The Apostle Paul says when we speak the truth in love we will in fact grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who the head of the body, Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 4:15).
As I counsel with pastors nearly every day, the most frequent topic is some conflict in which the pastor finds himself. Well, imagine that? Imagine it? You’ve probably lived it — many times!
Having met hundreds of times with pastors I usually see one of 4 conflict responses: Passive, Evasive, Defensive and Aggressive.
Generally speaking, those who emphasize love in responding to conflict — I’d say over-emphasize love — are passive and evasive when in addressing conflict. Passive folks tend to hold onto self-love and not always be very forthright. They play their cards close to the vest. “I’m not going to lower myself and take on this fight,” they may reason. In fact, they can be so passive they can’t see the real issue at stake. Or perhaps they are afraid to see it.
Evasive folks can also over-emphasize love. But they might avoid self-love and self- truth altogether. They can run and hide before you can blink your eyes.
I know both of these styles quite well. I can go there quickly, if I am not fully engaged and present. (In fairness, I am a lot better in being forthright than I was 25 years ago. By God’s grace and a lot of work at being more honest.) Frankly, those were the conflict responses in the family in which I was raised. I often smile and say, “I was raised in the land of numb.” And don’t we all know, every family puts the “fun” in dysfunction.
Pastors I meet with usually are real lovers. That’s why they chose to become a pastor in the first place. They were drawn to people. Loving people is what they like about the work of ministry. They speak the language of love. But so many times when I have seen pastors respond to conflict either passively or evasively I actually see them over-emphasize love.
That over-emphasizing of love can lead them to be “dishonest” when they respond to conflict.
You have seen that, haven’t you? Maybe even in the way you respond to conflict. A time arises when you really need to stand firm and defend the truth and your response is, “Well guys, I just love everybody. Now come on. Let’s get along. We all know this is Jesus’ church.” And doggone it, the issue is totally avoided.
Truth is, they don’t love everybody. They certainly don’t like everyone, but they say they do. What’s really happening is that they are shutting down, closing up and going to numb. In so doing, they become dishonest and conflict can’t be solved with a spirit of dishonesty running around the room. The real issue gets summarily swept under the rug and the conflict is not solved. On the outside, it looks like everything is “just fine.” The pastor who is a lover becomes the hero — a faux hero. Everyone hugs and kisses and says, “Whew. Let’s try to do better the next time a conflict arises.”
The chance to be a real peacemaker is lost, as the passive, evasive responders default to keeping the peace at all cost. In so doing, they become the great “Sweep it under the Carpet Kings” of the world.
Then you have those pastors whose default is to stand for the truth, almost immediately. They will jump in the ring immediately. To them, truth matters, almost more than love. It can certainly appear that way. When a conflict arises they usually respond defensively. They guard the truth about themselves, defending self-truth and self-love. Some may even respond to conflict aggressively, forcing the truth.
Defensive, aggressive responders to conflict almost always ask, “What is the truth here?” In so doing, they can over-emphasize truth and become indifferent. “This is the truth,” they say. “It’s obvious. If you can’t see that, well, that’s just tough. If you can’t take the truth, this may not be a good place for you to serve.” That kind of indifference can make people feel stupid and humiliated and often move on and look for another church or even quit church altogether.
I think you see my point here. Each style to responding to conflict is negative because it falls short of true, biblical peacemaking principles. Each style can lead to frustration and failure because each is self-centered, based on how we see and promote ourselves. Each can exchange biblical love and truth for self-truth and self-love.
Your conflict style is the place where you will tend to sin most often — against God, others and yourself. Your style comes from your personality and your culture and is learned over time. If you recognize and own your negative response style, you’ve taken the first step to understanding your part in conflict and how your response actually can make the conflict worse. Knowing your style can help you discover how you need to change your mind and behavior in present and future conflicts.
We all need to speak the truth in love. So I ask myself: Do I need to be willing to jump in the ring more when conflict arises? Or do I need to pull back and listen before I pounce? Are there ways I have hurt or added to the conflict with a person?
Maybe God wants to change my mind, or your mind, in the way you handle conflict. If you ask him, he may give you the steps to take, steps that will include confession, forgiveness and being reconciled with those you have been in conflict for far too long.
Speaking the truth in love comes as God transforms us from the inside out. Let him!