin is to conceal and hide behind unspoken personal offenses, silence can conceal differences or offenses and if not rooted out, veiled bitterness can wreak havoc and bring division (Hebrews 12:15). Like an unattended infection, these passive conflicts will lead to aggressive reactions and can become septic to morale and paralyze decision-making. When the disposition of a leader changes and unhindered rapport becomes hindered, it is time to dive into the pond of despondency and discover what is going on. Jesus’ teaching does not allow for conflict to remain unresolved. Leaders must practice the rule of he who knows goes: ”If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly…” (Matthew 5:23-25). Whether it is the one who has created the offense or one who has been offended, we cannot remain indifferent or neutral in keeping relationships in right standing.

The goal is unity for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus prays for his disciples; “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21).

Disunity in the church, especially among the elders and leaders hinders the impact of the gospel, when leaders dwell in unity their community is a light that shines bright in a world filled with conflict.

Published June 20, 2017

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Craig Tuck

Craig Tuck, serves as the director of missions for Charleston Baptist Association. He is serves as a church mobilization leader in the Charleston area through “The Hub Charleston” in partnership with the South Carolina Baptist Convention and has served in ministry for 30 years having planted churches in Georgia and South Carolina. He holds a bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministries and graduate degrees in Christian leadership and professional studies