Principle #1- Focus on you
There may be no more important life skill than successfully handling conflict.
For a leader, it’s essential that you govern yourself in conflict. More than anything else, this can affect how you’ll keep good, healthy people on your team. And, every leader knows that the best determinant of the quality of what your organization gets done is the caliber of the people you have around you.
If you’re in Christian ministry, as I am, you’re very familiar with conflict. You may be a person with an abnormally robust commitment to harmony, yet conflict seems to dog your path. See, like it or not, conflict is a staple in the Christian diet. Why? Because it’s in conflict that we get to do our best ministry! There are a few things Jesus claims to have given his disciples; one of them is the ministry of reconciliation [2 Cor 5:18].
The thing about reconciliation is it’s only needed where there is conflict, enmity, discord, and strife. So, if you’re a Christian, conflict is as normal as a kitchen is to a chef.
Let that sink in a little.
Conflict for the Christian is as normal as the operating room is to a surgeon. It is where we get to do what we do!
For the next several weeks, we’ll look at principles and practices that will serve you well in conflict. Let’s get started.
Principle #1: For once, focus on you. Good leaders are great at setting up the people around them to win, and stepping back just as the spotlight comes on and confetti fills the air. Your ministry leaders get the lion’s share of your focus and attention; you make sure they’re recognized, appreciated, and honored. Yet, when you’re embroiled in a conflict, this is a time to lock your focus on yourself.
This flies in the face of our natural tendency to fixate on the role the other person has had in creating or embellishing the conflict you both are in. It takes almost no effort to uncover the contribution another has had to a mess you and they are in. Recognizing your contribution to the breakdown, articulating it honestly, and owning your part (and just your part) is much more challenging for most of us. I’ll let you in on a secret: if you’re in conflict with anyone, you have a contribution!
Years ago, I was in a conflict with a couple with whom I worked. From my perspective, I’d been victimized by an avalanche of unwarranted distrust. Over and over in my mind I rehearsed the selfless and faithful ways I’d served them. Then a friend challenged me to discover how I had planted the seeds of distrust in this relationship [based on Gal 6:7]. To my surprise, I remembered that even before joining the ministry I had judged them as un-trustworthy! This I compounded by repeatedly ignoring the Lord’s urging to initiate relationship with one of them. My contribution: at minimum, I’d entered the relationship distrusting them and I allowed the distance between two of us to grow unabated.
Your contribution may be something you’ve said or done. It may be a judgment you’ve had about that person or a less-than-charitable attitude you’ve indulged.
Your judgments and attitudes always find a way to leak out.
People can tell when you judge them—even when you’ve never mentioned it! Your contribution might’ve been something you left undone, something you failed to do, something you might have done, but didn’t.
Allow yourself to consider how your attitudes, actions, or inactions have contributed to the breakdown. This will prepare you for principle # 2, next time.
Last time I posited a scenario familiar to most: arriving home your loved one launches into an oft-repeated grievance about dear little innocent you—and instantly—inside your head, you are far, far away.
Rather than hearing what’s said, you recount the other person’s failings, outrage at being accused without merit yet again, maybe the despair you feel to be “here again”, and frequently your subconscious connects this event to that of your most prolific critic earlier in life…
See, your ‘autopilot’ has kicked in, and now words, emotions, and actions pour out as if programmed by some diabolical ‘mission control’ determined to crash-land the relationship. And, since your beloved also has autopilot, the ensuing hailstorm of insults, emotional flooding, and furious vitriol is both familiar and painful.
All the while, no one’s listening!
I call this your “Family Dance”. All couples have one. As if performing well-practiced, intricate choreography, each of you steps, spins, moves, shimmies, and twirls with near-perfect synchronicity. She moves forward—he steps back—she leans left—he spins right—except that the carnage produced is anything but beautiful. If you filmed your last dozen breakdowns each would be a nearly identical replica of the others.
It is this way because as a couple you’ve ‘trained yourselves’ to break down this way! This is the third Audition Delusion: you two break down this way not because you married a crazy person. It the way you’ve trained yourselves to be in breakdown!
Crazy, but TRUE!
My invitation: have a different breakdown next time.
Since this way clearly isn’t working, DO ANYTHING ELSE!
If you’re silent, make yourself speak.
If you attack, don’t. Instead, hold your tongue ‘til your mate weighs in.
If you run, sit still. It will not kill you.
If you use sarcasm as a bludgeon, determine to be sincere and kind.
Each time the autopilot kicks in, re-cement your focus on your partner: What is she saying? What is she feeling?
Don’t miss this moment to hear.
It takes discipline to listen generously. And, it is an enormous gift to actually hear someone well.
