A BLOG: Tug-of-War and the Gospel

Many pastors and ministry workers struggle in relationships with colleagues who share their passion for the gospel. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of team or staff situations where two people or two families, both committed to the same mission, cannot get along. Often the mission work is marginalized as the tension assumes center stage. This tug-of-war between staff members and ministry colleagues often leads to fatigue and loss of gospel passion. 

I am still sorting through how best to help others navigate through these rough currents. I rarely hear stories where team members meet at the cross and end up serving well together as best friends. Too often people completely different from each other are placed together because of their common commitment to the gospel, not because of healthy personal chemistry. This can lead to disaster and disillusionment. Those involved must come to terms with how people who love Jesus can be so out of sorts with each other.  At best, I see teams stumble for a while, but in time someone ends up leaving for the work to continue. 

PAUL AND BARNBAS GO TUG-OF-WAR, AND BOTH WIN

Thankfully, we have the example of Paul and Barnabas, who in Acts 15:35-41 had a sharp disagreement with Barnabas over John Mark.  They split ways and God worked powerfully even in their disunity. This worked, because the tension never superseded the commitment to the gospel. Interestingly, it was incumbent on Paul and John Mark to part ways so the work of the gospel would not be hindered. Thankfully the story has a good ending. Years later, Paul asks for John Mark to return and the two end up working well together. (2 Tim. 4:11)Their example shows two things; First, the gospel’s impact is not dependent on relational harmony, but only when the gospel is a greater priority. Secondly, it is possible to reconcile with people we did not get along well with, and actually end up working together. You don’t have to be best friends to work well with someone. The purpose of this blog is to discuss what is necessary for the gospel to remain the priority even where there is relationship tensions, and while hopeful for reconciliation, we know that it is not always possible. Regardless, the work will go on.

At times I will meet with a pastor or international worker needing to process conflict with other team members. Over time, I grow to appreciate the couple’s desire to allow the gospel to direct them through this journey. That begins by looking first at themselves, assess what they did and what they are like that contributed to the tension. Then they are able to develop a strategy for reconciliation. Then we consider what to do if reconciliation doesn’t happen due the reluctance or unreadiness of the other couple, or, perhaps, if there is just too much water under the preverbal bridge. 

THE QUESTION I ASK

I begin by asking this question, What has God been teaching you about yourself that you would have never discovered had this conflict not occurred? I want them to see conflict as having a healthy role, a sanctifying effect of showing us our sin. This self assessment brings us to a deeper place of holiness before God making us more available to the Holy Spirit than ever before. Conflict is good, because it gives us an opportunity to know ourselves as people who still sin. This discovery is not as easily obtained in peacetime. Out of this healthy place, we are then able to develop a strategy for reconciliation that even makes room for the mission to continue, even if reconciliation doesn’t happen.  If it becomes evident after some time that reconciliation will not happen due to the unwillingness, or unreadiness of the other person, we then have to discover how to serve well despite the brokenness that will inevitably exist.

WHEN RECONCILIATION DOESN’T HAPPEN

What can we do when we are called to serve with others where full reconciliation will not happen? How can we live with tension in relationship and still remain faithful to Jesus and effective in carrying out the work of the gospel? I break this part of the conversation with those I counsel into two parts. Our Attitude, and Our Actions. Our actions will be driven by our attitude. If we have the mind of Christ, if this attitude is in us as it was also in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5) our actions will be gospel driven. 

If it is inevitable that there will be conflict in our life, a right attitude is needed. What is that attitude? It comes with several commitments.  

