Conflict – Compass Series Post #2

You might remember that in the first installment of The Compass Series, we showed the picture of the compass on our website and asked: why is it not pointing north?   We talked about the need to make sure that we are calibrated to true north and to be absolutely certain that we stay correctly oriented. Only God’s word and a true relationship with Jesus can result in this kind of true north orientation. These next several blog posts will examine some of the ways that we can get disoriented, off course, and sometimes truly lost – not only in ministry and missions, but in most of life – and we’ll also examine strategies on how to reorient ourselves.

“If you find yourself questioning your calling, your sanity, or even your Christianity, examine your life for conflict and I’ll bet you find it sitting in the front row.”

I’m not sure it is true in church ministry, but I suspect it is, further, I know it to be true in missions, and indeed in life in general, that conflict is simply the biggest reason we tend to get off course. In 15 years of full-time service in missions, I’ve gone off course more due to conflict with another missionary than any other factor. And I’m not alone in this. If you find yourself questioning your calling, your sanity, or even your Christianity, examine your life for conflict and I’ll bet you find it sitting in the front row. In ministry, conflict is complicated by the fact that the person you are in conflict with is probably responsible for something that you need or dependent on something that you are responsible for. In short, the wellbeing of the ministry probably depends on you two figuring out how to get along, or at least get through it – but it isn’t easy.

In 2009, Marinajo and I wrote a series of blog posts on what had surprised us most about our first year as missionaries in Honduras. We explained that while heat, dust, spiders, and scorpions were all hard to deal with, we had been expecting these things. We weren’t surprised by them.  We were, however, genuinely shocked to learn two things: 1) how childish and un-Christlike we could be and 2) how childish and un-Christlike the other missionaries that we served with could be! There were plenty of times that we wanted to leave the mission field and most of those times were when we’d absolutely had it with a particular missionary. The anger that arises when you’ve been offended, disrespected, lied to, minimized, betrayed, used – there’s almost nothing like it. It is one of the most powerful tools that the enemy has in his arsenal, and it is used very effectively against those in ministry.

“..we can only control our reactions, speech, and attitude if our compass is pointing north and focused on Jesus and His word..”

I’ve heard it said that 50% of missionaries leave in their first year and 80% of those are due to conflict with other missionaries. I can’t prove this – but anecdotally, it has certainly been true in our experience. One of the burdens that we hold dearly in our hearts for Kingdom Workers (those in ministry and missions) is to increase longevity or resilience in their field of calling. Just as Adam blamed Eve for his sin, I was always sure that the resolution was in the hands of the one I was in conflict with, not in myself. God provided ample opportunity to learn otherwise. I learned that I had to own my own sin and that the only one that I could control was myself. This is true for all of us; in any conflict, or in any other area of life, for that matter, the only one we can control is ourselves. Even more importantly, we can only control our reactions, speech, and attitude if our compass is pointing north and focused on Jesus and His word. It is likely that we forgot this somewhere along the way, or that we were too tired, too busy, too stressed, too wrapped up in our issues to realize this and that is how we got off track in the first place. We must keep our compass oriented to north. How do we reorient when we’ve gone off track?

If there were a one-word fix for resolving conflict, I believe that word would be humility. I concede that not all forms of conflict can be resolved simply by embracing humility. However, I am going to contend that the way to get reoriented once you’ve wandered off the path into conflict in ministry is to humble yourself. CS Lewis, in his letter to Author Greeves in 1933 (source) recounts the idea of a man and his dog walking by a lamppost. The dog gets his head on the wrong side and gets the leash looped around the lamppost. Both of you want to go forward, but in order to do that you have to pull the dog back. The dog wants to go forward, so he resists going back. But the fastest way forward is to go back. One of you is going to have to do that. In conflict, sometimes you’re the dog walker and sometimes you’re the dog. Whichever position you find yourself in, it will require humility and you will have to go against your nature. Colossians 3 admonishes us thusly – we must put on the new self and in humility and utter dependence on God we will find the best true north calibration points available to us, who He has made holy and beloved, through His blood.  If you or someone you know are lost or finding it hard to navigate through ministry conflict, please feel free to contact us

Here are some other excellent resources regarding conflict:

Humility – a book by Andrew Murray. This book really did change my life.

Generational Conflict in Ministry – an article by D.A. Carson. *note, you have to do a little bit of mining here to get to good stuff. Generational conflict refers to conflict between the younger and the older and that is a very relevant topic in ministry, but perhaps not why you are looking for resources on conflict. Fear not, the four points at the end are the best synopsis I can find on how to respond to any conflict in Christ’s exalting manner. Also, you may need to substitute the word “missions” for “church ministry” at a few places – but I’m sure you’ll agree that the tenets hold true here for both types of ministries.

Biblical Principles for Handling Conflict – a book review by Justin Taylor. The book that Taylor reviews here will be an excellent resource for when we need to dig deeper, but Taylor does us the great service of an excellent outline of Biblical Principles, from the book by Strauch, that provide an excellent quick reference guide for how to handle conflict in a biblical, Christ honoring way.