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Ministry Conflict and How to Work Through It

Team is a wonderful idea….so good when it works, so awful when it doesn’t! have you been a part of a ministry team that lived and worked in harmony and healthy communication? Such a blessing. No wonder that the Psalmist in the Bible says,

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people dwell together in unity…. for there the Lord bestows His blessing, even life forever more.  (Psalm 133:1, 3b, NIV).

That is where the anointing is.

Some of my most precious moments in Youth With A Mission (YWAM) have been when I have been a part of a team that loved to be together, that allowed different gifts and talents to be expressed, where forgiveness flowed freely, where people were allowed to say what they thought, where prayer and worship ascended easily and naturally, where celebrations happened, where one voice did not drown out everyone else’s and where leaders allowed everyone to own the vision, not merely follow it.  Yes, I have experienced this, and where that happened, life, ministry, effectiveness, and fruitfulness flowed.  When I was on staff with YWAM Amsterdam many years ago, I remember Sally McClung teaching on, ‘The gift of people.’  How the people who God sends to us are His gift, and they bring their gifts that He wants to be expressed and lived out, as they seek first to live for Jesus. They contribute to the shaping of the team, the vision, and its outworking.

However, the development of a healthy team can be a rocky ride! Why am I talking so much about team when I was asked to talk about conflict? Well, it is the wonderful YWAM values that are prompting me.  As a mission, we are called to work in team, we are called to champion young people, and we are called to value everyone, families, singles, men, women, children, and we are called to servant leadership, (https://ywam.org/about-us/values/). YWAM leaders are those who seek to live out the values, and to create an environment where others thrive.

Conflict can be about decisions over ministry direction, focus and vision, but with good strategic planning, inclusion and prayer, teams can coalesce round a vision and move forward together. More often, conflict is about the clashes of personality, power, or will, and issues of felt injustice or exclusion in areas of housing, food, time off, perceived favouritism in opportunities given, and people feeling shut down and not valued. This can result in a deep sense of offence. It is more than just having a different opinion because emotions and values are all bound up in the struggle that leaves people stuck in opposition to each other.

To be offended means to feel “resentful, annoyed or hurt at a perceived insult.” (Oxford Languages on Google’s English Dictionary).  Giving offence or being offended is a very powerful and destructive component of conflict and can be associated with judgment.  As Proverbs says,  

“It is easier to conquer a strong city than to win back a friend whom you’ve offended. Their walls go up, making it nearly impossible to win them back.”  (Proverbs 18:19, TPT).

So, what can we do when our team experiences tension, disagreement, argument, and offence?  Shall I lose my temper? Shut down and refuse to talk? Will you talk with everybody else and his brother/sister? Become depressed? Form judgments about the others? 

In the New Testament, James says, 

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” James 1:19-20, NRSV).

Alternatively, shall I see conflict as an opportunity to develop synergy? An opportunity to learn and grow? The possibility is that the team will be much stronger when we have worked through this. It all depends on how we see people. Synergy is the dynamic of bringing two or more things together that produces three, four, ten or more, i.e. more is achieved with a group working together than through individuals on their own. Something completely new is created.  Just think, having a ministry conflict could mean that you discover something else completely different and transformative! How exciting! 

So here are a few ideas on how to work through conflict:-

  • Pray, and ask the Lord to help you to see the other person/people with His eyes. Let the Lord speak to you about this.
  • Think about what is important to you. Which of your desires and wishes can you give up, and what can you not give up? That might be a principle or a way of working or a decision. How important is the relationship or relationships? Is it worth the effort or can you simply overlook the offence?  What is your bottom-line need? 
  • Go to the person or people, and initiate a conversation, where you each listen fully to one another and ask non-intimidating questions that seek to clarify and understand.
  • Ask the Lord to show you where you need to forgive or ask for forgiveness, to repent, to apologise, to put things right. Humility is the key.
  • If you can’t resolve it on your own, consider bringing in a mediator from outside your local team.

Conflict separates. The tendency is to walk away, hurt, and feeling misunderstood.  It is so easy to make up stories about what the other person might be thinking or make up stories about why the person did what they did, resulting in judgment of their motives. The only way to bridge that divide and deflate that story is to take steps toward one another and have a conversation where real listening takes place.  

Active listening includes:-

  1. Being attentive in the moment to what the other person is saying, and not thinking about what to say as your defence or thinking about what you are going to have for dinner if you could only get out of there!
  2. Let the other person speak without interruption. 
  3. Reflecting back to the person, “this is what I think you said. Is that right?”
  4. Good body language. I won’t sit with my arms folded, looking daggers at you! Instead, I will sit relaxed but upright, at the same height as you. I won’t give you a small chair to sit on while I sit on the desk looking down at you! And I will suggest a meeting at a time that is convenient to you and everyone else.

Conflict can really be transformative, that is the wonderful news. I have a very good friend who is more like a sister. We experienced a lot of conflict in ministry, it was very difficult at the time. But God kept working in us both. I learned a huge amount about my own needs for growth and about others. Today, this person is one of my closest friends and part of my extended family. 

So here is a final meditation from the Apostle Paul,

“I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3, NRSV).

Two good books, the first which I have read and the second which I keep intending to read😊:-

      Journey toward reconciliation   John Paul Lederach, Herald Press, 1999.

      Crucial conversations   Kerry Patterson et al., McGraw-Hill Contemporary, 2002.

(Sue Pratt 2023 with thanks to Barry & Kay Austin, and Stephe & Rite Mayers, champions of the LDC, the Leadership Development Course).

Possible quotes to pull out——

  • Synergy is the dynamic of bringing two or more things together that produces three, four, ten or more.
  • Conflict can really be transformative, that is the wonderful news!
  • It is so easy to make up stories about what the other person might be thinking.
  • “It is easier to conquer a strong city than to win back a friend whom you’ve offended. Their walls go up, making it nearly impossible to win them back.”  (Proverbs 18:19, TPT).

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