Learning from Conflict

by Mike Ayers April 22, 2015 Scripture: Romans 8:28

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” -- Romans 8:28

Part of the mystery behind the promise of Romans 8:28 is that all hardship, including church conflict, can be used for God’s glory. This verse of course is not an ironclad guarantee, but is contingent upon our willingness to learn and grow in Christ. That is, if we respond to hardship properly there is great potential for it to create good.

The first job of biblical leadership is to take responsibility.

In truth, we often experience conflict in our lives and leadership because of our own actions, insecurities, and ill-motivated decisions. Since this is true, it is important for leaders to learn to ponder the hardships they face by first looking internally at what might be driving conflict with others—including their own lack of character and/or competence. Questions to consider include: Is this conflict caused by a poor decision, inadequate communication, or other lack of competence on my part? Am I acting as a servant-leader on behalf of others, or is this all about my ambitions, getting my way, and proving myself? Did this conflict result from my need for others’ approval or fear of people? Did I enable this conflict to occur by allowing a dysfunctional culture to develop? Is the way we are structured for decisions systemically embedding conflict into our organization? The most honest and overriding question a leader can ask is, “What is the true and deepest source of this conflict?”

Even if a leader does not directly cause a problem, it is his or her job to fix it and to set structures in place to keep it from occurring again. Biblical leaders do not abdicate responsibility. Only when they own up to the portion they bring to challenges and conflict are they able to develop as the influencers God wants them to be (2 Timothy 2:21, Philippians 2:13, Hebrews 13:21) and change their organization for the better. Simply put, biblical leaders learn from conflict.

Unfortunately, what often happens instead is that leaders rob God of the ability to transform them because they ignore every conflict situation that comes up, fail to take responsibility, and never consider the possibility that God has brought a situation their way to use it for good. If we don’t see conflict through the eyes of God and recognize it as something that has been sifted through his loving, sovereign hands, we will never grow from it. In truth, regardless of where fault lies in any given conflict, God is trying to speak to us in it—to reveal something to us about ourselves, to make us more dependent upon him, and to transform our character through the experience.

We take ourselves with us.

When we ignore conflict or leave situations where it occurs instead of facing up to it, we take ourselves with us. As Yogi Berra rightly said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” In other words, though you have a new context, you still bring your self into it, and if you are the true cause of conflict, that conflict will show up again. Leaders are often willing to change jobs, churches, roles, and even geographic locations, but not themselves. Amazingly, God has a loving way of bringing similar people and situations back into our lives to teach us the lessons we choose to ignore. More than any other priority he has for us as believers, it is his loving desire and purpose to develop within us the character of Christ (see Romans 8:29— the very passage that follows the promise of God using all for good). Character development is a prerequisite course in Christianity. If we choose to withdraw ourselves from the class, God will automatically enroll us in a new one. The people may be different; the context may be different; but God will bring the same conflict our way—or better said, he will again attempt to reveal the conflict that was within us the whole time. As Walt Kelly wrote years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Leadership and sanctification

Leaders who do not learn the lessons found in conflict end up repeating the same mistakes over and over, only with different people. In truth, they do not grow in Christ. The story is told of a man who, in the course of twenty years, held numerous jobs. He left each job due to similar problems. He claimed to have twenty years of experience, but in reality, he had one experience repeated twenty times. Why? Because while he had experiences to teach and grow him, he missed the meaning behind each of them.

On the other hand, when leaders recognize their missteps and confess them to the Lord, they place themselves in a context for divine sanctification. The process of true inner growth begins. Sanctification occurs when leaders admit before God and others their wrong—becoming more self-aware for the future; growing deeper in the character of Christ, and learning to walk in God’s grace daily. As for our leadership, we gain valuable insights into what to do, how to do it, as well as what not to do. Simply put, we become more competent as leaders.

All this potential is held in hardships and conflict— and in reality, it is often only held there. Pain has a way of teaching us much more than classroom knowledge ever will. As the old preacher said, “We don’t learn when we see the light. We learn when we feel the heat.”