Resolving Conflict: 5 ways to prepare your heart

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7 he forcefully deals with a judgmental spirit which often gets in the way of resolving conflict. Often when we try to resolve conflict, it doesn’t go well because we’ve not prepared our heart beforehand. I’ve found these 5 heart benchmarks crucial to prepare my heart before I attempt to resolve a relational conflict.

Choose to Resolve or Continue Conflicts - Conflict Resolution

Benchmark 1… Attitude: I have a constructive one.

When Jesus tells us in Matthew 7.1 to not judge, he’s not prohibiting what judges do in the court room nor saying we can’t call sin sin. Neither is he saying that we should never confront another about their unhealthy or destructive behavior. Rather, He’s speaking against what we’d call a judgmental, morally superior, or hypercritical spirit that He often saw in the scribes and Pharisees. Before we deal with a conflict, we must examine our attitude to make sure our goals for doing so are constructive and corrective rather than critical and condemning.

Sometimes a judgmental spirit shows up in a subtle way when we take delight in the misfortune of others. The Germans coined a word for this experience, schadenfreude (shod-en-trod-a). When we take delight in another’s misfortune, our brain actually releases dopamine, one of the feel-good neurotransmitters, into our brain’s pleasure center. So, the next time you take subtle delight in the misfortune of the person with whom you face conflict, you’re probably doing what Jesus said we should avoid.

Benchmark 2… Fairness: I’m using a fair standard.

In verse 2 Jesus says, For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. This is another way of explaining how the golden rule works. What goes around, comes around.

The attitude or standard we use against others will be the same attitude others will judge us by. This passage seems also to imply that God Himself will apply that same standard against us. As John McArthur writes, “Self-righteous judgment will become its own gallows.”[1]

Before we attempt to resolve a conflict, we must check the standard of fairness we’re applying that we hope the other person will apply with us.

Benchmark 3… Introspection: I’ve looked within.

Jesus used an exaggerated metaphor of a guy trying to take the speck out of another’s eye when he himself had a log sticking out of his own eye. He was illustrating that as ludicrous as that image appears, it’s just as ridiculous to be judgmental and picky toward somebody with whom we have a conflict when we have not faced up to our own sin and responsibility in the conflict. So, we must first look within. Otherwise, we can become so obsessed with the other person’s issues that we miss the really big stuff in us.

The next benchmark is a close cousin to this one.

Benchmark 4… Responsibility: I’ve owned my part in the conflict.

In verse 5 Jesus says that we must first take the plank out of our own eye. In other words, before we can address another’s contribution to the conflict, we must own what we’ve done that has contributed to the conflict.

Jesus even includes the concept in one of the beatitudes where he says, Matt. 5.4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matt. 4.4)  He looks with favor on genuine repentance.

When we do this we then become qualified to attempt reconciliation… and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7.5)

Benchmark 5… Discernment: I’ve counted the cost.

In verses 6 Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

The dogs and pigs He refers to are not cute puppies nor pet potbelly pigs. They represent mangy, wild dogs and pigs that would just as soon rip you apart as anything. Jesus uses an exaggerated picture of a man holding precious pearls trying to convince the dogs and pigs that his pearls are valuable. Doing so is fruitless because such animals only care about getting food and would rip you into pieces were you to get in their way. Pigs and dogs don’t appreciate valuable things.

Here’s His point. It may not be worth the price to attempt reconciliation. It may be better to yield your rights that you are morally and legally justified to receive. It may be the wisest choice not to confront. For by doing so, you may simply make things worse. Some people will reject you no matter how well-meaning you are, how concerned you are for them, or how well you prepared your heart. With such people, don’t force the issue. Practice discernment and count the cost.

On the other hand, it may be costly as well to not attempt reconciliation. Bitterness and a further unraveling of the relationship could result if you don’t attempt reconciliation. The longer you go without attempting to work through conflict, the more the issues can fester that can poison and destroy a relationship. Refusing to seek relational reconciliation may bring a lot of hidden costs. Again, practice discernment and count the cost.

Resolving conflict is never easy. But the chances of successful resolution increase when we appropriately prepare our heart.

How have you prepared your heart before attempting to resolve a conflict?

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[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 434). Chicago: Moody Press.

