To get through college, I washed windows for a wonderful Christian man named Joe. In one of our initial conversations, Joe told me, “Ben, if we’re going to work together for any period of time, we’re going to have conflict. It’s inevitable. So when it happens, let’s speak to each other face-to-face and deal with it.”
About a year later, we had a disagreement. But because we were ready for it, we talked about it, dealt with it, and moved on.
Healthy conflict leads to personal and relational growth. Without it, everything of significance dies.
Unfortunately, our culture has totally lost the ability to engage in healthy conflict. We see it everywhere.
In our families. After the honeymoon, a marriage no longer runs on the fumes of romantic obsession. And if a couple can’t have a healthy debate, they will settle for a divisive power struggle.
In our churches. Jesus seemed to engage in conflict every day. But most Christians don’t seem to follow his lead. They might disagree on worship styles, programs, or general direction of the ministry. But instead of facing each other, they avoid each other and gossip about each other. Over time, their disagreements go from preferences to personal attacks.
In our culture. This is probably the most obvious example. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, shouting about each other but never talking to each other, digitally slashing each other but never truly listening to each other.
Our country, our churches, and our families are more divided than ever. We no longer know how to engage in healthy conflict. And everybody is losing . . .
We are losing the ability to learn from one another.
We are losing an opportunity to love others.
We are losing an opportunity to witness the gospel.
We lose our jobs.
We lose our churches.
We lose friends.
We lose our spouse.
Therefore, we must engage in healthy conflict.
7 tips on engaging healthy conflict
Important disclaimer: If you are dealing with a narcissist, manipulator, or a perpetrator of any kind, I would advise you do NOT engage at all. There is little hope to move forward on a goal or a relationship with someone who is completely self-absorbed and self-deluded. But in most cases, you are just dealing with another sinful person who struggles with his or her sinful nature. In most cases, there is hope for change and growth.
1. Meet face-to-face.
If you are about to email or text your opponent, stop right now. It’s easy to say whatever you want via email or text because you don’t have to look the person in the eye. But email and text do not allow you to engage at a personal level, no matter how many emojis you use. If possible, meet face-to-face.
2. Let the other person talk.
A few years ago, I had a conflict with a dear friend and leader. A pastor told me to shut up and let the person talk. It was great advice. I didn’t waste time trying to justify myself or prove myself. I just asked a lot of questions. Over time this person could see his part in the conflict. And, by the end, he was apologizing before I even pointed out his issue.
3. Find the nugget of truth in their words.
Well-known pastor Timothy Keller gets quite a bit of criticism. But instead of responding in anger, he tries to find the nugget of truth in every naysayer. I’ve found this to be extremely helpful. Even my most difficult critic can teach me something. That doesn’t mean I’m a doormat or a pushover. It just means I need to have the humility to learn from others who disagree.
4. Take their words and actions in the kindest possible way.
We ought to take everyone’s words and actions in the kindest possible way. That means assume the best. Assume the person has the best intentions in mind. Assume they have a noble cause for their concern. When you assume the best, you are less likely to make sarcastic and hurtful jabs.
5. Humbly and honestly admit your faults.
You might just be wrong. No one is perfect. If you don’t admit your own weakness, there is no hope for a resolution or for growth.
6. Clearly and courageously speak the truth.
Speak from the heart about what is true and best. Don’t be a people pleaser. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). If you have something true to say that will honor Christ and improve our broken world, say it with confidence.
7. Forgive and move on.
During my ministry internship, my pastor said to me, “When we sin against each other and apologize, we will not say, ‘It’s ok. Don’t worry about it.’ We will say, ‘I forgive you.’” One time I was late for a meeting, and I said, “I’m sorry.” And he said, “I forgive you.” At first, I didn’t like that. It meant that I really did do something wrong and needed to be forgiven. But after a while, I treasured those words because I knew he meant it. It was over, and we could move on. Also, it was his way of constantly pointing me back to Jesus.
You have a choice. You could avoid conflict. But that means you will avoid every long-term relationship and career. And you will never truly learn from others and grow.
Or you could engage in healthy conflict with humility, love, and respect. In doing so, not only will you be changed into the person God wants you to be, but you might just change the culture around you.
As one pastor told me, “There is no agreement without disagreement.” Chew on that for a while.
Pastor Ben Sadler has served as a full-time pastor since 2010. He began his ministry serving a Spanish-speaking congregation in Florida. Since March 2014, he has served at Goodview Trinity Church in Minnesota. He is married to Emily, and they have three children. Ben loves to spend time with his family, ride his road bike, read, write, and preach.
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