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Conflict Resolution in Youth Ministry

I just returned from our Mexico spring break mission trip exhausted when a parent met me in the parking lot screaming. A minute later she was in tears. I wanted to come home to a bunch of “thank you Dougs”…well, I also wanted to come home to a huge bonus. I got neither. It was a great trip followed by a great conflict. Will I ever outgrow this type of conflict?

The answer is no. Conflict surrounds those of us in ministry. Actually, I think the words “conflict” and “ministry” are synonymous. I’ve often felt that if people weren’t involved, ministry would be a lot of fun.

I’ve learned a lot in 25 years of working in the church, but what I haven’t fully learned is how to prepare for conflict. I can anticipate it occasionally…like 25% of the time. But the majority of conflict blindsides me. Just like the mom who was angry that I “allowed” her son to buy fireworks in Mexico. As she was approaching me, I actually thought she was coming to say Simply Youth Ministry“thank you” (that’s how tired I was—my eyes must have been blurred). Instead, I got the verbal lashing for a few minutes. When she was done, I then poured out my dose of reality and had to tell the mom her son was a knucklehead who bought fireworks illegally and snuck them across the border (again, being exhausted and being tired of this kid didn’t help me access the depths of my kindness). It’s odd how a little reality can change the tone of an attack.

Since I’ve had my share of conflict over the years and still receive it, I have learned a few things that I can share with you. You may already be the master of dealing with conflict and don’t need any coaching—good for you! Thou art envied! But, for the majority, here are a few ideas to think about: 

  1. Expect it! Conflict surrounded our Savior during his ministry…and he was God. It’s coming your way. Think about it: The New Testament is filled with conflict surrounding Jesus and his followers. Even Paul and Barnabas had conflict and had to separate. If the guy nicknamed “encouragement” and the guru of theology are going to disagree…guess what? You will too. Expect it to be part of your ministry and leadership.
  2. Don’t avoid angry people. Angry people typically “attack” at the peak of their frustration, when they’re likely to express themselves with more emotion than rationale. The mom that I described would have been better off to go home, ask her son where the fireworks came from and find out the truth before she came after me. She didn’t.
  3. Go face-to-face. If possible, instead of calling, make a personal visit to people you know you have conflict with. In face-to-face communication, you can read nonverbal communication that isn’t recognizable over the phone.
  4. Listen until they finish. Good communication requires you to allow others to fully share their feelings without interrupting. It’s natural to want to interrupt and clarify their statements; however, once they’ve voiced their opinions, you’ll have your turn. With the mom, I listened, nodded, appeared interested and waited my turn to explain the other side of the story.
  5. Think rationally, not personally. When others are angry, they might express themselves inappropriately. You might hear a comment like, “You’re not qualified to be a youth leader,” when what’s driving the comment is, “I don’t know how to reach my son, and I’m afraid for his future. I go to this church, tithe, and I need your help, but I’m too insecure to admit this.” Your task is to discern the real issue if it’s hidden. This is why you begin every day begging God for his wisdom in advance.
  6. End on a positive note. Ending with positive comments does not mean you give in to the whining complainer. Concluding in a positive way communicates that you want to pursue peace.
  7. Say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” If you’ve messed up, apologize and ask for forgiveness. Reconcile. You’re modeling humility, and humility diffuses anger.
  8. Turn the mirror on yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “What can I learn from this conflict?” Be willing to search for the truth in criticisms, complaints, confusions or even caustic attitudes. You may not like how people communicate their frustrations, but you may learn something from the words or tone. Ask yourself, “What’s true in her comments?” When you learn something, be humble and admit it.

Some conflict creates such turmoil within your soul that you’ll feel it in your body. It’s difficult to not take criticism personally when you care deeply about what you’re doing. You can’t avoid conflict. People must express their anger in some way. You can be prepared (by expecting it), but it will blindside you a majority of the time. Don’t fear it…face it, and over time it will become easier. I’m not to the point where it’s easy…but it does get easier.

This week, I followed up with a phone call to this mom and prayed with her. I told her that I regretted that we had to meet like that in the parking lot and how I look forward to having a different type of conversation with her next time. And, that I want to help her with her son’s discipleship and maturity in Christ. She appeared to be thankful, and now this feels like a conflict that is done and buried.

In the meantime, enjoy being part of the team of youth workers around the globe who are in the midst of conflict over some of the dumbest things in the world. You’re not alone.