Coaching distinctions #72.doc
We’re looking at one of the most common dumb things most people do most of the time. When “A” offends “B”, A rushes to A’s defense, pleading that, after all, A’s intentions were innocent. B just took it wrong and B got hurt. End of discussion!
This is dumb because in A’s self-focused concern to clear himself, A left the injury—and the injured party (i.e. B) unaddressed.
If A was hoping for restoration of relationship, this strategy is just plain dumb!
If I’m smart, I’ll attend to my impact, not my intention.
Recently, while leading a workshop I was bemoaning “bait and switch” tactics employed by some churches. They show up to do some form of community service then to use it to buttonhole people with religious arguments and promote the church they attend.
When the “switch” is thrown, people are offended.
To illustrate the impact of bait and switch, I described a time Annie and I were invited to dinner at the home of an admired minister. When the conversation awkwardly turned to a multi-level marketing “opportunity” they discerned was ideal for us, their true motivations were revealed.
We felt hurt, manipulated, and used.
During the break, a workshop participant angrily challenged the negative light I’d cast on the MLM I’d mentioned—a business to which he and his wife had devoted decades. I had so offended her that she’d left, humiliated and angry. I should be more careful about what I say!
Impulsively, I explained that I’d simply shared a story whose details were true. I’d done nothing to disparage his particular MLM. I’d simply shared the facts as they occurred. About this time, I began to notice him.
I could see that my defense had accomplished nothing in assuaging his anger, addressing his hurt, or communicating concern for his still-absent spouse.
In an instant, my heart cracked. “Please forgive me … I am so sorry to have been so thoughtless! I should never have named the business—it was completely unnecessary for that illustration. I was terribly insensitive!! I can only imagine how much I hurt your wife and you. You’ve given so much to build your business, and I come traipsing into your town and trash your reputation in front of your friends!!” Now, with tears welling up: “Could you forgive me, please?”
What happened next has occurred so many times when I’ve blundered like this and then attended to my impact.
We became close.
The ‘breakdown’ between us became an opening for intimacy. I invited him to tell me more about how my words impacted him. He talked about the care they’d taken to grow their business with integrity, to honor Christ in all their dealings, and to be honest with everyone along the way. Graciously, he forgave me. We shared laughter, hugs, and tears.
Owning my impact honestly and authentically brought us closer than if I’d never made the mistake in the first place.
See, a relational breakdown is an opening for intimacy.
Coaching distinctions #62.doc
The Christian life, your Christian life, is to be lived “all in”.
What if the challenges, perplexities, opportunities and disappointments your life presents have been orchestrated for you to take Christ into? [Romans 8:28-31]
When you know God is with you, you can always be “all in”.
This morning I read Acts 15. It opens with a dispute erupting in the fledgling church about whether Gentile Christians must keep the Mosaic Law to be saved. Paul and Barnabas throw themselves into the center of the dispute, arguing unsuccessfully, on the side of freedom; freedom procured by Christ.
Unwilling to collapse on their convictions and unable to win the war of words in Antioch, they travel three hundred miles – more than ten days on foot – to Jerusalem. There, they convene a council of the most notable Christian leaders, and dig into the details of the dispute until they all get clear. Peter speaks. Paul and Barnabas contribute much, and James makes a ruling. The conclusion is put to writing that Paul and Barnabas carry back to Antioch. On their arrival they convene a meeting of the believers, deliver the Jerusalem council’s determination, and remain there ministering to the saints.
Barnabas and Paul live all-in.
Troubled by the posture of the legalists, they weigh in—passionately. When they fail to persuade the pharisaical believers, they don’t go ‘passive aggressive’ like most church people. They don’t just shrug their shoulders and hope things work themselves out. And they don’t wait for someone else to act.
They sacrifice their comfort, time, and reputation. In Jerusalem, ‘though they’re not in charge, they give themselves until the issue gets resolved. Then—rather than take several personal days to recover from the strain of the ordeal— they step up to deliver the response to the Syrian believers.
They are all-in.
Later in this chapter, Paul and Barnabas have it out over whether John Mark should accompany them ministering to the churches in Turkey and Syria. Instead of ‘giving in to get along’ or ‘playing nice’, they have a full-blown argument in front of everyone.
There’s no back room deal to “spin” the story, to clean it up, to whitewash the mess.
They’re all-in in their breakdown, as in their ministry collaboration.
They hit big or miss big.
Coaching distinctions #54.doc
In many quarters of the Church, the contemporary understanding is that Christianity is lived in the passive voice. Wikipedia says: “the passive voice denotes the recipient of the action (the patient) rather than the performer (the agent).”
