Dealing With Conflict


With eight years of experience as a worship leader at four churches, you could conclude that I don’t know how to hold down a worship leader position. But when you consider that I was always hired to be a change agent, usually hired to modernize the worship style from more traditionally rooted churches, you can imagine the risk that this presents in shortening the lifespan of any worship leader’s tenure.

I have certainly made mistakes but I have not wasted them through a lack of learning. What I have learned in dealing with conflict, I would like to share.

When dealing with conflict, I believe in the following principles:
• Build relationships first, speaking the truth in love
• Meet people where they are
• Inspire thought
• Learn from your mistakes

Repeating a cliché

It is a cliché, but clichés are repeated because they are true and ignored because they are repeated. Let me repeat that. Clichés are repeated because they are true and ignored because they are repeated. Now for the cliché:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

It doesn’t matter the strength of your argument or whether the facts are on your side. I Corinthians 13 says that if we don’t have love, we are like a clanging cymbal. Our arguments, when spoken without the foundation of a loving relationship built upon mutual respect and trust, are noise.

Even if your position is right, Ephesians 4:15 calls us to speak the truth in love. Until you have invested in knowing someone, any love you try to express will fail to gain traction, no matter your sincerity, expression, wording or tone.

If someone you have NOT built such a relationship with tries to engage you in conflict, try to not engage them in the depth of argument until you have earned the depth of relationship. If they refuse your overtures for relationship, then simply agree to disagree and express sorrow and empathy for the difference.

I confess to having dropped the ball on building relationships with the depth necessary to go to the next level of discussion when dealing with critics. I drop the ball here most often not because I don’t love people, but because I can be too task-oriented to invest the time and effort that relationship building requires. I am determined to do better going forward.

Knowing your “target audience”

When you build a relationship first, you can build a mental profile of your critic. I find two categories most helpful. One type of person is analytical while the other is visceral.

You’ll gain the most mileage out of analytical critics. I believe that these people have been endowed by the Holy Spirit with the spiritual gifts of wisdom, knowledge and discernment. These folks use reason and Scripture to build their arguments. They add to these characteristics the boldness that Plato described as “following the truth no matter where it leads.”

Let me make it clear that we are not to judge those that possess the gifts of wisdom, or knowledge or discernment to simply be those who agree with our positions. On the contrary, analytical people with these gifts are like Martin Luther who, at the Diet of Worms when he was told to recant his 95 Thesis, responded that he’d do so only if his detractors could use reason and Scripture to show why he was wrong.

The visceral critic argues from feelings. You can tell you are dealing with such a person simply by asking them why they hold to their positions. You will find that they will attempt to answer such a question by simply reiterating WHAT they believe, never really being able to tell you WHY they hold their positions.

Unfortunately, the visceral critic at this point has cut off meaningful dialogue. The Greek word “Logos” is translated as “Word” in the New Testament. You can see that from this word, we also derive the English word “logic”. One cannot have discourse without logic and coherence. Logos was even defined to be “discourse” by Aristotle.

Ravi Zacharias once recalled a Q & A session after one of his speeches, where a person asked him where he got his idea that truth should be coherent. He responded by asking the person whether or not they wanted a coherent answer to their question or would he be free to answer incoherently, throwing reason out the window.

I have had to learn that with visceral people, you cannot dive deeper into reason. Even if you reason with them in perfect love, they will assume you to be defensive.

Instead, I have learned to meet people where they are. To the analytical person, we can engage in deeper dialogue that has the potential to grow both sides. To the visceral person, even if their position is correct, being right for the wrong reasons, I have learned to stay at the “pool’s edge”. If I have something to learn from their position, I have to instead bounce it upon those who have can defend such positions using reason and Scripture. In rare cases, I have actually had my mind changed by asking an analytical outsider to tell me why a position initially presented by a visceral critic might “have teeth”.

