Dealing with Conflict on the Field. Or not.

Let’s talk about conflict, ‘cause that’s fun. I mean, hypothetically, at some point in the (distant) future, you may or may not experience an uncomfortable disagreement with someone. Maybe.

In this imagined scenario, the ensuing “discussion” could arise between you and your spouse or kids or co-workers, or maybe even — like this would ever happen — yourself.

So, when conflict comes, what will you do? Will you run away scared? Hunker down? Gear up? Lock and load?

Whether your natural tendency is to ostrich or explode, these two principles must be remembered:

Principle #1 – Conflict always has Context

Principle #2 – Conflict always precedes Closeness


How many of you have ever experienced conflict? Go ahead, raise your hands. Do you see all those hands raised? Yeah, me neither, but I’m guessing that all over the world people on their phones or laptops are raising hands. It’s a pretty shared thing, this interpersonal junk. (You can put your hands down now, we don’t want people thinking you’re a weirdo. Oh wait, you’re a missionary. Nevermind.)

Conflict is not something “out there” that other people deal with. This is us. This is our story.


Oh, Conflict!
I used to work in an Emergency Room, so I’ve had people try to cut me, spit on me, and in other ways break me. I’ve helped security guards and police officers wrestle dangerous patients to the ground. By the way, did you know they make “spit hoods”? It’s a mesh net that covers a patient’s head to keep the spit from getting from their mouth onto your face. Pretty cool, eh?

I’ve also worked in churches with church people.

I served as a youth pastor, working with peoples’ kids. Sometimes there was too much pizza, other times, not enough. Sometimes parents thought we weren’t doing enough cool stuff, while other parents thought we were doing too much cool stuff.

I served as a worship pastor. Corporate worship, now there’s an area where everyone has ideas and they’re not afraid to share them. It was an a cappella church (i.e., no instruments), and you would think that might reduce disagreements. NOT SO.

I served as a camp director. I listened to staff complaints, teen complaints, parent complaints, caretaker complaints. Once, a camp manager was angry with me because I wouldn’t tell the teenagers to STOP SPLASHING IN THE POOL. Apparently, by playing in the pool, too much water was splashing out of the pool. Duly noted. And ignored.

We’ve all experienced conflict, and we’ll all experience conflict again. So here’s the first thing we must remember.


Principle #1 – Conflict always has Context
Conflict is very rarely just about the facts, and it never happens in a vacuum. All parties bring their unique historical issues to the table even if they’re not aware of it. That’s what makes this all so interesting.

Much of conflict’s context exists just under the surface:

– Fears (of losing love, or support, or respect, or safety)
– Past experiences with conflict (positive or negative)
– Goals that might be thwarted
– The family’s approach to conflict
– The culture’s general approach to conflict

If we don’t want to fly blind (or be blindsided), we must seek to understand the context. In addition to considering underlying fears and goals (yours and theirs), ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the typical approach to conflict in my passport culture?
  2. Growing up, how did my family handle conflict?
  3. Do I pretty much handle conflict the same as #1 and #2 or have I changed?
  4. What words come to mind when I hear the word “Conflict”?

Consider talking through this list at your next team meeting.

Now, when we’re looking at the cultural component, it’s important to remember that the Gospel is counter-cultural in every culture. There are parts of your culture that are really bad and unhealthy and need to change, just like mine! And there are parts that are great and wonderful, just like mine!

I was speaking at a regional missions conference last month and I asked the participants to tell me what words came to mind when I said “Conflict.” Many of the attendees said things like, Scary, Shame, Anger, Rage, Dangerous, Yelling, and a whole slew of negative words. One lady stood up and said, “Opportunity!”

She was from Switzerland.

Our background and culture will greatly influence how we deal with conflict, for good or bad. Do we run away and hide or prepare to fight? Do we get louder or quieter? Do we think conflict is mainly about peace or justice?

Painful experiences from our past also provide context for our current conflict. If a current situation triggers painful memories or associations from times past, that matters. It’s possible the current situation is solely because someone’s a jerk, but most likely, there’s also underlying pain and fear that is historical. It’s worth your time to see it and address it.


Principle # 2 – Conflict always precedes Closeness
Many people treat conflict as if it’s radioactive. They avoid it at all costs and only touch it with protective suits, Geiger counters drawn.


That makes sense if you see conflict as a direct threat to closeness, or intimacy. However, I believe that conflict is necessary for intimacy. Put another way, intimacy requires a tremendous level of honesty, and you cannot be honest with another human being for very long without conflict.

Conflict does not necessarily lead to intimacy, but you cannot have intimacy without honesty. And you cannot have honesty for very long without conflict.


Conflict and Christ – Changing the Paradigm
Conflict is scary. It’s also normal, and it can be healthy and actually really good. Just ask Jesus.

There’s the famous “Get behind me, Satan!” passage. And the incident with the tables. There’s the conversation with Peter about feeding sheep that left Peter “feeling hurt.” There’s the whole “whitewashed tombs” fiasco. And the time Jesus just ignored the Pharisees.

Jesus once abandoned a crowd that had plans he didn’t like. Another time he allowed the crowds to worship him, which was something the ruling elite didn’t like. Jesus surprised Pilate with his silence. And he taught the disciples to ignore some of the most respected people.

At least once, Jesus didn’t like his Father’s plans and told him so.

Can you think of some more examples?


The Way of Jesus
He didn’t “do conflict” the same way every time. He occasionally used conflict as a doorway to deeper intimacy and commitment. Sometimes he was very passionate and active, while other times he ran away or was silent. He stated his opinion clearly, but remained aware of authority lines and obeyed. He was always aware of the context.

How does Jesus’ approach differ from yours? Do you need to more actively engage in necessary conflict, or do you need to pursue holiness for a bit and shut up? Jesus’ approach varied. Does yours?


Conflict and the Love of God
Now we come to it. The best advice I can give you for dealing with conflict: Become more and more aware of the magnificent love of God.

I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God. Ephesians 3:16-19

You want to get better at dealing with conflict? Wrap your heart around the Love of God. Dive deep into the love of the Father. Ponder the intensity with which the Father loves the Son, and see how the Son loves the Father.

Consider the mystery that the eternal Creator loves humans, and meditate on the miracle of the incarnation. Invite the Holy Spirit to show you what He thinks of your teammate. Or spouse or child.


Remember How Loved You Are
Do you really believe that your WORK is not what makes God love you? Do you believe that even if you never accomplished anything else, God wouldn’t love you less?

He loves you just as much now as he did before you were a missionary. You cannot earn more of God’s heart. It is not divisible. It is turned towards you, just as it has been towards the dawn of Creation.

The father did not kick the prodigal son out. The son left, and the father let him. BUT, as soon as that son came back within sight, THE FATHER RAN.

And he still runs. For you. For your heart.

And whether you return to him from a life of workaholism or whores, ministry or mud, when you return to Him, HE STILL RUNS.

Because the Father loves you. And he entered into great conflict to make a way for you to come back. Don’t ever forget that.


To Recap:
The next time you meet Conflict, remember that it’s got Context.
Remember that it precedes Closeness.
And remember the Crazy love of God.

May God richly bless you all,
Jonathan T.



More on conflict:
Necessary Endings, by Dr. Henry Cloud
Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzer
Ask a counselor: What about conflict?, by Kay Bruner
Run Away! Run Away! (And Other Conflict Styles), by Elizabeth Trotter