The assumption is that the Christ-follower empties herself of all ambition and self-determination and simply waits, patiently, for God to move gloriously upon her life.
Problem is, it’s not biblical. It’s Buddhism.
How much ‘straining’ and ‘pressing on’ do you see in the Church today?
“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door...” [Lk 13:24 NIV] In the Greek “make every effort” is agonizomai. Sounds a lot like “agonize” doesn’t it?
Consider Mt 11:12 “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of Heaven has been taken by storm and eager men are forcing their way into it.” [Philips New Testament]
Are these texts familiar to you?
The assumption that Christianity is lived in passive reflection—and our preoccupation with what we’re against—may have contributed mightily to the historic decline in Christian adherence in the West.
Especially among those under 35.
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who … if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
How well Terry Roosevelt’s words describe the noble and rigorous Christian life!
Around the US, pastors are breaking out of the “please-the-parishioner” mold, and are leading members into their cities, daring valiantly to minister regularly and unconditionally to those outside. Though they make mistakes, the sincerity of their motive procures a response of surprise and gratitude from those outside… and eventually, an openness to the claims of Christ.
And, in their churches some oppose and criticize, hoping to undermine these risky and selfless ministry endeavors.
Cold and timid souls.
Coaching distinctions #47.doc
As a coach to pastors and Christian influencers, I’m sometimes surprised at the vacillating commitment of we who claim to be Christ’s. I completely understand that life gets tough … so much so that, at times, I want to tear the hair from my head.
What I struggle to appreciate is the apparent over-arching power of the option to collapse on one’s vision and thereby escape the tension of living between what is and what God’s called us to.
Last week, Annie and I were with friends on a Segway Tour in Florence, Italy. I’m a curmudgeon when it comes to museums, tours, and lectures about things that occurred centuries ago. I’m much like Charlie Brown: “Bla, bla, bla… gelato!!… bla, bla, bla”.
But, as our guide was describing “the Duomo”, an incredible domed cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, I lit up.
An architect named di Cambio, designed it in the 1200’s with a massive eight-sided dome, and convinced the city council to build it.
Trouble is, nowhere on earth did the technology exist to build that dome! So, construction began on the immense cathedral in 1296… and when they got to the dome … they could not go forward.
For the next 120 years, eight architects worked the problem without success.
Think about it.
Six generations coming and going without a dome atop the greatest cathedral in Tuscany.
How many of us sustain our commitment for 120 months, 120 weeks, 120 days?
- Your first marriage?
- Your relationship with an angry, distant teen?
- An initiative to reach your neighborhood for Christ?
- Turning your congregation from entitled religious consumers to maturing ministers of the goodness of God?
- Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with an embattled pastor whose desire is to bring the congregation into Christ-likeness?
I’ve watched many Christian pastors begin well, then collapse when confronted by opposition.
Usually their undoing is the resistance of church members activated by elevated anxiety. Anxiety because they’re so unaccustomed to trusting Christ in the midst of difficulty. Or, because when given the opportunity to live distinctly Christian lives they’re so out of practice they’d rather do anything else.
Watching these leaders succumb could break my heart, if I let it.
But then, I would’ve collapsed on the vision God’s given me. That vision is to strengthen the character of Christian leaders so that the churches they influence live courageously for the Kingdom of God.
Next time, we’ll return to the story of the Duomo and the commitment to a vision that took more than a century to apprehend.
Stay with me.
Coaching distinctions #39.doc
Whatever we do, we do for a reason. Since we’re not crazy, there is always a reason behind our actions.
When our behaviors are perplexing, it’s almost always because we’re unaware of our true motivations in the moment.
One of the most pernicious motivators is being right.
If you’ve ever sat with a couple heading for divorce, you’ve seen this. Each spouse has reached conclusions about their mate’s limitations, motivations, character defects, and willingness to change. Over time, they’ve found ample evidence to support these judgments — solidifying their commitment to what they’ve decided is true.
And, they’ve ignored many dozens of data points that disagree with this thesis.
As you labor to referee reconciliation you quickly discover they’re not having one conversation but two. Each lobbing evidence to support how right they are about how wrong their spouse is. The energy that each spouse invests to defend the “rightness” of their position is only overshadowed by the devastation that’s wrought on their relationship.
To be proven right is the “booby prize” in any conflict.
The desire to be right is a powerful motivator all across life. A pastor had developed the practice of predicting who was about to leave his church, trouble that would be erupting on his staff, and problems his ministry would soon be encountering. His track record was excellent: just about every departure, difficulty, and hardship he predicted did happened. Despite the devastation these events brought, he took solace in the clarity with which he’d anticipated them.
