If there’s one skill I’ve honed over the years that is probably to my detriment, it’s avoiding conflict. Just the word “conflict” makes me uncomfortable. I sometimes feel like having a conflict is some sort of failing, as if I were meant to get along with everyone (read: people-pleaser of the highest order).
But this week I talked with a man who loves to talk about it. Mike Smith, president of Jacksonville College, has spent the last 20 years presenting seminars on conflict to deacons, pastors and mission leaders. His recently published book, “Conflict: Causes and Cures,” is a result of that.
Wait, so church leaders are susceptible to engaging in conflicts too?
“If anyone’s ever been around churches, you know there’s conflict,” Smith said. “There will be conflict anywhere there are people.”
Back in the ’80s, Smith said he and other researchers took a survey and asked churches what their biggest conflicts were.
“By far, especially in Baptist churches or other free churches, the biggest conflict was ‘Who’s in charge?’ Especially in smaller churches, you have families that have been there for years that have influence,” he said.
Smith surprised me when he said that conflict wasn’t something bad in and of itself. Sometimes, good things can come of it.
“Conflict is like a dollar bill,” he said. “You can’t attribute good or evil to it. It’s how you handle it that matters.”
“If a church has plateaued, sometimes conflict can generate energy,” he said.
But at least I’m not alone: Smith said most people don’t handle conflict in the right way.
“There are a number of things people don’t understand about it,” he said. “They don’t know how to Biblically deal with conflict. They think, ‘They’re wrong, I’m right.’ People don’t know how to communicate with each other,” he said. “They will often talk to other people instead of the person they have conflict with.”
Instead, Smith says people should base how they handle conflict on a passage in Matthew 18.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you,” the passage reads. “If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
Ultimately Smith said to be decisive about whether something should be addressed or not.
“Don’t be so sensitive, but if it is something that needs to be addressed, nip it in the bud … There are five stages of conflict, and if you let it go too long, there’s no resolving it.”
The book can be purchased through the Jacksonville College bookstore. All proceeds go to the college.