In ministry, conflict is inevitable. When we work with enough people for enough time, we’ll get our share—I promise. We serve a Lord who faced conflict throughout his ministry—conflict that ultimately led to his death. If people clashed with Jesus, and we’re to pattern our ministries after his, why would we expect anything different? Paul was beaten and imprisoned, Peter was reportedly martyred . . . and youth ministers are occasionally yelled at by parents. (This should put our conflicts into perspective.) If we wish to be effective student ministers, it’s important to develop healthy means of conflict management. Conflict will come—we must be ready.
I’ve reflected on my own experiences, and I wish someone had prepared me for the mistakes I would make and the challenging personalities I would encounter. Many of my conflicts could have been avoided with patience and a little maturity. For all the rest, I’ve learned—often the hard way—to embrace the following ten principles for managing conflict in ministry:
1) Remember: Conflict isn’t always a bad thing.
Healthy leaders appreciate occasional disagreements, understanding the benefits that come through shared ideas and group processing. Our ideas won’t always be the best ideas in the room. Disagreements can feel uncomfortable in the moment, but they might bring healthy returns in the long haul. May we be patient enough to consider different perspectives and humble enough to embrace ideas better than our own.
2) Consider underlying issues.
Sometimes the conflicts we’ll experience are a symptom of deeper conflicts in others’ lives. Why did that parent make such a scene when the youth group arrived ten minutes later than planned? Maybe that parent is in the middle of a nasty divorce, has recently lost his or her job, and just narrowly avoided a car accident between home and the church. Before we take things personally, we must consider the possibility that the presented conflict (parent making a scene in church parking lot) is a symptom of deeper, more challenging conflicts behind the scenes (divorce, loss of job). May we have compassion and be understanding in these moments.
3) Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
I think we all should live by this principle—with or without conflicts on the horizon. And when conflicts are present, this principle becomes even more important. My mouth often gets me in trouble to begin with, so when trouble comes, the last thing I need to do is open it again! Conflict resolution is easier when we commit to listening more than talking. May we find control of our tongues in these moments.
4) Ask questions, and strive for understanding.
Conflicts often arise from misunderstandings, and sometimes clarity is the only missing ingredient for peaceful resolution. When we ask questions, we show genuine interest in others’ feelings and perspectives. Furthermore, we may discover an easier solution to the problem once we sort out all the details. We must be careful about embracing assumptions or jumping to conclusions without closely listening to details and carefully inquiring to ensure accurate understanding. May we have ears to hear.
5) Face-to-face dialogue is always best.
I can’t emphasize this point enough: We must not try to resolve conflict through text messages, e-mails, or phone conversations. Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice are crucial elements when we seek to understand another. We can’t hear inflections in a text message. Sometimes these subtleties make the difference between resolving conflict and things becoming even worse. When possible, it’s important to address conflicts while looking the other person in the eye. May we be bold enough stand face-to-face with others.
6) Time and place are important.
I prefer dealing with conflict quietly—involving only myself and the other party—in a private enough place so as not to attract others’ attention. Sometimes conflict arises in public gatherings and open venues—we must deal with these moments carefully, considering others present. It’s ideal to reserve conflict conversations for more private and appropriate settings. I’ve met with people in their homes, at my office, and in local coffee shops. We must avoid being completely alone (for accountability purposes), but it’s also important not to rush headlong into an argument after Sunday morning worship as people mill past in the church lobby! Coffee shops may be preferable, as they combine the accountability of a public space with the security of a private conversation. As for timing, while it’s best to resolve matters as soon as possible, it’s sometimes wise to allow a day or two to pass before engaging the other party. A day or two spent in prayer while emotions settle and perspectives clear can be invaluable. May we choose the right times and places for optimal dialogue.
7) Take responsibility.
Apologize when necessary. Sometimes our own words and actions are to blame for conflicts. When we mess up, we need to own it. Over the years, I’ve privately and publicly apologized on many occasions. When we make stupid decisions, we lose a little trust with the people we serve. But we can regain trust over time, and the best way to begin this process is by displaying the integrity required to take responsibility. May we have the grit to admit it when we’re the ones at fault.
8) Stand your ground.
Here’s the other side of the coin—the complementary perspective to point number seven. When we’re to blame, we need to take full responsibility. But other times, the conflict lies somewhere else. The older I get, the more comfortable I’ve become with (gently and lovingly) calling others out for their own faulty ideas and bad behavior. We don’t have to accept the responsibility of others, and sometimes it’s important to help others see their own errors. Here’s a harsh reality in ministry: if we earn a reputation as passive or weak, we must expect some “well-meaning” people to eventually eat us for dinner. Jesus called people out. Jesus stood for truth. It’s possible to be humble, gentle, patient, and peace loving without becoming a doormat. May we have wisdom to discern when to back down and when to stand firm.
9) Involve others when necessary.
This principle comes directly from Matthew 18:15-17. We must strive to handle conflicts directly and face-to-face. But sometimes conflicts will become too challenging to resolve by ourselves. When we’re unable to effectively resolve conflict on our own, it’s wise to employ a mediator. The third party may be an elder or deacon, a trusted church leader, a fellow staff member, or a small group of mature adults committed to resolving the conflict and restoring the relationship in jeopardy. Sometimes conflicts are just too nasty with too many details or too much history. A third party or trusted small group can help bring perspective and lighten the tension to enable healthy dialogue. May we have godly, loving people around us to help in times of need.
10) Pray for the other person.
I’ve tried this with good results! Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. Hopefully the people we serve in our churches are never truly “enemies” in the technical sense. However, there are those who bring perpetual conflict, and many times these people feel like enemies. Many days, the only prayer I have for those people is for them to find another church home with some other student minister to hassle! In recent years, I’ve tried to more intentionally pray for blessings in the lives of those who bring me challenge. I’ve prayed for God to bless their marriages, their children, their homes, and their careers. I’ve also prayed for God to bless my relationships with these same people. I can’t tell you this has produced overnight returns in every case, but I can tell you these prayers have made a noticeable difference in many of these relationships. When I pray for others, I find greater sensitivity toward them. This is a good thing. May we be intentional to pray for others—especially those with whom we have conflict.
DAVE BLANCHARD is the Director of Student Ministry at the West Houston Church of Christ. He is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who has worked in Oregon, Michigan and Texas. Dave has been married for 18 years with three kids and two pug dogs.