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Conflict in the Pastor’s Life

“The decision to serve as a spiritual leader signs one up for conflict,” says Reggie McNeal in his A Work of the Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders. But, McNeal claims, conflict plays an important role. First, “the presence of conflict does not necessarily signal the displeasure of God with the leader.” And second, “Spiritual leaders must welcome conflict as a heart-shaping tool of God.” Here are McNeal’s strategies for leaders dealing with conflict:

Strategy #1: Get Over It. “If you are a spiritual leader, you will be embroiled in conflict occasionally or frequently precisely because you are leading…Expect conflict…Die to expectations that everyone will love you. Die to getting a pass on being mistreated and persecuted. Then get over it with resurrection power, and live a truly free and powerful life, having already counted yourself as dead.”

Strategy #2: Choose Your Pain. “The leader who is going no where will take hits from all sides. The leader who sets a direction will at least know what direction the arrows will be coming from. A leader can more likely survive pain that results from vision. Purposeless pain is much harder to cope with.”

Strategy #3: Examine Your Critics.

  • “Weigh them, don’t count them” because some individuals warrant significant attention, but some regularly complaining fringe groups warrant no attention.
  • “Listen behind the criticism” to ensure that you understand the true complaint. The presenting issue is not always the real issue.

Strategy #4: Look in the Mirror. Leaders must engage is self-examination because the leader’s opponents may have a point (or more!). You don’t have to agree with their points, but they may be valid. “By beginning here, the leaders keeps from automatically assuming that criticism is personal….spiritual leaders are very susceptible to problems associated with the inability to practice self-differentiation, thereby becoming so connected to the ministry that any criticism from any part of the organization is taken as a personal challenge or criticism.”

But, McNeal reminds us, we must not believe the common phrase “behind every criticism, there lies a nugget of truth.” In some circumstances, criticism has absolutely no merit and should be ignored.

Strategy #5: Get Good Advice. Leaders should surround themselves with Godly people (who will tell the leader what the leader needs to hear, not what he wants to hear), Scripture, and prayer.

Strategy #6: Be Kind and Honest. Leaders must be kind to themselves (not always beating themselves up over every little criticism) and leaders must be kind to others (love your enemy).

Strategy #7: Forgive. This seems obvious, but “the leaders who do not forgive wind up with bitter spirits, persons of negative energy. They wonder where their spiritual energy and power went. Their negative spirit pushes people away from them. They live in the past, their conflict scar tissues making it difficult for them to move forward. They see the world and life experiences through victim eyes. They walk by sight and not by faith. What they see is a self-fulfilling scenario of rejection, spiritual entropy, and discouragement.” Leaders, please forgive!!

Strategy #8: Make a Decision. “The leader who profits through conflict has done one thing that forms the foundation on which all other strategies rest. The leader who grows through leadership challenges has not done so accidentally. This leader has made a decision to grow…Leaders who grow through the conflict arena make a conscious decision to give God access to their hearts. The decision may come early in their experience, perhaps even before they encounter serious conflict. Or the decision may be made at some critical juncture or at the eleventh hour of some potentially catastrophic leadership challenge. No matter when it is made, the decision itself is the same: the leader chooses to look for God at work in every situation.”

I appreciate McNeal’s conclusion on conflict: “No other heart-shaping arena is as public as this one. The leader typically draws more scrutiny and attention during conflict episodes than at any other time. Leaders tend to play out the subplot of conflict to a sold-out house. How they handle conflict will often be the way they are remembered.”

  1. December 14, 2007 at 11:45 am

    I often think about Kipling’s line in the poem, “If.” “If you can keep your head when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

    That’s a difficult balance – – listen, learn, and yet not lose your head.

    I think one of the things that makes conflict more difficult in American churches is that there is an unspoken premise that if everything is done correctly, there won’t be conflict – – see http://gotpreaching.wordpress.com/2007/11/28/expect-conflict/

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