It was early in my pastoral ministry. I still thought my primary job was to please people and make them happy, ensure their comfort, and leave them liking me.
Thus, when someone disagreed with me or criticized me, I spent many anxious hours, usually pre-dawn, reliving stressful conversations, imagining possible witty replies by me, and generally demonizing those who dared take me on. I was uncomfortable with the way things were going, and deep down, I knew a significant part of the blame was inside me.
One day, my most articulate nemesis and I had another round of frustrating, heated conversation. Finally, June—several years my senior—stepped close to me, looked me in the eye, and said: “Look, Preacher, do you want me to tell you what I really think or not? I thought you were big enough to handle it, but if you’re not, I’ll stop. I really like you and want you to succeed, but we can’t go on like this.”
I was taken aback but had the presence of mind to mumble something like, “Yes, please, help me learn how to do this.” She did. Over the ensuing months and years, I slowly learned how to disagree agreeably. She had worked years in politics and knew the art of healthy debate, was comfortable with anxiety and open about her opinions. She also had a keen mind, a deep faith and more courage than anyone I had ever met. For the next decade, she loved me enough to disagree agreeably with me.
The lessons were painful, sometimes embarrassing and always followed by a hug, a broad grin, and a promise of prayer and support. In the midst of those difficult lessons, I learned a great deal about myself and how God desires the church to function. Much of what I do today flows out of that education.
I am reminded weekly how inadequately many clergy have been prepared to navigate conflict and intense conversations. Here are some broad thoughts on what to do when you experience resistance, conflict or disagreement. You note that the word is “when,” not “if”:
• Learn to believe intensity in relationships is a product of community, and disagreement is an outgrowth of caring. If people don’t care, they won’t fight.
• “Speak the truth in love” is the single most helpful word I have ever gotten regarding conflict. I’m still trying to understand all it means. Most people are frightened by it.
• Get help discovering your default tendency for responding to criticism and conflict. We all have one we learned early in life. Learn to recognize yours and manage it.
• Design safe systems, settings, events and/or forms that enable people to speak openly and give honest feedback. I learned the hard way to build 10 to 15 minutes of preventive conversation time into every deacon/elder/leadership team meeting. This time was devoted to asking the hard questions or expressing frustration. Moving those conversations in from the parking lot to the meeting room is huge.
• Politicians and media have destroyed the idea of thoughtful debate. The church must be the voice that reclaims it and insists upon it.
• If you want to get stronger/better, you need resistance. This is true at the church, just like the gym.
• Begin to talk about “transformative conflict” when no one is angry. Quote people like David Brubaker, George Bullard, Peter Steinke, Susan Nienaber and David Sawyer on this topic every chance you get. Seek to “normalize” conflict in the life of the church.
• Some conflict is pathological and toxic. It’s hard to know the difference between such a scenario and a conflict that can prove transformative. Nevertheless, seek to distinguish between the two by using at least three good minds for discernment. Make sure the others in your circle are not afraid to speak truth to you.
• Find a therapist or pastoral colleague you can talk to when things get especially intense. They’ll keep you from veering too far off a healthy path. Remember, everyone needs a Nathan, the prophet who dared to confront King David.
• Be disciplined about practicing biblical conflict. Start with this one: Talk to, not about, others. Everything healthy flows out of that core Matthew 18 teaching.
Bonus: Beware those who are full of advice but have never (or not recently) walked in your shoes as a pastoral leader. Most of them wouldn’t make it six weeks in your role.
This is enough to get started. These are just a few items I have found especially helpful on the front line of ministry. Your list will be different, of course. Just make sure you have a blueprint that establishes a theological base, that gives you a road map and methodology, and that works. When you do, conflict and criticism can become your friend and a major asset in ministry.
Bill Wilson is director of the Center for Healthy Churches.