In 1982, Ken Sande established Peacemaker Ministries, an organization dedicated to biblical conflict resolution for individuals, families, churches, and institutions. The training it offered in Christian conciliation and articulated in Sande’s book, The Peacemaker, has impacted individuals and institutions worldwide as they have sought to resolve disputes biblically. Thirty years later, Ken Sande went on to found Relational Wisdom 360 (RW360), which extends peacemaker principles as it explores “relational wisdom” and its value for relationships and spiritual growth.
In a recent interview, Sande reflected on key issues for dealing with conflict in your church, especially among the leaders.
What are some early warning signs of conflict that you should not ignore?
Conflict tends to sneak up on us. There are often warning signs that people ignore for quite a while. It’s a bit like an infection or gangrene that gradually starts growing and growing until it becomes life-threatening.
The early warning signs can be simply a sense that something isn’t quite right. You feel less open, less trusting toward certain people; I’m thinking particularly of people on your leadership team. Where at one point there was enthusiasm, openness, candor, encouragement, safety, constructive feedback and criticism, all that somehow begins to get eroded. You sense that people are more inclined to be critical or to take a position contrary to yours. You experience more tension and apprehension. When you look ahead to a leadership meeting, your stomach tightens and you wonder, “Oh boy, what’s going to hit me this time?”
A lot of those early warning signs are subtle. There isn’t someone who is actually standing up and saying, “I’m opposed to you.” Therefore, it’s very easy to think that you’re just imagining them for a while, and then, even when you realize you’re not imagining them, it’s hard to actually bring them out in the open because they are so subjective.
If the problem is between you and one of your elders or staff, your goal is to have a one-on-one conversation with that person. But there are a few important ways to prepare for that meeting.
How should you prepare for that conversation?
Search your heart. You should certainly spend some time in prayer, to get on your own and honestly go before the Lord. We have an incredible capacity to obscure and minimize our own sins. I’ve noticed that if there’s something problematic about myself, I am inclined to think about it in a very general way—“I’ve been a little bit short lately”—but I tend to see other people’s sins very, very precisely. We need to go before the Lord and really pray, “God, search my heart.”
Go to your spouse. It’s also wise to go to your spouse and say, “This is what I’m sensing from this person. Do you think there’s something I’m doing to contribute to it?” Some spouses are going to say, “No, no, you’re great.” But others might say, “Well, since you asked …”
Go to a trusted leader. If there is an elder on the board who is an objective, mature, godly person, it might be wise to go to that person, share your concerns, and ask, “Would you please give me your candid feedback? Is there something I’m doing?” Talking first with someone you perceive to be neutral, supportive, and open might make it easier to receive his or her constructive criticism. Then, when you go to the person or persons you sense are critical, you’re better prepared. You might even start that conversation by saying, “As I’ve reflected on the last year, I’ve realized I’ve made some mistakes and I need to acknowledge these to you.” To start the conversation with some transparency often gets it off to a more positive start.
What is the goal of the conversation?
You want to create an environment where you can safely draw the person out and hear his concerns. Your focus is not so much to tell him that he’s wrong, but to say, “I sense that something has changed in our relationship. I’ve lost some of your confidence. Is there something I’ve done or am doing that you’re concerned about? Something I can be more sensitive to? Because I want to work closely with you; I want to have an open relationship.” You want to take a humble approach. Inviting someone perceived as a critic to come out in the open and to be explicit about his concerns is usually the best way to handle it.
I would add that if you attempt to have that personal conversation and it doesn’t go well, or if you believe that the situation is so volatile that even a personal conversation might be explosive, then it may be wise to ask a third person—maybe another elder whom you both respect—to join you. People tend to behave better when there’s a third party present.
What things signal the need for an immediate conversation?
Gossip. If somebody is repeating, “There are a lot of people in the church that think X, Y, and Z,” that is one of the most common tactics people use to voice their criticism. I suggest that your meetings have some (ideally, previously established) ground rules on this, where you would say, “When we talk, we’re not going to say, ‘There are a lot of people who …’ because if you’ve been talking to other people and not to me directly, as laid out in Matthew 18:15–20, that’s not a good sign to begin with. And if people are not willing to have their names known, they shouldn’t be saying these things.”
Sarcasm and hurtful criticism. If it really seems like someone is trying to inflict harm, you can’t ignore it. Ideally, if something like that came up in a meeting and it wasn’t too severe, you as pastor could make a mental note and then arrange to stay after the meeting to talk it out or arrange a personal meeting later. Sometimes it might be appropriate to actually stop the meeting and say, “Let’s take a break for a minute. I think it might be helpful for Tom and me to have a personal conversation for a minute. I’d like to give him the freedom to share some of his concerns with me before we go on.” Use a friendly tone of voice. You’re not taking anyone to the woodshed.