Leadership Transparency: 4 ways to build it

Leadership transparency can build or break trust. Without trust, leadership suffers. However, when a staff, customers, or congregation trust their leaders, good things happen. Recently our church made some significant changes to our governance and our church constitution. After a two-year study process, our board of elders presented the changes to our church resulting in overwhelming approval, a unanimous vote. A key reason the process went so well was because they ruthlessly practiced leadership transparency. Here are 4 ways to practice leadership transparency and move your church or ministry forward.

Transparency Concept on white background
  1. Communicate-communicate-communicate.
    • Our board went out of the way to communicate the proposed changes. They included some key influencers in the re-write. They provided copies of the change several weeks in advance. They convened a focus group of key influencers to get their take before it came to the church. We asked for a strong congregational attendance at our annual meeting where these kinds of issues must face a vote. We had a great attendance.
  2. Welcome input and questions.
    • In addition to the focus group, they gave plenty of time during the annual meeting to field questions. Our head elder who led the meeting kept encouraging questions without appearing to rush the meeting in any way. He allowed spaces of time when no one raised questions, yet he still conveyed an openness to field any questions as they might come up.
  3. Be graceful in the face of difficult questions.
    • A few people raised some tough, but fair questions. Neither the head elder nor the assistant head elder who fielded questions responded defensively when those questions were raised. They acknowledged the question, affirmed the person who asked it, and answered the question without a defensive or off-putting tone.
  4. Be totally forthright.
    • Some of the proposed changes required a significant change from congregational rule to a board rule form of governance. When such questions were raised, the head elder didn’t attempt to soft sell, beat around the bush, or obfuscate the reality of the change. He answered clearly and explained the why behind each answer.

I hadn’t lead a church for some time that held such significant congregational meetings. Yet, the spirit in which the board lead provided a textbook example how good leadership transparency can move the ministry forward.

What other ways have you seen that builds leadership transparency?

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Dumb & Dumber Mistakes Pastors Often Make

I’ve served over 33 years in different churches in various roles and have make lots of mistakes. I didn’t make these mistakes with ill will or with an evil heart, and neither do most pastors. However, we make them, and sometimes they are, well, just dumb. Here are some of the dumbest mistakes I’ve made.

Smart Vs Dumb - Choose Intelligence Over Ignorance
  1. Assuming everybody understands what I meant.
    • Just because people remain silent when I share my idea does not mean that they get it or agree with it. I’ve learned the hard way that I must pry feelings from those who don’t speak up when I share a new initiative. Otherwise, their concerns will show up later and probably surprise me.
  2. Getting defensive when somebody didn’t buy into my plan.
    • Sometimes I’ve unintentionally conveyed to others that every aspect of the church vision must start with me. And if it’s not my idea, if must not be from God. Perhaps in the Old World top down command and control style of leadership that thinking worked. It doesn’t in today’s environment.
  3. Believing that my position as pastor automatically elicited trust from the church.
    • Positional leadership does not guarantee trust from potential followers. I’ve learned that church people only give a certain level of trust in leaders, often low at first. And most likely the trust they have extended to spiritual leaders has taken a hit in the past. I’ve learned that I must go the extra mile to build trust with those in the church. I suggest 10 ways leaders build trust here.
  4. Not communicating enough.
    • I’ve heard mega-church pastors Rick Warren say that because vision leaks, he revisits the church vision every 30 days. He’s right. We must continually communicate not only the vision, but others important issues in the church as well. We almost can’t over-communiate.
  5. Thinking everybody will love, remember, and apply my really great, God anointed, exegetically sound sermons.
    • I used to think that a well crafted sermon I spent 25 hours preparing would light up the hearts and minds of those who were in church that day. Unfortunately, the mind can only absorb so much and if those who listen to my sermons get and apply one insight, they are doing well. I’ve sense tried to find ways to make a few cogent points really stick through brain based communication insight.  You can read my blog here about brain based preaching.
  6. Failing to realize the concept of “uninformed optimism.”
    • The bell curve of change tells us that initially those in a church tend to be excited about a positive new idea or initiative. It’s called uninformed optimism. In the listeners’ minds the idea initially seems really great. However, that optimism often only lasts until they realize what the change may cost them (inconvenience, more money, etc.) That new phase is called informed pessimism. I’ve since  learned to prepare myself for some eventual pushback when the realities of the change finally set in. Tempering my expectation has helped me manage my disappointment when the resistance comes.

