Before we determine the best practices in resolving conflict, let’s think through the stages that unresolved conflict will travel and find even greater motivation for taking the necessary steps.
1. Remedy stage
Interestingly, the first stage in conflict’s journey is the one that offers the best opportunity for resolution. In Matthew, Jesus gives us a clear and simple directive for moments when we first discover the presence of an issue with one another.
“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back” (Matthew 18:15, NLT).
When we discover that a problem exists, there might be some disagreement in how to solve it. But, there must be a commitment to resolve the issue and a belief that it can be solved. Here, honest communication is the strategy. The two conflicting parties must engage the necessary conversation and look for solutions to their conflict.
Many church leaders will wonder when they should get involved in conflicts that arise among those they lead. Surely, jumping into every conflict we hear about would be unrealistic, exhausting, and likely unproductive work. The leader must measure her response by accurately determining who the primary parties are in the conflict.
If two people you lead are in conflict, this is not your conflict—even though one or both parties may try to involve you. Instead of taking the lead in resolution, do as the Apostle Paul did in Philippians 4, and encourage those you lead to take the initiative to work things out.
“Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement” (Philippians 4:2, NLT).
We should not engage such conflict directly, but we can insist that those we lead take the necessary steps. If fellow leaders are unwilling to take the necessary steps, their ability to lead effectively will be compromised. That’s why Jesus gave us the direction of Matthew 5:23-24, NLT:
“So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.”
Effective leaders don’t ignore conflict, but they teach those they lead to deal with conflict directly and efficiently. Avoiding these important actions allows conflict to move to its deeper and later stages, creating situations that can be extremely difficult to overcome.
2. Repositioning stage
An unresolved conflict begins to take on a “personal” nature after a while. No longer is the issue in primary focus, but now the person has become our enemy. At this stage, focus shifts to protecting one’s self, and now every behavior of the other individual is viewed through the lens of the unresolved issue and treated with suspicion. Here, trust rapidly diminishes and additional reasons for conflict are easily found.
3. Rights stage
A third stage begins when we engage our friends in taking sides in our conflict. Now, the conflict has spread, and many have become involved or have formed their own opinions of the issue or the ones involved. Jesus’ conflict strategy, found in Matthew 18:15-20, has been violated and the issue begins to grow rapidly.
Often at this stage, people begin to label those in the other camp. Focus shifts from finding solutions to the conflict to a desire to simply win, regardless of the impact on people or the organization.
4. Removal stage
Once the lines have been drawn deeply, there’s really only one solution in view of those in conflict—the removal of the other side. At this stage, families have been torn apart, churches have split with no hope of reunion, and friendships come to an irreparable end. People no longer are satisfied with winning the original issue; in fact, that issue may have even been forgotten. The goal is divorce.
5. Revenge stage
Amazingly, the end of the relationship isn’t always the final stage of conflict. Some continue forward looking to further damage the other party through revenge. In the local church, conflict that reaches this level becomes terribly distorted. Some might believe they are doing God’s work by inflicting ongoing pain and destruction.
Obviously, conflict that reaches such advanced levels leaves a large wake of hurt in its path. And sadly, most of us can think of conflict situations we’ve seen or experienced that reached such advanced stages. The need for effective and healthy resolution is clear. We must deal with conflict because it will not go away but will grow and deepen and likely involve more and more people along the way.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV®. COPYRIGHT ©1973, 1978, 1984 BY INTERNATIONAL BIBLE SOCIETY®.
“Managing Conflict” is published by the National Women’s Department at www.women.ag.org. 2020. Permission to reproduce is limited to personal use or within a teaching setting. All other forms of use are prohibited.