Group dynamics

Meeting people where they are is greatly restricted within group situations. When you are in a one on one situation, you can best customize your approach based upon the profile you build through a relationship with them. But when dealing with a group, you are most likely dealing with a mixture of analytical and visceral personality types. Unless that group is homogenous, I suggest playing the safe route within group contexts and avoiding diving into the depths that can only be reached by the analytical people in the room.

What if you tried giving questions instead of answers?

Too often, we tell people what to think instead of how to think. Too often, I believe we give people answers instead of giving them questions.

To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist. – Cardinal Suhard

Jesus dealt with His critics indirectly. He didn’t directly tell them His positions. Instead He challenged them with questions and acted in mysterious ways in order to inspire them to think. In John 4, when engaging the Samaritan woman, Christ persistently provoked her to ask questions, as He spoke and acted in somewhat ambiguous terms. God responded to Job at the end of His suffering not with answers, but with a series of questions.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” – Matthew 7:7

So often we don’t let people seek because we place the answers under their noses. So often we don’t let people knock because we open the doors for them.

When a baby bird is hatching it might be tempting for a human observer to help the bird out of its shell. But doing so will kill the bird. The bird needs the struggle to build up strength to live its first days.

Whenever possible, I’ve learned to turn my points into questions when engaging critics. Such a methodology inspires the person to think and reveals to you where they are coming from. This strategy also tears down walls of pride allowing for a greater chance of persuasion. The critic, as they are forced to question their assumptions, is more likely to change their mind when the paradigm shift results from THEIR thinking process as opposed to you force feeding them your position.


We all tend to project our strengths and weaknesses on others. If you are a confident person, you are in a minority. You have the danger of projecting your strength onto others and assuming that others carry the same “thick skin” that you wear. Leaders require this level of boldness. But leaders must be sensitive to understand that many people (in my experience most) do not have this quality.

Be very temperate with giving even suggestions for improvement. Yes you are called to be a leader and leaders grow people. Growth means growing pains. Growth requires a humility that can be defined as “boldly staring at your weaknesses in the eyes without flinching.” So humility requires a boldness that insecure people don’t naturally possess. This is a paradox that may surprise many people. We don’t often associate humility with boldness. How do you inspire the bold humility necessary for growing people?

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. – Philippians 2:3

On the other hand insecure people also project. They assume that strong leaders cannot take criticism. They assume that you have a closed door. They shirk away from confrontation.

One good litmus test for gauging the projection of insecurity is to send out an email explicitly asking for honest, open feedback. Make a note of who does not send you a reply, filtering for people who are not “email people”. Sure, the person may have missed your email or not gotten around to replying, but I have usually found that a non-reply in such a situation means that you have found someone who projects their insecurity via silence in the face of criticism.

As a leader, you will need to make extra efforts to communicate an open door policy. Building relationships in the context of Philippians 2:3 is the key.

School of “hard knocks”

I don’t have all the answers. I have learned the points in this article mostly through mistakes. I made the mistake of projecting my thick skin only to find that I should NOT treat people the way that I want them to treat me. I actually want people to tell me (in love) my shortcomings as long as it is with the intention of making me better (what the King James calls “edification”). If this is done respectfully, one doesn’t have to build a relationship first with me because it is in my nature to assume the critic has good intentions without a pre-existing relationship to prove this.

I thrive on people who share with me new insights derived from reason. At one time, I assumed everyone was like this only to find that I was misinterpreted as being defensive. I’ve made the mistake of telling people what I thought instead of inspiring them to think for themselves. I made the mistake of going too deep by addressing a criticism analytically within a mixed group. And I’ve made the mistake of engaging critics BEFORE I had built a strong enough relationship to endure criticism.

I’ve learned from these mistakes. I will, by God’s grace, hopefully make less mistakes in the future then I have in the past. But as long as we learn from each mistake, the mistakes become tutors instead of drop-outs, roses instead of thorns, currency instead of dead weight.

Greg Jones is a music teacher, musician and worship leader currently serving at Ginghamsburg Church in Ginghamsburg, OH.