Meg and I had been friends for several years and enjoyed a sweet relationship. She was part of a group I helped lead at our church. One day, Meg called to tell me that she disagreed with a decision that had been made for our group. In fact, she was hurt and offended that we would even consider a decision like this.
Well, this surprised me. It was a small decision, involving a slight change. We had not anticipated that anyone would be hurt or offended. I shared with Meg the thought process behind the decision, but as often is the case, some of the data points were private and I couldn’t mention them.
Meg was not satisfied with the reasons I gave, probably due in part to the gaping holes in my explanation. She again told me that she was hurt and offended—this time with more edge in her voice. Well, this made me angry and frustrated! Sharing the goodwill behind the small decision had made no difference.
Things escalated quickly. I unwisely told Meg that I was hurt and offended over the fact that she was hurt and offended! Didn’t she trust us? Didn’t she know that we loved her and were trying to do what was best? When I raised these questions, Meg raised questions of her own. What did I have to be hurt and offended about? She had done nothing wrong. She was in a position of being hurt and offended, not me.
Oh, what a circular, tangled mess it quickly became, sparked by a small, insignificant decision made for our group. After several rounds of, “But I’m hurt and offended!” I excused myself from the call. Nothing was being resolved. It was clear that I needed to do something differently, but what?
Promoting Unity Among Women
Conflict is like a spidery crack through the unity of the Church. Left unchecked, conflicts can fracture relationships that took years to build, and they can split close-knit groups of Christians into “sides.” Sometimes the division can even outlive the disagreement. The “sides” still exist, but no one can remember how the dispute began.
Women in particular tend to hold on to conflict. We tend to take disagreements personally—especially at church. When someone tells us that the way we’re trying to serve Jesus is wrong or that our viewpoint is invalid, we can be easily provoked. Emotions boil over and divisions form. Tempers flare and gaps widen. Hurt feelings abound and resentment grows.
As conflict spreads, we feel threatened and confused, wondering, Why is everyone against me? I was only trying to serve the Lord!
That’s how I felt about my conflict with Meg. She was overreacting to something so small! But now I was overreacting. I spent hours thinking about and crying over the issue. I dreaded having to see Meg on Sunday at church. I didn’t know how I would even make eye contact. What a far cry from God’s blueprint for His Church.
Read Ephesians 4:4–6, and count how many times you see the word “one”:
There is one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Church is not supposed to be filled with women who avoid eye contact in the atrium after the worship service. So how can we as women in leadership help cultivate unity when the women around us (and including us) are so prone to conflict?
Jesus’ life was spent drawing people from conflict into unity—both with God and each other. And how did Jesus accomplish this? If I had to choose a one-word description of Jesus’ birth, life, and death, it would be humility.
The exalted One emptied His regality and veiled His glory. Rather than coming to earth demanding we serve Him, our King served us and sacrificially laid His life down. And what was the purpose in this? Jesus died in our place so that we could be reconciled to God. We, who were far off and hostile toward God, were brought near and given access to the Father! And we weren’t just welcomed as individual daughters; we became members of the household of God—part of a family with brothers and sisters (Eph. 2:13–19)!
As members of this family, our work is to continue Jesus’ work. We are to build each other up in love and cultivate unity among each other. And like Jesus, we accomplish this through humility.
Pride in Conflict
Conflict naturally draws out our pride, not humility. In conflict, we’re compelled to show how wrong the other person is. We pick up a millimeter stick (appropriate for measuring specks) to count up the 762 flaws that we see in the other person. And then we pick up a yardstick (appropriate for measuring logs) to minimize our own speck-sized flaws. But Jesus said:
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).
It’s pretty humbling to learn that a log, which you were unaware of, is sticking out of your eye. It’s even more humbling to be told about the log by the person you were just offering your eye surgery services to.
Conflict forms when two people say, “No, you’re the one who isn’t seeing clearly!” But unity forms when one of them says, “You might be right.”
Women who want to cultivate unity are the ones who lay down the millimeter stick. They stop taking inventory of their sister’s flaws. And if their sister is the one picking up the millimeter stick, they choose to listen rather than becoming defensive. Either way, massive quantities of humility are required if unity is ever to be restored.
Putting to Death
When I called Meg back, I was committed to not defending myself—not even once. I wanted to be humble and listen to her concerns with an open heart.
This was not easy. Meg was even more hurt after our first conversation and even more critical of me than before. Her words flowed freely as she listed out my flaws in detail. As she talked, how I longed to cut in and defend myself. She was listing out the very things I saw in her! I ached to repeat how hurt and offended I was and to offer my own list of criticisms.
But I didn’t. Instead, I took careful notes, thanked Meg for her input, and promised to prayerfully consider what she had said. I hung up and groaned privately to the Lord, saying, “Surely this is what you meant by ‘putting to death the flesh!’” It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had.
But you know what? There was some truth in what Meg said. I didn’t see it right away, but as my emotions subsided in the days following, God used Meg’s input to show me some things that I needed to work on.
Now, I didn’t put more emphasis on Meg’s perspective than God’s. I reminded myself that I am loved and accepted by Him and that His grace is bountiful enough to cover each of my flaws. But I did pray carefully through Meg’s complaints. I repeatedly refused to focus on her flaws and instead focused on my areas for growth.
In the end, I apologized to our group about some of the concerns Meg had raised and helped revise our earlier decision. Conflict was averted, unity was restored, and all was well.
A Worthy Calling
Now, that is just one example. I could tell of ten other conflict situations in which I tried to humble myself yet unity wasn’t restored, groups still split, and relationships were never the same. Unity is not something we have ultimate control over—leader or not. We can only do our small part, with the influence that God has allotted.
But even as a small member of the Body of Christ, it’s good for me to remind myself of my calling. Ephesians 4:1–3 says:
Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
I once was far off and alienated from God. I had no hope and was without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). But by the blood of Jesus I have been brought near and included into the family of God! My attitude toward maintaining unity within this family is a reflection of how I feel about being called inside.
How Much Is Unity Worth?
Unity is costly. You might even have to take dictation on your list of flaws. In my instance, Meg never came to see things my way. She never apologized. And I never got the satisfaction of defending myself. But maintaining unity with Meg, and ultimately our group, was worth it.
Maintaining unity in your church or ministry is worth it, too—even if it’s costly. Jesus, our precious Savior, died to bring us into this family. He said that our unity with God and each other was worthy of His death.
As leaders, our role is to go first. We can’t lead others to have extravagant humility unless we first display extravagant humility. This is what Jesus did for us!
So how much are we willing to spend on unity? Will we put to death the desire to be honored, to defend ourselves, and to have our own way? Do we value unity the same way Jesus does?
Consider a conflict you’re facing as you pray these verses to the Lord:
Lord, I choose to do nothing from rivalry with ______________ or conceit toward ___________. In humility I’m counting _______________’s needs, perspectives, and desires more significant than my own.
Lord, I choose not to look out only for my own interest regarding __________________. I will also look out for the interests of _____________________. I want for my _______________ (group/church) to have the mindset among ourselves which Jesus had. May we be people who make ourselves nothing, who humble ourselves, and who become obedient—like Jesus who even died on a cross. (From Philippians 2:3–8)