You know it’s going to happen. You can’t be a shepherd and avoid mediating in conflicts. That much is certain. However, your responses to conflicts are affected by a variety of variables, which makes your role as mediator far less predictable. For example:
- Personality variables (both yours and those involved in the conflict): Some people are shy; others are outgoing. Some people are attentive to details; others are not. Some people adjust easily to change; others are more rigid. All such differences factor into how conflicts are handled and resolved.
- Perspective variables: Different people can understand a situation in very different ways. Defining a conflicted issue is not always straightforward.
- Communication skills variables: Some people are better at verbalizing their concerns than others; some are better at reading body language than others. Not only does that make it more difficult for you to understand what’s going on, it also means some people will struggle with feeling understood.
This is just a sampling of factors that you might need to consider in your role as pastoral mediator. As is true of all multifaceted responsibilities, a variety of errors are possible. In this article, three Christian ministry experts discuss five common errors that can sabotage conflict resolution.
Avoiding conflict conversations
Zack Carter: The first error I would say is avoidance. So many times we think conflict shouldn’t happen. But it will!
Lilly Park: Conflict resolution takes time and energy, and on top of that, it’s not usually pleasant. So, it’s easier to not deal with conflict. It’s easier to talk to other people about your conflict than picking up the phone or arranging a time to meet with that person.1
Terry Linhart: I’ve learned how important it is to say, “I’m angry.” When I was a kid and got mad at my parents, I used to just be quiet. But if we’re really angry inside, and we never express it in an appropriate way, that can be really detrimental.
“‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph. 4:26).2
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23–24, emphasis added).3
Zack Carter: Another problem is many times we try to “read the other person’s mind” during conflict. So instead of actively listening to what’s being said—actually hearing the words and sensing the emotions of the speaker—we fail to grasp what is being communicated to us.
Lilly Park: I’m reminded of one person who shared that her friend had moved away, and there was a natural drift that occurred between them. This person assumed that her friend had found better friends, and she had moved on with her life. But eventually she met up with that friend, and they had a good talk together. She came to realize that she was completely wrong in her assumptions.
To answer before listening—
that is folly and shame.…
The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge,
for the ears of the wise seek it out (Prov. 18:13, 15).
Terry Linhart: More problems are created when people overreact. In those cases, it’s important to let it defuse a little bit—to let the emotional fervor fade.
In terms of learning to do conflict well: I remember when my wife and I went through premarital counseling, we were taught that when you have a conflict, energy should be spent on [resolving the issue], not on tearing down the other person. We’ve been married thirty years now, and we’ve learned how to do that well. We can have really intense discussions but never lose the care and affection for each other in the same evening.
Zack Carter: Overreacting is a failure to empathize. In other words, when people are at fault, we make it clear they’re in the wrong through verbal criticism and nonverbal stonewalling.
“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” (Eph. 4:29).
“The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered” (Prov. 17:27).
Using text messages
Lilly Park: I think another common error is using text messages. To me, text messages—and emails—are not ideal because there are usually a lot of emotions involved in conflict and we use text messages as a way of protecting ourselves from the emotions. But doing that increases the potential for misunderstandings to occur.
Terry Linhart: Recently, when I had an issue with a friend because of a text message, we picked up the phone and talked about it right away; then later we met face-to-face to confirm a resolution.
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18, emphasis added).
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3, emphasis added).
Rehashing the past
Zack Carter: What about when we refer to past grievances even when these grievances have been dealt with in the past and forgiveness may have been extended? This actually communicates to people that we haven’t forgiven them for the past wrongdoings they’ve done against us.
“Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (Prov. 17:9).
“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.… Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” (Col. 3:13, 15).
Paul’s desire for the Colossians,“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” should be the controlling factor in your relationships with fellow sinners, because your Lord lost His life to make this possible. Can there be a more compelling reason to avoid these kinds of errors in conflict resolution?
Zack Carter, PhD, is assistant professor of communication at Taylor University in Upland, IN.
Lilly Park, PhD, is a biblical counselor, college instructor, and Council Board member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition.
Terry Linhart, PhD, is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in Mishawaka, IN.
- Talking with someone who can help figure out how to resolve the conflict is not a problem. Talking with someone just to “vent” fuels the fires of conflict.
- Paul’s point is to “not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27), an opportunity to wedge himself between two feuding Christians.
- In modern terms, reconciliation takes precedence over worship.