5 Guidelines for Diffusing Conflict in Ministry

I was twenty years old, and it was staff training week. We—the camp staff—were on a bus headed out for a team-building activity. When we stopped at a McDonald’s, Chris, our camp director, said we could use the bathrooms, but no one was to order anything. (I’m sure McDonald’s was pleased.)

Inside, I was thirsty and looked around for a drinking fountain. Not seeing one, I wandered to the counter and asked for some water, then rejoined my friends in the parking lot, sipping the water through a straw. As we approached the bus, Chris—who was suddenly walking directly toward me—said loudly, “Shannon, that is exactly what I told you not to do!”

Stunned, I looked down at the cup he was pointing to in my hand. “Oh! It’s just water!” I said. Then scrambling to redeem myself, I offered to throw my cup out. But Chris said no, I could keep it.

Back on the bus Chris tried to make light of the matter, saying, “Hey, Shannon, how’s the water?” I lifted my cup and smiled, but inside I was mortified. My new boss had humiliated me in front of everyone—even the high schoolers.

I fought back tears and tried to maintain composure, but my embarrassment lingered. I felt so misunderstood! Over the next few days, I went over the scene in my mind repeatedly. Why had he been so directly confrontational? Did he really think I was challenging his authority? What would this summer be like with my boss scrutinizing my every move and calling out my mistakes publicly?

I went from being hurt to being indignant. I didn’t deserve this treatment! I had made an honest mistake. This guy was a dictator!

I began keeping my distance. I resolved to avoid Chris. For the whole summer.  

Church Conflict

Conflict reveals what is important to both sides. In this case, Chris prioritized obedience. He couldn’t believe I would minimize his rule. But I prioritized relationships. I couldn’t believe he would minimize my feelings.

At times, conflict is the direct result of sin. Someone steals or lies or has an affair, and the fallout is sharply painful. But other times conflict crops up even when everyone involved has good intentions. Even when everyone is serving the Lord. That’s the type of conflict I want to address in this post.

Undercurrent of Control

I’ve written before about how control is often the undertow, running beneath the conflicts that surface in our lives. For me, this is especially true in the context of ministry.

My intentions are good. I’m trying to serve the Lord! I’m often blind to my desire for control that is also in play. When I clamp down on my own agenda, when I shut down because my contributions haven’t been valued, when I dig my heels in over some ideal that seems obvious to me, or when I stubbornly withdraw from ministry because I didn’t get my way, I’m striving to get or maintain control. But God says that I must strive for unity.

As members of the Body of Christ, we each have varying gifts and callings. God didn’t create us to be uniform. The Body of Christ is incredibly diverse! Since we’re all so different, it’s natural for us to have priorities and passions that don’t match up. It’s natural for us to want control. And it’s natural for there to be conflict.

As you know, unity and control don’t hold hands. So even when I’m striving to spread the gospel or grow the Church, if I start clamping down or shutting down, I shove unity aside and put conflict in its place.  

Outward Facing

This very thing was happening in a church in Philippi. Two women who were passionate about Jesus had given themselves to the work of the ministry. Yet they were at odds, and conflict had spread.

Early on in his letter to the conflict-stricken Philippians, Paul painted a word picture to entice this church to pursue unity:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Phil. 1:27).

Picture the church like a giant human rescue chain. We aren’t turned in on each other, wagging fingers or pointing at flaws. Nor do we have our backs to each other, sulking or avoiding eye contact. We are locked together in a hand-in-hand circle, which stretches around our church and faces outtoward the community. We support each other. We are united. We are focused on the goal of spreading the gospel. In this formation, we represent the gospel well.

Only this wasn’t the Philippians’ formation. Instead of being outward-facing, they were in each other’s faces. Or at least these two women were. Perhaps they were stepping on each other’s toes. Or maybe they had differing viewpoints on some theological issue. Maybe they both just had strong personalities and were annoying each other.

Whatever the case, Paul begged them to stop it. He said:

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Phil. 4:2–3).

Notice five guidelines in this verse, which Paul offers to those who want to diffuse conflict.

