Focus on the Family

Conflict Resolution

by Mary J. Yerkes

Conflict is inevitable. No relationship is immune. When managed biblically, conflict can serve as a catalyst for change and an opportunity for spiritual and relational growth. Why then are we afraid to tell our friend her words hurt us, to ask our boss for a raise, or to confront our family member about his drinking problem and its effect on his family?

According to Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker—A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict and president of Peacemaker® Ministries, a ministry devoted to equipping and assisting Christians to respond to conflict biblically, the reason is clear. "Many believers and their churches have not yet developed the ability to respond to conflict in a gospel-centered and biblically faithful manner," explains Sande. "When Christians become peacemakers, they can turn conflict into an opportunity to strengthen relationships and make their lives a testimony to the love and power of Jesus Christ."

What does a peacemaker look like?

"Peacemakers are people who breathe grace," says Sande. "They draw continually on the goodness and power of Jesus Christ, and then they bring his love, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and wisdom to the conflicts of daily life." 1

Do you naturally "breathe grace?" I don't. Yet, it is what God calls us to do. Not all of us are called to teach a Bible study, sing in the choir, or work with youth, but all of us are called to "go and be reconciled" (Matt. 5:24 NIV) to our brothers and sisters, our friends and family, and the people in our churches and community. God calls us all to be biblical peacemakers, to allow his redemptive, transforming love to spill over into our relationships.

This series of articles will show you how.

Based solidly on God's Word, this series of articles will give you what you need to respond to conflict biblically and constructively. You will learn the importance of prayer and preparation in resolving conflict, why you must first "take the log out of your own eye," how to confront someone in love, and how to navigate destructive conflict. What's more, you will hear from professional conciliators and Christian counselors who will give you solid, biblical tips to resolve conflict in your relationships.

God created us for relationship. Do not let unresolved conflict rob you of the joy that healthy relationships can bring. As you read these articles, invite God's Spirit to show you how to apply these biblical principles to your relationships. Then, "go and be reconciled" (Matthew 4:24 NIV) to your brother, sister, friend, and family members.

This article has been provided because of the generosity of friends like you.

1Ken Sande, The Peacemaker—A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, seventh printing, May 2007), 11.

In addition to Ken Sande's book, consider the following excellent resources: Peacemaking Women by Tara Klena Barthel & Judy Dabler (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, second printing January 2007), Peacemaking for Families by Ken Sande and Tom Raabe (Focus on the Family 2002), How to Have that Difficult Conversation You've Been Avoiding (formerly Boundaries: Face to Face) by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005). For those caught in destructive conflict, I recommend Leslie Vernick's excellent book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship—Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, third printing, 2007).

Tips and Tools for Healthy Conflict Resolution

Conflict is everywhere – in your home, workplace, church and community. Your response could make or break the relationship.

by Mary J. Yerkes

Do you find yourself at odds with a close friend? Is a co-worker trying to undermine your credibility with your boss? If so, you are not alone. Opportunities for conflict are everywhere—in your home, workplace, church, and community. Your response could make or break the relationship.

Pamela Conrad understands the difference a biblical response could make. Several years ago, she received a letter from her mother-in-law that contained "20 years of pent up anger." She had just buried her 35-year-old brother who had committed suicide and was recovering from pneumonia. Unable to reach her mother-in-law by phone, Pamela sat down to write her a letter. "I prayed it would be constructive and that I could rise above the hurt and anger to address her concerns and fears," explains Pam. The result? "Today we are friends," says Pam. "This was a hard turn-the-other-cheek lesson for me, but it had a wonderful outcome."

Author and Christian counselor Leslie Vernick works with people like Pamela to resolve conflict in their relationships. She instructs clients to pray, prepare, and practice. "Pray about it," says Vernick. "Pray for wisdom, humility and the right words. Then prepare." She suggests they write out what they want to say and practice saying it over and over again. "One of the things I tell people when they're practicing is to rehearse in their heads ways things could go wrong," she says. This way, when you hit a bump in the conversation, you're prepared to steer the conversation back on course.

Tips for Biblical Conflict Resolution

Skill and practical tools for resolving conflict are important. But, according to Ken Sande, author of The Peacemaker—A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict and president of Peacemaker® Ministries: "As important as practical skills are, the focus always has to be on motive. If our desire is to honor Christ, everything else will follow."

Keeping that in mind, here some practical tips, gleaned from professional conciliators, that can help you resolve personal conflict:

Focus on the Family is a donor-supported ministry.

1Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding (Grand Rapids: Zondervan0 2005), 51.

Family Ties: When Conflict Strikes Close to Home

Domineering in-laws, wayward teens or jealous stepchildren can turn any happy home into a war zone.

by Mary J. Yerkes

Families matter to God. That’s why few things are more painful than unresolved family conflict. Domineering in-laws, wayward teens, or jealous stepchildren can turn any happy home into a war zone. Issues such as whose turn it is to take out the trash and whether your teenage daughter finished her homework before she turned on the computer are bothersome but relatively minor issues that can generally be resolved with minimal disruption to family life.