Crazy, I thought.
Why not labor to prevent these things from occurring? As we worked together, he developed strategies to undermine the problematic scenarios before they happened. And yet, before he gave himself to thwart these troubles he first gave up being right about their inevitability… and his ability to predict the future.
When being right will not serve you or them, my invitation is to give up being right about it.
The drive to be right is a lot like living with tunnel vision: you’re predisposed to notice what confirms your assumptions, and you’ll likely miss most everything that contradicts them. This undermines creativity, closes down opportunities, and locks you into outcomes that you may really not want.
I listen to political talk radio. There are several radio personalities that I like. They say what I think, promote what I believe is best for the country, and oppose practices I think are weakening us as a society. It’s easy to listen to them.
Also, as a discipline, I listen to the radio station on the other side of the political spectrum. I listen for what I can agree with and what I can consider that’s new to me. It is rigorous to listen not to be proven right, but to discover what I don’t know.
So, where in your life are you locked into being “right” about someone or something?
What if you gave up the preference to be right, and trusted God to surprise you with something new?
Coaching Distinctions # 8
Leadership Courage Series # 39
A Christian leader is not simply someone who gets things done or who gets others to behave in desirable ways, in a religious context.
A leader is different.
She presences herself in life and relationships in a uniquely beneficial way. This uniqueness transcends behavior, skill, and knowledge. It’s best described in terms of being. A courageous leader’s way-of-being is distinctive.
Its exceptionality is that it provokes maturity in those she influences.
The difference is palpable. One difference is the way a leader is in the midst of sabotage and backlash. My Fuller Seminary Professor and mentor, Dr. J. Robert Clinton identifies leadership backlash as one of the most common methods God uses to develop leadership character. Backlash occurs when once-enthusiastic followers turn against their leader in the face of unexpected difficulties.
In A Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman elaborates: “Mutiny and sabotage came…from colleagues whose will was sapped by unexpected hardships along the way.”
It is the leader’s person and posture amidst this collegial sabotage that is so stunningly effective.
A courageous leader recognizes that backlash and sabotage are normal and are the product of evacuated courage in those disheartened by difficulty. The leader interprets backlash as an opportunity to:
a) model a way of leading that inspires confidence toward God, and
b) deepen the maturity and faithfulness of colleagues and followers.
The leader chooses to interpret opposition as provision from Heaven.
Consider Jesus. In John 6:66 many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. Immediately, Jesus challenges the twelve: Don’t you want to go away too? He saw the departure of many as an opportunity to test the resolve of the leaders closest to him.
Grounding herself in the shelter of a loving, all-powerful God, the leader can reach for people for their benefit.
“God has this!” she might remind herself while stepping toward those who, unnerved by fear, have turned against her. Aware that God’s agenda is to grow all of us into Christ-likeness, the leader can stand, as Jesus did, for her parishoners’ progress into maturity.
Having taken full responsibility, before the Father, for his being and destiny, Jesus lives as if his actions, attitudes, and words are on purpose: to establish the Kingdom of God in the lives of men and women.
Acclimate yourself to the rigor of taking responsibility, before God, for your responses to your environment and circumstances.
After all, everybody’s watching.
Why is it that the Christian life is such an adventure? What has your experience been, following hard after God, as best you know?
In my life, I repeatedly find myself in dilemmas that are completely beyond my ability. This was far less common before I surrendered my life to Christ. Now, it seems, the adventurous life beacons everywhere. It seems that God wants me in water just over my head—where I get to trust him as a way of life. Something inside urges me to sprint into the center of my untidy life and to look for God there, as my provision.
As a consultant, while traveling to meet the board, elders, and staff of a conflicted church, I discover I’ve been completely misinformed about the severity of the situation into which I’m about to step. All that I’ve prepared for three days of meetings must be scrapped, and there’s no time to adequately develop a new plan. I go anyway…
While leading a Bible study, I’m summoned to the phone and learn my son has been in jail for two days, out of state, and unable to reach me. I book a flight to leave the next morning…
Delivering groceries to the needy, I learn that a woman with whom we’d prayed has been cured of a severe infection. She insists that I go to see her friend. On the way, I learn that her friend is dying of brain cancer. We go anyway. I lay my hands on the woman’s head and pray for her healing…
Driving from church to a Father’s day celebration, traffic is inching past police cars and a fire engine positioned to block the view of drivers when there’s a particularly gruesome accident. Glancing to my right I see the wreckage of a blue Mustang convertible…
It is the car my daughter and son were driving— the car has flipped onto the hood, windshield flattened. There is no room for any human to have survived. Driver and passenger must have been thrown from the car … or decapitated.
