Identifying the Conflict Level
If you have read the first two articles I posted on finding truth in times of deep conflict, you know that two critical components are an honest and humble assessment of what you think you know, and the reality that your preferred conflict style is getting in the way of discovering truth. Let me combine these two areas, as we look at five different levels of conflict. As I do, let me ask you to honestly identify what level of conflict you are in as it relates to THE most important conflicted relationship you have today.
Level I: Problem Solving
We have conflicting goals, values, needs, and plans. But we are problem-oriented not person-oriented. We are collaborating to seek solutions. Our language is clear, specific, and descriptive. Our strategy should be to seek resolutions by working together as we define the problem, gather information, and seek consensus on the best solution.
Level II: Disagreement
We have begun to protect our position and are now shrewd and calculating. Our language has shifted from specific to general. Instead of talking to one another, we begin using phrases like “There is no trust;” “We have a communication problem;” and “People should just act more Christian.” We have become reluctant to share all we know about a situation, withholding information that might hurt our position or enhance someone else’s position. Hostile humor is often present. Our strategy should be to work to reduce fear and increase trust by encouraging broader participation in decision making, empowering parties in their participation beginning at the lowest possible level of the organization, helping people to be open and honest; teaching communication skills, and seeking ways to encourage compromise.
Level III: Contest
Our objective has shifted to winning and we are unwilling to compromise. Factions have emerged and problems are now clustered into issues and causes with people taking sides and seeking to gain control. Language shifts and perceptions become distorted by magnifying every issue, becoming polarized, making false assumptions, and distorting time. We are reluctant to make peace overtures because that would appear to be losing. Our strategy should be to reduce the effects of fear; intervene as needed to address distorted thinking that is hiding the truth; encourage trust by reminding each other that we have gotten through tough times before; highlighting similar goals and interests; promote clear communication, and carefully structure the whole process. This usually will require outside consultation.
Level IV: Fight/Flight
Our emphasis has shifted from winning to removing all opposition through fighting or running. The dominant themes have become fighting for what is right and punishing wrong. Factions are solidly established with strong leaders emerging and we declare that getting our way is the only way to maintain the health of the church. Language has jelled into an ideology with members talking about principles more than issues. People have become detached, unforgiving, cold, and self-righteous. Our strategy should be to get outside help; lay careful and if necessary somewhat arbitrary ground rules; and appoint a monitoring or arbitration team.
Level V: Intractable
The goal is to remove the other parties from society. It’s not just good enough for us to win; the other side must be obliterated. We are now fighting for an eternal cause or for universal principles. The strategy now requires us to use outside arbitration.
In my opening article, I mentioned that the number one thing I have been invited to do in my soon to be 27 years of ministry as a DoM is to come into a church in the midst of conflict. The problem is that by the time I get the call, the church is at level IV or V conflict. By then, the genie is out of the bottle, the lid has blown off the pressure cooker, and all I can do is help churches pick up the pieces.
My prayer is that through better self-awareness and honest diagnosis of what conflict level you are in, you will be able to take the right steps and avoid further escalation. It also helps to approach difficult situations with the right heart. In addressing a polarized situation in Philippians 4, Paul exhorted them to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” and to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” Next week, I’ll point out the specific steps Paul suggested in that passage.
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.