What dumb and dumber mistakes have you seen other leaders make?

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5 Ways to Keep Critics at Bay

Criticism in ministry is never fun. And we often try to avoid our critics thinking that by keeping our distance, we can keep their criticism as bay. However, the opposite may be true. I’ve found that staying closer to them may actually lessen their criticism. Consider these five ways to keep your critics closer to you and their criticism away from you.

Critic concept.

 Take the initiative.

Make a list of critics in your ministry that you currently avoid and with whom you need to (re) connect. Pray that they will respond to your initiatives to reach out. Ask the Lord to give you the courage to act. And determine the best way to reach each individual. Should you schedule a breakfast or lunch with him? If you do, be sure to communicate that you don’t have an agenda but that you simply want to connect. Or should you seek her out after a church service to chat? Perhaps you should perform a simple act of kindness.

I once dealt with a leader who would often cast a wary eye toward me. It seemed that I could never meet his expectations. He rarely affirmed me, and although he was not necessarily an open critic, his emotional field around me was seldom an attracting one. I knew his wife enjoyed gardening, and loved unique gardening tools. I saw an interesting hand tool in a flight magazine on a plane trip, so I ordered it for her. A few days after she got it, this leader gave me one of the few compliments I ever got from him; he thanked me for my thoughtfulness toward his wife and seemed truly appreciative. That small act of kindness helped keep me connected to this critic.

As you increase the frequency of contact with your critics, you will build trust. Someone once said, “Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use.” One final thought: some critics are so caustic that you need to keep your distance. Remember, you don’t need to maintain contact with every critic. Use your judgment.

Leverage the power of story.

Learn to share your story regularly with others. Let your critics know who you are and what makes you tick. That doesn’t mean you must share every intimate detail. Rather, open your heart to let others in. Be vulnerable to them. At the same time, learn your critic’s stories as well. In a non­intrusive way, express curiosity about his life and his story without overdoing it with questions. God may give you a broader perspective and insight to what fuels his criticism.

Put yourself in your critic’s shoes. Instead of mentally tagging her with a negative description, reframe your self-talk. Ask yourself, “I wonder why Jill acts likes she does. I wonder what she brings from her past that could be fueling her criticism.” Adopt a learning mindset rather than a judging one.

One way to share your story is through passion. I’m an introvert, and although I have good people skills, I’m not a party person. If given a choice, I’d rather read, be in a quiet place, connect one on one and stay out of the limelight. When on stage, though, I communicate passion. But I’ve realized that in day-to-day encounters, my introverted personality can sometimes convey to others that I lack passion, especially to extroverted leaders. When trying to connect with extroverted leaders, sometimes I’ve tried to force passion, which unfortunately can come across as emotional reactivity. I’m now learning to communicate more of my heart and passion through story, while staying true to how God created me. I now share more of my life when I preach and when I lead meetings. So, if you’re an introvert like me, you’ll probably have to work harder to communicate passion than if you’re an extrovert.

Become more self-aware.

When someone criticizes you, learn to become more aware of both your internal and your external responses. Although we should never let others crush us with unhealthy criticism, when we listen with an open heart to constructive feedback, the critic’s anxiety often lessens. The Bible says, “You can trust a friend who corrects you” (Prov 27: 6 CEV).

Our body language, facial expressions and eye contact can make things either worse or better. Neuroscientists have discovered something called mirror neurons. This part of our brain sub­consciously mimics what we see in others. If your critic sees a relaxed, caring persona or a smile, this subconsciously encourages him to mirror you. The writer of Proverbs understood this principle long before neuroscientists did, wisely noting, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15: 1)

To strengthen self-awareness, try to listen to others without mentally framing your response. Catch yourself if you begin to form a response in your mind while your critic is still talking. Ask clarifying questions so you can see your critic’s viewpoint. Toward the end of such a conversation, ask the person, “Is there anything else?” Then thank him for giving you feedback, even though you may disagree. If the conversation warrants a later response, tell him you’d like to think about what he said and get back with him later. And don’t forget to do so.

Keep your critics in the loop.

