My heart sank and my blood pressure went up when she shared the incident with me. The Sabbath School teacher of a primary children’s class told me of an episode that unfolded that week.
A young boy who was prone to impulsive and boisterous behavior declared loudly to a class that he desired to do something inappropriate to a girl in the class — something very inappropriate and devastating, with severe implications.
The teacher wanted this boy removed from the class indefinitely. She wanted immediate, punitive consequences. Something indeed had to happen, but due to the temperament of the family and since they were fairly new to the church, I knew that we could easily lose them if this wasn’t handled well. I prayed, “Lord, help me. I’m out of my element!”
What does a leader do when faced with a conflict of high emotions and a potential for fallout?
When the tension is palpable and the stakes are high, what is the right course of action when people are looking to you for decisive leadership? How do you win at conflict? The question is not how do you win a conflict, but how do you win at conflict? When you are in the arena, how do you deal with it?
Conflict is hard. My own natural tendency is to run from it, or give in to the loudest party. This has to do with my experience growing up — a story for another time. That day, I was faced with a choice. A choice to engage or just let it play out.
There is a time for both, but prayerfully, I engaged. Conflict is not something to be avoided, but it’s an opportunity to be embraced and navigated. It’s an opportunity for God to shine. I know now that God — by His Spirit and Word — will help us through conflict and tense situations if we are willing to surrender to His leading instead of our natural inclinations.
After we pray for wisdom and God’s leading, here are a few principles to keep in mind as one moves forward in the face of conflict.
- Be careful not to take sides.
Like getting a stick in the front spokes of your bicycle, taking sides will end in disaster. The Biblical principle here comes from Phil. 2:4, which says, “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others."
Considering the standpoint and needs of all parties is key. I’m convinced that the Lord led me to walk that careful line in this situation. Keeping this principle in mind, I was able to empathize with the teacher, while guarding the boy and his family from her anger. I was able to facilitate holding the boy accountable, while respecting and caring for the family.
- Listen, listen, listen!
We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Scripture counsels us to take our listening seriously. “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19).
In light of the interests of others and the principle of listening, I carefully listened to each individual person involved and validated their feelings and perspectives. In doing so, they felt that they were heard and ministered to, and that I was truly there for them.
I found that listening was important because I was also able to get a full perspective, which is often eclipsed when emotions are high. I learned that through the careful questioning of the boy on part of the parents. It was very clear that he didn’t understand the verb he used in his declaration. It was a word he heard from his classmates at his school or in a movie unsuited for the child, but he honestly didn’t know what it meant.
This was a huge revelation. Of course, the girl he directed it to didn’t understand it either, and fortunately her parents were patient and gracious about the situation.
I also learned that the Sabbath School teacher had personal stuff going on in her life that wore her down and made her very impatient. There was a short history of tension between her and the boy’s parents. She was at her wits' end with the boy, and that led her to escalating towards a decisive action to remove him.
- Think redemptively, not punitively.
In the midst of conflict, we must remember that God is in the business of redemption. He sent His son into this world to live and die for us, to “reconcile us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18). God is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
Often we think solely in terms of punishment, but we should consider what will reconcile people to God. The greatest ideal and joy is to see a heart change, rather than a swift slap on the wrist of sorts. Keeping this perspective in mind was key for the way forward.
- Form a resolution that is approved by all parties.
Our God is a God who is reasonable. “Come, let us reason together” (Isa. 1:18) He says, and we can reason our way through conflict in a redemptive manner. This is done by finding a solution that works for everyone.
Prayerfully combining a redemptive approach with the need for a solution was the key for finding a way forward that glorified God and that all parties could agree upon. We developed an idea and worked through it with each party, adjusting it based on their interests and approval. Then we moved forward. Clear parameters were set for classroom behavior, with clear consequences as well.
- Work through a kind process of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In conflict, reaching a way forward is great. Yet, we must not neglect the most important component: forgiving and reconciling. As it says in Eph. 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Could all parties be gracious, kind and forgiving? I wasn’t sure. This necessitated more prayer. What became of this was one of the most powerful moments in my ministry.
With the approval of the parents and the boy, we all agreed on the Sabbath School teacher facilitating forgiveness and reconciliation the following Sabbath. That day, since his statement was aloud to the whole class, they brought the boy forward in Sabbath School.
While up front, the Sabbath School teacher knelt down with him and stayed at his side, supporting him as he acknowledged that though he didn’t fully understand, he knew he had said something that was hurtful and inappropriate.
He apologized, said he wouldn't ever do that again and asked for the class to forgive him. The teacher then led out in having the whole class forgive him and said it out loud. Then they surrounded him, said they loved him and the teacher prayed for the whole class. This was a powerful moment.
What could have been terrible, became tearful. I was blessed to see God at work. God was glorified and reconciliation happened! On top of this, there was a ripple effect. After Sabbath School was out, I caught a glimpse of the teacher and the boy’s mother crying and hugging one another in the Sabbath School hallway. More reconciliation!
Working through conflict isn't fast and easy, but it is deeply rewarding and transformative. We have to keep our own hearts in check. By prayerfully and carefully walking through a patient process that respects the needs of both parties and keeps redemption a priority, I’m confident we can handle conflict God’s way and He will bless the effort!
In the midst of it, you will be stressed, but I encourage you to lean on Jesus and be intentional. In the end, you will come to experience and understand a bit more clearly what Jesus meant when He said, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt. 5:9).