Dealing with Conflict and Criticism

How do you please people without being a people pleaser? Pastors have a desire to get along with their members and have a strong burden for unity. Sometimes that is quite a challenge with so many different opinions on how people think churches should be run and what they believe the pastor’s responsibilities are. People can sometimes be difficult and when conflict comes we must be ready to have a plan in place for how we will handle it. Will we handle it biblically?

The greatest challenge is to make sure you respond to conflict rather than reacting to it. The biblical standard given multiple times throughout the Word is that we are to refuse to guard (hold on to) resentments. We must refuse to carry grudges or nurse hatred and anger. Oh, we will get angry and we will get hurt so we must be ready to zealously banish all resentment and anger from our life. We will have to choose over and over again whether we will get better or get bitter.

When you do get hurt or mad the first thing to do is take a really good deep breath. While taking that moment it is your opportunity to ask God for strength and wisdom. You might not be able to handle the stress and conflict but He always can. The key here is choosing to be under His control and direction instead of your own. It is hard but it is possible because we can do all things through Christ who gives us the strength we need when we need it.

I Peter 2:23 says, “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly!” Jesus did not retaliate! When conflict or criticism comes we will have to decide how we will respond to it. Will we choose to allow Him to be in control or will our flesh be in control? Jesus chose to not retaliate and to trust the Father to handle the judgment end of things. Do we trust God enough to allow Him to handle that end of it?

There are a lot of options but let’s take a look at four. We must choose how we will handle difficult people and difficult situations daily. You should not judge a church by whether it has problems or not but by how they handle their problems. That same principle applies to leadership because the real litmus test is how we respond to and handle conflict. A pastor posted this sentiment on Twitter, “I refuse to be a Christian who is generous with damnation and stingy with grace.”

First, you could choose to give in and pander to the criticism or conflict. The temptation is to just agree with them even when you do not agree with them. You do not want to offend them, upset them, or rock the boat. Everyone has a desire to be liked but that desire should not override the truth and must confront the difficulty in love. Remember that Proverbs 15:1 says that, “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” So often it is not what we say but how we say it.

Second, you could choose to isolate yourself from them or ignore them. The temptation here is to hope that if we ignore the problem it will just go away or solve itself. The truth is that almost never happens. It is sad when people in a church will avoid certain people and use a different entrance to make sure they do not have to speak to them. That could be called stealth avoidance but a more correct description would be escapism and an unbiblical approach to conflict resolution.

Third, you could get defensive and power up for the confrontation. This is where you try to overpower the difficult person using intimidation. You have the mindset of straightening them out, showing them once and for all, and telling them a thing or two. The focus becomes more about changing them rather than being the person Christ wants you to be. Powering up is where you want to blow them away with what you say and shut them up once and for all.

Fourth, you show courage and stay calmly connected to them. This is the most biblical approach where you speak the truth in love. You refuse to see them as the enemy and ostracize them. Your focus is on biblical resolution and restoration of the relationship. In Acts 20:17 Paul said, “For I did not shrink back from declaring to you the whole plan of God.” Later in Galatians 4:16 he says, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

The biblical response to conflict and difficult people is found throughout the scriptures in verses like Romans 12:17, “Do not repay evil for evil.” And also in I Peter 3:9, “Not paying back evil for evil or insult for insult but, on the contrary, giving a blessing, since you were called for this.” Once again, the key is not necessarily what you say but how you say it and the love you have for the one to whom you are saying it.

Nehemiah is an excellent example of handling conflict but not allowing it to distract him from the task God had assigned him. You must continue to labor and press forward even when you conflict and criticism comes. Nehemiah in chapter 5 says he was “extremely angry” when he heard their outcry and their complaints but in verse 16 he says he “devoted” himself to the work. When the detractors asked him to stop the work and come down and discuss it he refused.

Nehemiah made it clear that there was nothing to the rumors they were spreading and even told them in Nehemiah 6:8, “you are inventing them in your own mind.” He knew that their attempts at intimidating him were focused on trying to discourage him and bring their work to a screeching halt. Then in Nehemiah 6:11 he says something we should all remember when faced with conflict and criticism, “Should a man like me run away?”


conflict reso;ution

          Every church will be faced with conflict at some point and time.  The early church in the book of Acts certainly had its fair share and it didn’t take long for conflict to arise.  Acts 6:1 says, “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration.”  The word murmuring there means grumbling, complaining, or to find fault.  The complaint department had already opened up for business in the church in Jerusalem.

     The reality is that every church has problems and conflicts will occur.  Some of the best advice I ever received years ago was to not judge a church by whether it had problems or not but to judge a church by how it handled its problems!  The early church did not sweep their problems under the rug or ignore them – they came up with a plan to address them and solve them.  The Bible gives us a lot of advice on how to handle matters of conflict in the church such as in Matt.18 and others.  Here are some simple thoughts that can keep things from escalating to that level:

     First, be kind to one another!  Simple, yes, but profound.  If we would all simply treat others the way we want to be treated it would keep conflict to a minimum.  A good rule of thumb is to always say at least two positive things to every negative we might mention.  It is so easy to go straight to what is wrong instead of encouraging what is being done right.

     Second, be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem!  Focus on what can be done to resolve the problem instead of only talking about what is wrong over and over again.  Find out how you can serve, help, and be a blessing to a situation.  What is it that you can do to help meet someone’s need?  You will be amazed what having a servant’s heart will do in helping to resolve conflict.

     Third, don’t be the authority on everything!  Everybody has an opinion on how things should be done but everyone cannot be right.  A big part of handling conflict is meeting one another half way when you can and usually you can!  There will times you will have to set aside your opinion for the greater good of the body of Christ. 

     Fourth, don’t place your preferences and traditions over the Bible!  Jesus is Lord of His church and no one should desire to have “their” way.  Looking back over the years it has amazed me what some have gotten upset over and left the church.  Here are some actual reasons I was given for leaving a church I pastored: changing from pews to chairs, holding the microphones when singing, replacing paneling that was forty years old, and for using a baptistery instead of baptizing in a river.

     Fifth, don’t use a bomb to handle what a BB gun can do!  Wow, things can get blown out of proportion so quickly and become larger than life itself.  If you are offended then talk to the person who offended you and resolve it biblically but don’t go around telling everyone how offended you are.  One core value at Oasis church in North Little Rock is, “We don’t talk about people; we talk to people.”  Always deal with conflict at the lowest level possible!

     Sixth, don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve!  I tell people all the time, “If you’re looking for someone to hurt your feelings you’re in the right place.  Why is that?   Because it is inevitable that someone will say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing when you are looking for it to happen.  We should all strive to be encouragers and be uplifting with our words but none of us are perfect and we are all capable of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time!

     Seventh, don’t take yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself!  All of us need to remember that we do not have all the answers.  Allow others to speak into your life and be open to their instruction and admonitions.  We cannot see everything, do everything, and know everything.  We are all human and we make human mistakes!  None of us are spiritual “giants.” We are just trying to follow Jesus and be faithful to Him!

     A healthy church is not free of problems but it does strive to handle its problems biblically, wisely, compassionately, and by working together!