Guidelines for Diffusing Conflict

1. Lean in.

Sometimes we think avoiding is the answer. We say, “I’ll just serve Jesus in a way that doesn’t involve her.” But pulling away creates division, not unity. Paul names both Euodia and Syntyche. He calls them both to lean in, have a conversation, and be part of the solution. Unity isn’t something you can accomplish on your own.

2. Agree.

Others might not have known enough to follow the argument, but Euodia and Syntyche sure did. Their firm convictions were the basis of this sharp disagreementwhich is often the case.

But rather than arguing a side or trying to convince the other, Paul implores them to focus on the ways they agree. Both loved Jesus. Both prioritized the spreading of the gospel. The rest needed to be surrendered to God and left in His hands.

3. Invite a mediator.

Paul calls for a third party to help these women work out their differences. It always takes humility to involve a mediator, but the gospel is worth it! A mediator can hold everyone accountable and facilitate good communication.

4. Glance back and forward.

Paul recalls their history together. They’ve worked side by side spreading the gospel. He also mentions their future. Their names are stacked together in the book of life. They’re on the same team, serving the same Lord. They have too much in common to remain at odds.

5. Be urgent.

Paul is begging these women. If he was in town, he would be pounding on their doors, urging them to set aside their dispute. This conflict was impeding the spread of the gospel! For who wants to hear about the “good news” when the people telling it are glaring at each other?

Conflict can drain our time, resources, energy, and emotional capacity. It becomes all we think about. We have nothing left to give. We must be urgent about working through conflict so that we can get back to spreading the light!

Humility and Effort

After letting that McDonald’s water churn in my stomach for several days, I felt compelled to talk with Chris. I said, “Hey, can we talk about what happened at McDonald’s?” Chris, of course, thought we already had, but he let me share what was bothering me.  

Later that week, Chris pulled me aside again. He shared that he had brought up the McDonald’s incident with our pastor—who had said it would be extremely uncharacteristic for me to have challenged authority. (I was ditsy and distracted, but not defiant.) Chris also said that as a young leader, it had been helpful for him to work through this. He thanked me for coming to talk to him. Did you hear that? He thanked me.

That, my friends, took some humility. Picture the camp director and the pastor, discussing a thirty-second McDonald’s parking lot incident. Then picture the camp director returning to the college kid to smooth things over. Someone overseeing all of this effort spent on one cup of water and some hurt feelings might be rolling their eyes at this point.

Working through conflict is tedious and costly. But is it worth it? What does all of this have to do with “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel”?

Well, as it turns out, a lot more hinged on that cup of water than I realized.

What’s at Stake

That summer, Chris Brauns and his wife, Jamie, became some of my dearest, lifelong friends. The McDonald’s water story has become legendary. It was Chris (who later became an author) who first encouraged me to try writing, so the fact that you’re reading this is partly due to his influence. Chris and Jamie also helped me get a job in Milwaukee, where I joined their church and met my husband—who is by far my greatest ministry support and partner. In fact, I can’t imagine being able to have the same impact for the sake of the gospel if I didn’t have Ken as my husband and writing as my craft.

But what if I had remained bitter and guarded over that cup of water? Suppose I had refused to work through my hurt feelings? Suppose I had allowed conflict with my boss to drive a wedge into that summer, which would have forked my path in a different direction? Oh, what I would have missed out on!

If you or someone you’re ministering to is experiencing conflict, leaning in (not away) is the answer. God often uses conflict to teach us something new. And He definitely uses relationships to expand the gospel. Won’t you welcome unity by laying down control and surrendering the outcomes to God? So much, dear sister, is at stake!

About the Author

Shannon Popkin

Shannon Popkin is happy to be sharing life with her husband, Ken, and together they have the joy of watching their three young-adult kids become the amazing people God created them to be. From the platform, page, and podcast mic, Shannon invites women to drink deeply of God’s story and live like it’s true. Her books include Comparison Girl and Control Girl, and she hosts the Live Like It’s True Bible podcast.