There can be no other explanation.
Crying out to God, I jerk my car to the curb and sprint toward the shattered remains of Lauren’s car…
I’m shocked to learn that a massive sum of money is missing from a capital campaign. The only person with access to the funds is a nationally-respected executive with whom I’m scheduled to meet in the next few minutes. If the conversation doesn’t go well, it could undermine my career. I go and raise the concern, head-on…
While praying, I’m impressed by God (I think) to “deliver a message” to our Mayor. For the next several days, I endeavor to dismiss the thought as a ridiculous concoction of my overactive imagination. The longer I struggle, the stronger the conviction that I’m to make an appointment, sit down with the Mayor, and ask him a very specific question. I make the appointment, meet with the Mayor, and ask the question…
Paul says he pressed on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of him. [Phil 3:12] This “pressing on” suggests an ardor so intense, a struggle so severe, an exertion so demanding as to have required his all. I wonder if our pursuit of Christ’s calling to change our world would blanche in comparison to that of Paul.
Writing to the Church at Ephesus, about the ferocity of the spiritual struggle that is the Christian life, Paul elsewhere writes: “…and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand…” [Eph 6:13b-14a] I understand this to mean: “after you’ve given everything in you to stand, keep standing!”
A friend who, for more than a decade, has championed me to live a life of bold, decisive action, says it this way: Throw yourself into the middle of the room, and see what God does with it!
To fully participate in the life God has given us, knowing that in ourselves we’re not enough, is to apprehend the adventurous life.
See you there!
Leadership Courage Series #21:
Leadership in Culture of Cowardice (part twelve)
Leadership in a Culture of Cowardice (part two)
After illuminating characteristics of a Culture of Cowardice and making sobering observations about how appropriately it applies to the Church, we’ve turned our attention to the kind of leadership that can serve to restore the Church to a place of redemptive influence in society. Edwin Friedman, in Generation to Generation defines a leader as a self-defined person with a non-anxious presence. Last week, we unpacked some of what it means to be self-defined, or as my CRM teammates prefer: “God-defined”.
Today, a non-anxious presence.
After benefiting from the miracle of the loaves and fish the crowd wants Jesus to seize political control, overthrow the Romans, declare himself King. His response was simply to withdraw to a solitary place, alone.
A non-anxious presence is easy to carry off when your leadership is well received, when people are saying great things about you, when folks are happy and grateful for you. A non-anxious presence is essential when anxiety appears omnipresent.
Recall the phrase: “Poor planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part”. The less mature are always attempting to enroll others in their disquiet, their “crisis du jour”. A perceived catastrophe on the part of certain members of the congregation does not constitute a calamity for a well-defined leader.
Do you think for one minute that God, up in Heaven, is wringing his hands over that leaky roof, or the lawsuit brought against the church, or the lousy turnout at the society meeting? I often remind my coaching clients that God is not looking down at them stunned, saying: “Oh my goodness, I didn’t see that coming!” And, since God is fully aware of your predicament, what do you suppose God wants to do in you as a result?
The self-defined leader chooses to interpret these “crises” as precious opportunities to develop mature disciples of Jesus Christ. Friedman is clear: the leader’s capacity to contain her own reactivity to the trepidation of others, to avoid becoming polarized, and to self-regulate while staying connected to those who behave as if in distress is key to both the leader’s differentiation and to catalyzing maturity in the culture.
Think this through, Christian leader:
a) How are you growing in governing your own emotional reactivity? Ask your spouse, your kids, your staff and elders: what evidence do they see of your growth in controlling your reactions when those around you are out-of-control themselves?
b) When individuals or groups are locked in opposition, are you becoming more apt to get “altitude”, above the fray, and remain curious? Are you getting better at living in the tension, without knee-jerking yourself to one side or the other, primarily to exit the tension of the issue being, as yet, unresolved?
c) When you react with frustration and anger to the low-tolerance frustration and anger of the immature in your ministry context, you’ve put yourself in exactly the same soup! The key is to manage yourself when in conflict and to stay in relationship with those who prefer to attack, blame, and remain irresponsible for their own being and destiny.
It takes stamina to continually define oneself to those who lack self-regulation. Sadly, that kind of stamina is not developed within a culture of cowardice. Nor is it promoted in the American education system that presses for togetherness over against the self-differentiation that is natural when honest competition and individuation is endorsed.
As Friedman noted some 15 years ago, most of us are leading chronically anxious emotional dwarfs. In many denominational systems, the church has become one of the hideouts for the immature.
We could be the most powerful, clear, selfless, and confident people on the planet.
God-defined people with a non-anxious presence.