Leadership means conflict resolution. Whether it involves dealing with strife between children, parents, volunteers or church staff, or some variation thereof, conflict resolution is an necessary factor for leaders of children’s ministries. Below I should like to offer several basic principles, in no particular order of priority, to take into consideration as you prepare yourself for those times when conflict resolution will become necessary.
- Prepare emotionally: When dealing with conflict between others, try to take a step back emotionally. You want to have compassion and concern, but you do not want to lose objectivity.
- Give benefit of doubt: Assume the best about others until proven wrong. And even then, still love them while taking measures to address issues that need correction.
- Avoid transference: It is easy to make assumptions about what people mean when they behave in certain ways or when they voice their opinions. Often these assumptions are based on our own past experiences. The problem with transference is that by assigning what we perceive to be reality to the motives underlying another person’s behavior, we risk placing filters on our perspectives, skewing our understanding of their behavior. Only God knows all and see all, including the motives of the heart. Who are we to assume that we can know the deepest issues of another person’s interior, when we are hard-pressed to gain a surface understanding of our own? While I agree that God does grant discernment, I would hasten to add that discernment finds its source in God’s knowledge, not in our own.
- Agree on rules of engagement: Whether you are fielding a complaint from a person about yourself, or trying to help two or more individuals work through their conflict, it is important to set appropriate parameters for rules of engagement.
- Consider validity of criticism: Sometimes others will have valid criticisms, even when it is cloaked by problematic attitudes and behavior.
- Focus on issues, not personalities: Sometimes it is hard to discern the line separating the two, especially when the issue might very well be the character or personality of one or more persons. In any case, it is helpful to work through disagreements by placing the central focus on the core issues of conflict.
Case study: For example, consider a parent who thinks a child should be able to remain in a classroom even after hitting the teacher and the children’s pastor, and the children’s pastor who disagrees, saying the issue is one of safety for all concerned. It would be easy to focus on the personalities involved. The parent wants her child to feel accepted. The teacher and children’s pastor want to stop being hit as well as desiring to bring the child to a place of well-adjusted behavior. So what to do? Focus on the issue. All concerned want the child to be safe and feel accepted, but there are deeper issues percolating under the surface which might require outside intervention. In this particular case, the parent would not listen objectively, removing her child from the church. Later the child was removed from her home on account of attacking her. What might have happened had she listened to the issues being raised at a earlier time, rather than making it about personalities?
- Avoid triangulation: Don’t get involved in he said/she said. If someone has something to say about someone else, invite them to go to that person directly. In certain cases it might be appropriate to accompany them according to the principle of Matthew 18:15-17.
- Find common ground: It never hurts to finds those areas upon which you may agree. For example, in the case study above we all agreed that we wanted what was best for the child. In the case of the parent, however, she did not believe the teacher or children’s pastor held that view. Nevertheless, seek to find common ground as a basis for a constructive conversation which focuses on the relevant issues.
Some questions to ask yourself
- Is the complaint is about an issue over which I have direct control? If yes, I keep listening and attempting to discern the validity of the complaint.
- Is the complaint about an issue over which I do not have control? If not, I then invite her to approach the most likely person who could field her complaint. Depending on the governing structure of a specific church, this could vary. It could be the Senior Pastor, or an elder responsible for the Children’s Ministry. When in doubt, invite the person to ask the Pastor to direct her to the right person.
- Is the complaint is about a person and does it involve personality conflicts? If yes, I would invite her to take it directly to the person with whom she has a conflict in order to explore the preferred outcome of reconciliation. What I try to avoid is triangulation as stated above. By that I mean I do not want to get caught up in a three-way he said/she said situation. It too easily leads to hurt and misunderstanding. It is better for the two to hear and work out their differences personally, if possible. Sometimes this will cause a person to take a step back and pause from expressing a complaint, especially if all she had wanted to do was vent and not actually deal with the issue proactively. The key for us as leaders is to learn how to discern between those who tend to be negative and frequently complain and those who genuinely have a valid concern.
If she, for whatever reason, does not feel she is able to approach the other person directly, then I would advise her to make an appointment with the pastor about it. In my situation, I have occasionally coached teachers through interpersonal conflicts so that they can come to a resolution and move on without further strife. Yet the coaching usually revolves around the basic understanding that they need to go to the persons with whom they are in conflict and talk it out. But in situations which seem a bit more problematic, I invite them to go directly to the pastor.
Where there are people, there will be problems. Human beings are a needy bunch of folks who tend to be a tad selfish, notwithstanding Paul’s exposition of Jesus’ life and character in Philippians chapter two. We will always face some element of problems in terms of issues or interpersonal conflicts. My encouragement to us all? Don’t allow the inevitable difficulties to get us down.