Your Church Conflict Survival Guide!
As far as I know, no one wakes up one morning and says, “Oh wait, I forgot I HATE ministering to people. I’ll go be a plumber”. And yet, as you may have already found out, there is a very high turnover rate in both paid and volunteer ministers. And why? Not enough budget? Too many families to handle? I don’t think so. The number ONE reason that you will be tempted to quit in your ministry, is the fall out from poorly handled church conflict. For those of you who chose to serve in the children’s area, hoping that you could avoid a lot of the politics and arguing that can go on in a church- I am sorry to tell you that you were sadly mistaken. The cold hard truth is:
There is no area in the church as prone to explosive conflicts as the children’s area.
Are you shaking your head right now? Are you thinking “No way. We wouldn’t have arguing or hurt feelings happening in our kid’s area!” Remember, that there are a lot of emotions involved when you are dealing with people’s KIDS. Families may overlook a problem in the parking lot, or even put up with a service element they did not enjoy; but if their child gets hurt, or comes home crying- they will want answers….from YOU. Have you seen the news specials lately about parent bullying of teachers? That can spill over into the church. And of course, we are ministering to people who need Jesus (we all do!), hurting people, and stressed out volunteer and staff teams. Unfortunately, we cannot eliminate conflicts in the church. But if our ministries are going to survive, and thrive, we are going to have to get better at reducing and managing the disagreements that WILL occur. Unfortunately, many people in our congregations have no idea how to handle disagreements in a Biblical manner. As leaders, we have to intentionally TRAIN our people how God expects us to treat each other (Matthew 18). With that in mind as our end goal, here are a few very practical tips to surviving the conflicts that come your way. And I really wish I had known some of these when I first went into ministry:
1. “Do not make their emergency, YOUR emergency.” This was the best, most eye-opening advice that my boss ever gave me. Just because someone calls you, emails you saying something is an emergency, does not mean it is an emergency. That is giving that person too much power. Their “emergency” may take you away from important family time, much needed sleep, productive appointments and other ministry. Just because someone DEMANDS a late night meeting, or to see you immediately, does not mean you are obligated to do so. In fact, I routinely will wait a day or two, so they (and maybe me) have time to calm down and prepare. Boundaries are so important for your family, and for your health, and for relationship with Jesus Christ. When someone calls you during family time, prayer time or personal time, let it go to voicemail. Then listen to the voicemail, but do not respond emotionally. Think first. Is this really an emergency? Can I schedule them for an appointment tomorrow or later this week? If their relative has just been in a car wreck, by all means go. If they are sobbing because their daughter did not get the solo in the Easter service, that can wait until tomorrow. You are not responsible to meet everyone’s emotional needs. They have to deal with their own feelings. You can care, you can help- without being controlled. And if you set a precedent of always jumping and running whenever someone starts drama, you will always be jumping and running for every situation, eventually damaging your ministry, your health and your family.
2. Never ever ever ever EVER (times 2135) work on a conflict or tough situation over email, Facebook, social media or voicemail. I don’t care what the excuse is. Trying to solve conflicts like that never leads to anything good. And it’s not Biblical. We are supposed to GO to them and meet one on one with the goal being reconciliation. Email is notoriously misconstrued; you cannot hear someone’s tone or inflection or their heart. Don’t leave room for misinterpretation. As tough as it sounds, bite the bullet and meet with them one on one to sincerely work it through. DO NOT engage in conflict in any way other than face to face. If someone expresses anger etc. over social media or voicemail, do NOT respond in kind. Always, set up a face to face appointment (at the church or neutral ground is best).
3. Don’t ever put anything in writing or voicemail that you don’t want EVERYONE to read or hear. A good friend of mine, a children’s pastor, received an angry outrageous phone call from a parent one day while he was home sick. Without thinking, he called back and left a curt message on her voicemail. She responded by tearfully playing his voicemail message over and over in the parking lot to anyone in the church who would listen. He learned a painful lesson that day. If you aren’t comfortable with anyone and everyone reading what you wrote or said on tape, then don’t write it (or say it).
4. If your one on one meeting does not go well and there is no resolution, you are not “off the hook” to attack that person, or gossip, or “get people on your side” even if that is what they are doing. Yes, Christians “should know better” but many of them do not. Lead by example. The next step in Matthew 18 is meeting with them with one witness. This should be your supervisor, or lead pastor. And by the way, senior leaders usually HATE being surprised. If you have a tough situation, talk to your leader as soon as possible. Better they hear it from you first! It is not gossip to keep your pastor in the loop, since your goal is reconciliation and they are over your area. That way, when that person goes over your head to your leader or you have to pull them into the conversation, your pastor will not be completely blindsided. They may also be able to give you some great input and advice. Then you are not facing it alone.
5. Do not delete emails or voicemails pertaining to the conflict- they may come in handy later with your supervisor.
6. As much as humanly possible- don’t respond to angry letters, emails or phone calls at ALL, when you are sick, overtired, grieving a loss etc. Remember, you do NOT obligated to answer immediately. You sometimes have no other choice but to minister reconciliation when you are not at your best, but if you have ANY choice in the matter, delay that confrontation til you are at your best. This has been a big one for me to learn!
7. Cannot think of what to say in that moment? Clam up. “Silence Cannot be misquoted.” Silence is one of your BEST defenses- don’t say something that can be used against you. And they may keep talking themselves into a hole. It’s ok, and wise, to say, “Hm, I’m gonna take some time to think and pray about that, and I’ll get back to you.” Do not get pressured into making a final decision or a declarative statement because it’s being demanded.
8. Do not respond to or acknowledge nasty anonymous emails and letters in ANY way. That’s not Biblical. And it encourages that wrong behavior. Teach people right off the bat, that wrong behavior like that won’t get them anywhere. TEACH and model Biblical behavior. You TEACH people how to treat you. Throw those mean letters out. Delete them, and move on.
I know this list is not comprehensive, but I truly hope it helps. Conflict in ministry is something we all face. It’s something Jesus and all the apostles had to deal with. You may not have done anything wrong; in fact, your ministry may be doing things RIGHT and conflict is surfacing. Don’t give up! Keep focused on doing the ministry God put you there to do, and God will go with you through this. Love Trisha
What tips do YOU have for handling church conflicts well?