One of the parts I like least about student ministry is conflict resolution. I never enjoy sitting in a room with upset parents, mediating issues between students or dealing with crises that happen in students’ lives. More often than not, I feel like a referee trying to maintain order rather than a shepherd. I’ve been tempted to bring a whistle a time or two! Most of the conflicts I’m brought in on are minor — girls find themselves “frenemies,” someone misreads a tweet, a group picture uploaded on Instagram is missing someone, or a breakup from years ago resurfaces.
Matthew 18 provides a great pattern to follow for resolving disputes, both major and minor. Here are five questions, driven by the passage, for student ministers to ask when dealing with any kind of conflict.
1. What are your goals? Jesus models the approach for resolution in Matthew 18 with the expressed goals of repentance, restoration and reconciliation between Christians. Whenever I sit in on conflict issues, I try to ask this question: does someone just want to vent, scream, be mad or throw someone under a bus? That’s not an acceptable foundation for conflict resolution; that’s sin. The beauty of Christian conflict resolution is that it’s not about being right, getting your way or proving a point; it’s about seeing those who have been separated brought back together by the grace of Christ.
2. Have you gone to this person first? Jesus begins by calling on Christians to go to one another in private. It protects the reputation of the Gospel, the unity of the church and the witnesses before the community. Dealing with teenagers in conflict frequently requires reminding them that they don’t need to bring others into the fight. When that happens, it becomes gossip, and we cross the line to sin. Conflict resolution between Christians assumes that, with limited exception, disputes are settled privately. In times where teenagers have gone to others first, I try to encourage them to go back to those they’ve talked to and apologize — especially if those people are brothers/sisters in Christ.
3. How’s your heart? Usually when we get mad at someone else, the real problem is in our own hearts. Maybe our preferences weren’t honored? Our pride was wounded? Conflict is often the result of unmet expectations, miscommunication, or simply two people who do see the same thing the same way but cannot understand what the other is trying to communicate. Whenever students come to me with a conflict, I try to ask them if they have looked in their own hearts to see if they have any unresolved sin or if they have genuine, godly concern.
4. Is this a big deal? When Jesus gave the teaching on conflict resolution, it wasn’t about personal preferences, disagreements or if your “bae” started dating your best friend. It was about serious moral issues that could bring shame to the church. Often, and especially in student ministry, the conflict isn’t that big of a deal. There are things that could be simply left alone or chalked up to personal preferences. You may be laugh, but I have watched dinners turn ugly when trying to decide what toppings to get on a pizza.
5. Why am I being involved? Hopefully by the time students get leadership involved, the first four items have been dealt with. When a student asks me to step in, I walk through those questions to determine if it’s appropriate for me to intervene. This last question, though, is particularly probing, because it tells me what the people in the conflict really want for resolution and from each other. Sometimes I am brought in to be the heavy, other times I’m engaged as a third party moderator, and occasionally I serve as the messenger boy. (In any case, I remind both parties that I am “Switzerland” and on no one’s side.) Regardless of why a leader is brought in, it’s important to address the first four questions and to determine if the answers are acceptable such that the resolution can be both glorifying to God and healthy for His children.
Conflict resolution is never fun. It sometimes end badly, and, when you step in, you often come out being more beat up than either of the students involved. But every single conflict in the church is an opportunity for the Gospel of peace, the Gospel of reconciliation and the Gospel of redemption to shine forth. And schools full of lost classmates are looking on.