Don’t keep significant critics in the dark. Where appropriate, include them when you make decisions. “Explain your decisions. Don’t just make them.” (Bradbury and Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Kindle loc. 1886.)  Explain the why behind your decisions, and acknowledge the impact they may have on others. In doing do, you are subtly engaging critics in the decision process. At the same time, acknowledge your critic’s emotions when you make a decision about which he may have disagreed.

If you make a decision contrary to his wishes and you sense he’s angry with you because he avoids you at church or through some other behavior, a simple call to check in could make huge deposits into that relationship. A conversation might go like this: “Jim, I sense your concern about the decision I made. I respect you and don’t want our relationship to suffer because of it. Would you like to talk about it sometime?” One caveat though. Don’t allow inappropriate behavior. Staying connected does not preclude biblical confrontation if your critic becomes divisive or begins to hinder the ministry. Staying connected involves both calm and courage.

Provide a face-saving “out” if necessary.

If possible, avoid putting your critic into a situation where he loses face in front of others. I once came across so strong to a critic in a meeting that the only way he could save face was to power up and react, which he did. From that point on, our emotionality hijacked our meeting. Scipio, a Roman general, understood this principle. He “advised giving opponents a ‘Golden Bridge,’ an avenue of retreat, arguing that an enemy with no way out will fight with unprecedented ferocity.” (Perkins, Leading on the Edge, p. 111.)

How do you feel about staying connected to your critics? What has helped you manage relationships with critics?

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Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, Stone, Charles (2014-01-01). People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership (Kindle Locations 2062-2098). Kindle Edition.

Are you a Grateful Leader? 3 Key Indicators

Jesus once performed an amazing mass healing when he healed 10 lepers all at once (Luke 17.11-19). However, what amazed Jesus most was that only one leper came back to thank him. The responses these lepers gave so astounded Jesus that Luke records three questions He asked out loud after the healing. “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (vss 17-18) The big deal Jesus made about gratefulness in the one leper (and the lack thereof in the nine), points to the high value He places on a grateful heart. I believe leaders among all should evidence a grateful heart. Evaluate your level of gratefulness against these three gratefulness indicators.

Thank You

Indicators that you are a grateful leader.

  1. I avoid rush-i-ness
    • Rush-i-ness (a word I made up) pictures the leader who rushes from one task or meeting to the next. In his rush-i-ness, his hurry causes him to miss what he should be thankful for. Nine of the healed lepers were in such a hurry to show their healed bodies to the priests (the Jewish law requirement for re-entry into society) that they forgot to thank Jesus. Rush-i-ness stifles gratitude because in our hurry, we often miss what we should be grateful for. John Ortberg wisely noted that hurry points not only to a disorganized schedule, but to a disorder heart.
  2. I intentionally look for things about which to be grateful. 
    • We all deal with a brain phenomenon called inattentional blindness, missing what is right before our eyes because we are focusing on something else. In a famous research experiment a researcher filmed a half dozen students tossing a basketball back and forth to each other. Half-way through the 90 second video someone in a gorilla outfit appears in it as he walks in front of the students, pauses, and then walks off. In studies of people who watch the video and are told ahead of time to focus on counting the number of times the ball is tossed, an average of 50% miss seeing the gorilla.
    • In my masters program in the neuroscience of leadership, I watched the video with the same instructions (count the ball tosses) and I didn’t see the gorilla until my prof showed us the video a second time.  I was too focused on counting the ball tosses that I missed the obvious. We leaders are often guilty in the same way of missing what we should be aware of and, thus, thankful for. The leper didn’t let the need to appear before the priest keep him from gratefulness.
  3. I verbalize my appreciation to others for what I’m grateful for. 
    • Jesus was omniscient. He could have read the minds of all the lepers and noticed that they were grateful and been satisfied with that. He didn’t do that, however. He made a big deal about only one returning to thank him and the other nine not doing so. I believe we complete true gratitude when we verbally express it to God for his specific blessings or tangibly show gratitude to those around us.

Ask yourself these questions how you as a leader value and practice gratefulness.

  1. Who on my team did I tangibly appreciate last week?
  2. Have I built into my annual goals and plans tangible ways to thank staff and volunteers?
  3. How would others describe my practice of gratefulness: like the one leper who returned (tangible gratefulness) or like the nine who didn’t (very little if any gratefulness)?

I’d love to hear how you build gratefulness into your ministry or organizational culture. What have you found to be effective gratefulness practices?

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