  1. First, don’t give people so much Real Estate in your brain. When we obsess over the way we’ve been treated, and it distracts us from our commitment to the gospel, it’s safe to say you have allowed that person to be too important in your life. It strikes me sometimes that I’ve allowed someone else to effect me emotionally. The mention of their name brings up bitter thoughts. Memories of what they did, ruins my day. When this occurs, I’ve given that person to much space in my life. I remind myself that this person should not have that much control over me. 
  2. This leads to a second attitude. You are not responsible for how others view or treat you. Neither am I responsible for how someone else will respond to something I say or do. I’ve even discovered that I am not responsible for how my wife responds to me. A simple exercise has been so helpful to me in this regard. The moment I find myself tightening up when someone says something to me that was unkind or inappropriate, I immediately remember that I am not responsible for what they said or did. They have their own life to live, and I have mine. I am not the Holy Spirit. This keeps me from needing to fix them, or correct them. I have enough to do in managing my own life, to take on someone else’s. What this attitude does is defers the task of working in someone else’s life to the Holy Spirit. After all, He does a far better job than I do. We also need to trust our leadership. I am convinced that the way the Holy Spirit works in others is through constituted authority. If someone is antagonistic toward me, and I have exhausted all my resources for reconciliation, it is up the the leadership of the church or the denomination to deal with it. The best thing that can happen where there has been conflict is for the antagonist to be admonished preferably by the elders, and once the call for him or her to seek healing has been spent, it is perfectly within the leaderships rights to warn and discipline. Sometimes the best thing not just for the harmony of the team, but most importantly for the sake of the gospel is to remove someone who refuses to repent. But I prefer this doesn’t happen until all peacemaking efforts have been utilized. 
  3. What this leads to is a third attitude, where we are actually okay working with or around people that we might not fully get along with. Sometimes, like it was for Paul, it is necessary to keep to the task of the gospel, but to do so at a safe emotional distance from others. I refer to this as working with “safe minimums”. If our relationship with someone else is not healthy, and we’ve tried everything to make it right, and there are things beyond our control that make it so, we can still work together with guarded and careful parameters. We see this played out at times in sport teams. If two players on a team do not get along, the coach will encourage them not to let that get in the way of their playing together. If the court is the church or the mission field, two colleagues can work together on the court, but agree not to spend too much time with each other off the court. Now, this is not to say we should not pray for and strive to improve the off-court relationship. Like Paul and Barnabas, an eventual break-through can happen, and we should hope for that too. 
  4. A fourth attitude is to assume the Holy Spirit is working in the life of the other person, but expect a different outcome for them than for you. You are not them, and they are not you. One night in college I got really mad at my suite-mate. He’d been egging me on for weeks, teasing me and even mocking me about something he thought was funny. I could take it no longer. I rarely lose my temper, but that night I did. While Tom stood there, hurling his teasing-mocking comments, I stood up, picked up a chair and slammed it on the floor right next to where he stood. I screamed for him to get out. Later that night, overwhelmed with guilt I went to his room to ask for his forgiveness. In a rare moment of transparency, this joker and teaser, admitted to me that this behavior was a cover for a lot of his insecurities. The incident, I believe happened for two reasons; to deal with my insecurities, and to expose things in his own heart. The Holy Spirit used the same incident to bring about totally different outcomes. Let Him! Sometimes the best way to let Him work is to allow some distance between you and the person you are struggling with. 

GODLY ACTION FROM THE RIGHT ATTITUDE

Once the right attitude is in place, our actions will be godly.  As I process what these actions will look like, I will ask those I am counseling the following questions; 

  1. How well can you anticipate what the personal and working relationship will look like by keeping space between yourselves?
  2. What are the “safe minimums” you can have in place relative to your working engagement with the other team members?
  3. Using Ken Sande’s, “Golden Result”, what further can you do in admitting your wrong, or your part in the tension that might invite them to share and confess their part? (To read more about the “Golden Result” go to the following link. https://rw360.org/2017/12/04/the-golden-result-2/)
  4. What does God want in this relationship, and what do you sense He’s asking of you to reach that place?
  5. If that place is never reached, can you live with that, and how? If not, what does it mean for your ministry?

We live in a broken world, full of broken people who we sometimes have to share working space with. While the gospel is a message that offers hope for eternity, it doesn’t guarantee complete healing here. Thankfully God continues to tell his story, sometimes best through the fragile lives of those committed to his gospel. Maybe that is why that story is so powerful. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Cor. 4:7-9)

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