In some cases, though, the criticism may be so significant that you actually have to pause the meeting and say, “Okay, Tom, you’ve raised a very important issue and I think we need to hear you out.” You actually put the issue squarely on the table. However, it depends on the context: Does the rest of the board understand the issues biblically? Do they understand what is involved in biblical conflict resolution? Even if they do, realize that attempting to discuss this in front of the whole group is harder because people can get polarized and defensive. That’s the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 about going to a brother privately and bringing others in only if that is unsuccessful. Jesus understands human psychology: if there are other people watching, we tend to be more defensive and image-conscious.
How can you create a healthy church culture that reduces such problems?
The old adage is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but a lot of pastors are so busy that they say, “I don’t have time to teach about biblical conflict resolution or peacemaking.” But six months later, those pastors are spending a whole week putting out fires.
Biblical conflict resolution is so relevant to people’s lives that first, I would develop a deliberate teaching strategy to get the whole church exposed to it. That could be followed up with small-group studies. Certainly, all the elders and leaders should be trained in conflict resolution—and not just elders and deacons, but anybody in a leadership position, be it small-group leaders, women’s group leaders, kitchen crew, youth group, etc. If all of those teams are being led by people who have been trained in biblical peacemaking, they will be able to address most of the issues in those groups on their own, and they won’t need to be trotting down to the pastor’s office all the time. Congregation-wide training is a very wise thing, because then you’ve got a shared vocabulary and theological framework. Otherwise, even people’s definition of forgiveness can vary. Some people think it means, “Well, I’ll drop it for the moment, but I’ll bring it up again in the future.” Help people to understand that when they forgive, it’s not something they throw back in another’s face later.
Second, you should have an understanding with your elders: “If you have an issue with me, please come to me first rather than talking to others about it. If I respond in an unreasonable way, then come back with two or three people until I get it through my head.”
Third, reinforce the teaching in later sermons and personal testimonies. I think it was D. L. Moody who said, “Christians leak.” We can fill them up with a good sermon on Sunday, and by Thursday they probably can’t remember what the topic was. It’s human nature, so how do we keep filling the bucket again? One of the most effective ways is to encourage people to give testimonies about their experiences with biblical principles of communication and peacemaking. They carry a lot of weight.
What personal characteristics of a pastor promote a healthy church culture?
Be approachable. A lot of pastors are intellectual introverts who are good at preaching but not very approachable. Look for ways to make it easier for people to share their concerns with you.
Be humble. Be someone who really doesn’t believe he’s got all the answers. Philippians 2:3–4 tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but to consider others better than ourselves. We can learn from others. They may have better answers, better insights—always be open to that possibility.
Be teachable. Welcome people who can help you see things differently.
Be flexible. Be willing to change. Years ago our church had annual performance reviews for the pastor that were designed primarily to affirm skills, strengths, gifts, and ministry contributions. It also included a section that said, “If there was one area your pastor could improve on, it would be this.” One year an issue was brought up about the pastor talking to the same group of people after the service each week, so that others felt excluded. The generally affirming context of the review made it easier for the pastor to hear about the problem and to begin addressing it. He was a teachable man who responded by saying, “That’s very helpful.” He demonstrated a willingness to change in response to that feedback, and his ministry thrived.
Don’t be a people-pleaser. I knew a pastor who had a good heart but was timid and fearful. He always told people what they wanted to hear. Eventually those people started talking to each other and discovered that he was sending different messages. It catches up with you. A peacekeeper wants to keep a surface of peace without acknowledging the real issues underneath. A peacemaker faces conflict and is willing to talk about the differences and work them through, being hopeful that it is an opportunity to grow. Peacemaking is proactive.
Be gospel-centered. When we really understand the message of the gospel and how severely it criticizes us, it should impact our response to criticisms people might make. It should reduce our defensiveness as we reflect on our security and acceptance in Christ. We’re so guilty that the Son of God had to die for us, yet He loved us enough to do so, to bring us into His family. In light of that, the criticism of other people is insignificant.
Have the right kind of “skin.” Another adage is that we should try to develop a thick skin for being offended by others, but a very thin skin on how we might offend others. This way, other people’s criticisms or jabs would not get through to us easily, but we would be very sensitive to ways we may have unintentionally stepped on someone’s toes.
The Bible has so much practical wisdom about the minor offenses, disappointments, irritations, and aggravations that come up daily and truly should be overlooked. Someone is just having a bad day, and we need to be patient and gentle. But I’ve seen situations where church leaders knew there was an issue but they put off dealing with it. It continued to grow like a cancer, and by the time they took action, they almost always faced some kind of “amputation”—somebody had to be forced out. Having a gospel perspective on your own life so that you respond humbly and with biblical conviction to others, and having a plan to train your church in biblical conflict resolution, creates an environment where your members know, “In our church we come and talk about these things.”
For a discussion of your role as a pastoral mediator, see Common Errors Made in Attempts at Conflict Resolution by Dr. Jeff Forrey.