Sometimes people don’t get along. Sometimes disagreements between people can tear a group apart if not handled well. That is not to say conflict should be avoided. One of the greatest "killers" of positive group life is an avoidance of conflict. While conflict should never be fun, it is a necessary aspect of living in a fallen world. We are different people with differing ideologies (because we don't always grab on to the "mind of Christ"), and so we must learn to communicate about those differences in healthy ways.
Patrick Lencioni’s book Five Dysfunctions of a Team has an excellent chapter on how to engage in healthy conflict. Below are some of his ideas, altered a bit to fit the small group context.
KEY IDEAS REGARDING HEALTHY CONFLICT:
- Good conflict between people requires trust, which is all about engaging in unfiltered, passionate discussion around issues.
- Even in the best relationships, conflict will at times be uncomfortable.
- Rules for conflict, though they will vary from relationship to relationship, must be discussed and made clear among the group.
- The fear of occasional personal conflict should not deter a person from having regular, productive discussion.
The goal of conflict is to move from artificial harmony to true unity, without crossing into mean-spirited attacks. This takes time, patience, trust, but most importantly it takes a thick skin and a forgiving, teachable spirit. Engaging in this kind of conflict will undoubtedly cause some pain from time to time, but it is crucial to remember that the same pain you have experienced is the pain you are capable of causing if you do not seek to be constructive in your conflict.
As a group leader, here are some more ideas to help you navigate your group through times of conflict.
- As much as possible, reduce the number of people involved in the conflict. If only a few people are in conflict with each other, set up times to work with just them, don’t force the entire group into a conflict unless it is appropriate or necessary.
- Listen. Be certain you understand all “sides” of the conflict. The best way to do this is to listen, rephrase the person’s viewpoint (asking them if you have it right), then listen some more, then rephrase some more… Continue until you and all involved parties are certain you have a good understanding.
- Pray together. Praying about conflict forces people to consider whether or not their part in the conflict is appropriate in the eyes of God. Prayer is also the most powerful weapon the believer has in accomplishing a difficult task.
- Be patient. Conflict resolution takes time, don’t expect to solve everything immediately.
- Lose your pride. Don’t assume you can always bring resolution to conflict (there may be times when you are involved in the conflict yourself). It is always appropriate to seek outside help (pastor, friend, counselor) if you feel the conflict demands more than you have to offer.
Ultimately, conflict in a small group should be viewed as an opportunity, but a dangerous opportunity. Handled correctly, conflict can bring new understanding, deeper understanding, and greater love toward one another. Handled incorrectly, conflict can destroy individuals, relationships, and groups.
As you consider the issue of conflict, give thought to these words from John Piper:
“Some controversy is crucial for the sake of life-giving truth. Running from it is a sign of cowardice. But enjoying it is usually a sign of pride.”
 Desiring God by John Piper