Conflict pops up in every area of life. Conflict arises in the home between husbands and wives, parents and children, and among siblings. You find conflict in the workplace. Conflict arises between neighbors. Conflict can arise between teachers and students. There is conflict among students and between rival schools. Our politics are imbued with conflict, and the long-term effects of the division and destruction are immeasurable. Do I even mention the conflict on social media platforms? Social media has become the new arena for conflict. Sadly, conflict also plagues God’s church, and leaders must learn how to address these times. One of the greatest challenges facing the Lord’s people today is dealing with conflict. There are two types of conflict: Forced and Initiated.

Forced Conflict

Forced conflict is exactly what you might think: it is a conflict that is forced on people. Forced conflict is characterized by the unexpected, and, as a result, no one is prepared for it. When conflict is forced onto an individual or a congregation, people are often caught off guard, and they may respond with knee-jerk reactions.

The most obvious example of forced conflict in recent history is the COVID-19 pandemic. No one expected what happened. No one could have predicted it or the outcome. In the beginning, discussions centered around short-term changes, and most people assumed it would only last a few weeks or maybe a month. As time moved on, it became more and more apparent this global pandemic would reshape our daily lives. The world continues to struggle with the effects.

The impact on godly leaders has been evidenced in the overwhelming nature of decisions they have had to make and, in some settings, continue to make. Decisions over masks, vaccines, social distancing, and more have challenged every area of practice in worship and fellowship. How do leaders handle these difficult times?

When leaders face situations of forced conflict, their leadership is more critical than ever. You must act and act quickly.

First, establish procedures in advance to deal with forced conflict. Leaders will face situations out of their control. I’ve heard all my life that to be forewarned is to be forearmed. The idea suggests we must take as many preventive measures as possible to prepare for the unexpected. I realize we cannot be fully prepared for every possible scenario, but consider a few advance steps:

  1. Ask a few questions associated with “what if?” What if this happens? What if that happens? (Add your possibilities)
  2. Make a list of essential contacts
  3. Connect to others who will be affected by the event
  4. Set aside potential financial and other essential needs
  5. Never lose hope—think positively.

Second, gather as much intel as possible. Your decisions hinge on a complete understanding of the gravity involved. When the world became aware of the pandemic, information about the spread of the virus and protective measures were premium. The speed at which decisions are made with the information gathered determines the outcome for every person you lead. Therefore, it is a top priority to make decisions with the highest level of information available.

Third, be willing to adjust as needed. Once decisions are made, situations may change. I remember the explicit details my high school basketball coach provided during practice. He showed us how to move the basketball from one side of the court to the other. The plan was to get someone open for a clear and easy basket. He told the point guard to pass the ball to the power forward. When the ball was passed, he explained how the defense would react and move in a certain way, allowing the ball to go inside to our post player for a close shot. However, the defenses we played against did not get the information the coach provided because they rarely moved as he said they would. Therefore, we had to be willing and able to adjust. Leading the church is the same. When facing a situation of forced conflict, decisions are made based on the best information available, but once the movement starts the situation may turn in an unexpected direction. When that happens, you must be willing to adjust.

Fourth, communicate incessantly. Nothing is more important than communicating every step of the way. Communicate the prearranged procedures for conflict. Communicate the intel gathered and how it affects the decisions being made. Communicate adjustments made to address changes as they occur. Communication is the key to dealing with every level of forced conflict. The more you communicate, the more support you will have from those assisting you in working through the conflict.

At some point or another, forced conflict befalls everyone. The changes that occur with forced conflict can drive you down a path of confusion and concern. As a leader, you can take steps to address the challenges that accompany forced conflict, but you must work hard to avoid it entirely. However, not all conflict is forced. Leaders can minimize the resistance that often accompanies conflict when changes happen if they learn how to initiate them in an appropriate way.

Initiated Conflict

Initiated conflict looks completely different than forced conflict. While the conflict is still present, it is not the result of being caught off-guard and unprepared. Initiated conflict is primarily associated with change. However, it is change people are prepared for; they have a level of expectation. Conflict still exists, but the results of the conflict are minimal. They may still dislike the forthcoming changes, but they have the opportunity to mentally prepare. Therefore, when change is introduced, the conflict is minimized because of the preparation and expectation associated with upcoming changes.

The pandemic forced the church into changes that were unexpected. At the same time, it helped leaders realize there were some changes that needed to be made to have greater effectiveness in the community and world. Many congregations who never used technology before discovered that technology broadened their reach as far away as the other side of the earth. Not all change is good, but not all change is bad, and change is biblical. The types of changes I am talking about are not related to changing God’s word or the teachings within it. However, changes in methodology and approach can introduce powerful ways to improve our influence as Christians. The way these changes are made directly relates to initiated conflict.

Initiated conflict begins with planning. Remember that the manner in which change is initiated can make or break a smooth transition. It is important for leaders to communicate amidst change effectively. This communication involves more than just telling everyone a change is coming. If you want buy-in from your followers, you must effectively communicate the process leading to the change. You must explain why this change is being made and why now. Do not be afraid to share the details of discussions surrounding the development of the change. It is also essential to inform others of when the change will be made, along with the steps needed to implement the change. If possible, meet with followers one-on-one and allow them to ask questions, share ideas, and explore how they can help make this transition successful. If the congregation is too large for one-on-one meetings, set aside a designated time at which people can express their grievances and ask questions. Memos, bulletin posts, emails, texts, or public announcements leave people confused at best and flat-out combatively resistant at worst. The most effective way to get the majority involved is by sitting down and talking with those affected face-to-face.

Leaders who proactively work to plan and initiate change with open and transparent communication will find that people are much less resistant. With less resistance, leaders can devote their energy to navigating and implementing the change rather than mediating conflict among their followers.

It is important to note that initiated conflict and forced conflict can sometimes be two sides of the same coin. You must be aware of perspective during times of conflict. It is highly probable that each side of the conflict sees from a completely different perspective. On one side, you may believe you are initiating the conflict, while the other side believes you are forcing the conflict. You may be making a decision that affects everyone in the church. Those decisions can require hard conversations impacting the entire congregation. You are tasked with leading through these turbulent times with an understanding of both sides while minimizing resistance, valuing everyone involved, and maximizing the overall emotional health, along with the physical and spiritual well-being of the people you lead. Let me say a few tasks of a leader are more difficult than this. Effective communication is the key. With prayer, preparation, and patience, you can deal with conflict in life-changing ways.


Bob Turner
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Bob Turner is the current Director of SALT (Sunset Academy for Leadership Training). He teaches courses and conducts workshops in Leadership Development, Emotional Intelligence, Creating Vision, Strategic Planning, Communication, Conflict Resolution, Character, and Managing Change. He also serves as an instructor in the Sunset International Bible Institute’s master’s and doctoral degree programs. He and his wife, Sheryl, have been married for 42 years with more than 30 years of ministry experience. They have three grown children and ten grandchildren.