Other issues present a greater challenge—the son who disowns his Christian upbringing to pursue a homosexual relationship; the mother-in-law whose abuse and manipulation threatens to destroy a woman’s marriage and her health; the father with mental illness who abuses his children. These situations are real; sadly, they occurred in Christian families. While some situations are resolved over time, others can go on for months, even years.

Just ask Karen.

Karen’s Story

Karen and her husband, Paul, a pastor, had just accepted an appointment at a large church in a new community.* Things seemed to be going well until Sarah, their 17-year-old daughter, announced she was pregnant out of wedlock. To complicate matters, Sarah had fallen in love with a young man of another race; the baby was biracial. In the eyes of their new church home, biracial dating was off limits.

The pregnancy drove a wedge between Karen and her daughter. As tensions mounted, discussions gave way to intense arguments. Karen insisted Sarah give the baby up for adoption.

After the birth, Sarah turned the baby over to a social worker who placed him in a foster home. As the birth mother, Sarah was given a fifteen-day grace period to surrender her parental rights. During those fifteen days, God spoke to Karen through His Word, convicting her of her prejudice selfishness, and hypocrisy. “I changed my mind about the adoption,” said Karen. She and Paul spoke and agreed that Sarah’s baby would come home to live with them. “We saw this as God’s perfect will for this precious baby boy and his sweet mother.”

Months of conflict melted away as all three of them rejoiced at the unexpected outcome. God’s grace turned a painful situation into a wonderful blessing.

Unfortunately, Tom’s situation did not turn out as well.

Tom’s Story

After being led to the Lord by his aunt, Tom was shocked to learn that she had been stealing money from his grandmother’s retirement accounts. His aunt had been given power of attorney as his grandmother was advancing in years. “One of the accounts, which had more than $100,000 in it was drained to $3,000 in three years,” says Tom. Tom’s aunt went on a spending spree while his grandmother’s home lay in ruins—toilets were broken, termites infested the home, and it lay in overall disrepair. After much prayer, Tom confronted his aunt. “I was called rude, my motives were questioned, and my faith was challenged,” he said. Understandably, the situation affected Tom deeply and had a negative impact on his marriage. He was able to forgive his aunt; but to this day, the conflict remains unresolved.

Managing Family Conflict

The closeness of family relationships makes managing conflict more difficult. When faced with family conflict, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

Draw appropriate boundaries. Family conflict often involves blurred boundaries—a young man marries but fails to “leave his parents and cleave to his wife”; an adult child moves away from home but constantly calls home for money; an adult daughter leaves her three children with her mother daily, even though her mother has asked her not to. Appropriate boundaries are biblical and enable you to set limits while still loving the other person.

Appeal to the relationship. When faced with family conflict, always affirm the relationship, and do all that you can to preserve it. For example, when speaking with your adult son, you might say:

Eric, I love you. I hope that you know that. I am sorry you got involved with drugs. You can stay here for a few months, but only if you take responsibility for your problems and get help. If you want my help, you need to see a counselor or go into rehab. Regardless of what you decide to do, I will always love you.

Recognize your limits and relinquish the relationship to God. It takes two soft hearts for reconciliation to occur. If one person continues in sinful behavior and resists correction, the relationship will ultimately suffer. Sometimes the other individual involved walks away from the relationship. If you find yourself in a situation like this, do not give up. Continue to pray, to hope, and to love. “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18 NASB), says God’s Word. When you have done all that you can to restore the relationship but the conflict remains unresolved, release the relationship to God. You are free in Christ.

Families are God’s idea. He is able to guard what you have entrusted to him (2 Tim. 1:12 NIV). We can rest in the knowledge that God loves us and will continue to work out his plan and purpose in our families.

* Some names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.

Helping families thrive with the support of friends like you.

Destructive Conflict: Recognize It. Stop It.

Where there is destructive conflict, you will often find cruelty, neglect, deception, control, indifference and even abuse.

by Mary J. Yerkes

“Danger. Pesticides. Keep people, especially children and pets away from the area being treated,” read the signs posted along the path. I swung wide to the left, being careful to lead my dog away from the toxic environment as we continued our afternoon walk. For the remainder of the walk, I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if people came with warning signs, too? ‘Danger: Toxic Person.’ ‘Warning: Destructive Conflict Ahead.’”

In a sense, they do. Destructive conflict flows from unhealthy people and relationships. Where there is destructive conflict, you will often find a pattern of cruelty, neglect, deception, control, indifference and even abuse in the relationship. What differentiates destructive conflict from healthy disagreement is that it involves a pattern of unhealthy communication. Destructive conflict flows from individuals who consistently fail to admit their weakness, lie, rationalize, deny, apologize instead of changing their behavior, blame others instead of “owning” their part of the problem and who are defensive instead of open to feedback. Similar to ingesting poison, a steady diet of destructively conflict can kill you—emotionally, spiritually and even physically.

Just ask David .

Destructive Conflict

He is still working to overcome the damage caused by destructive conflict. Raised in a home where conflict deteriorated into emotional, verbal and even physical abuse, he grew up thinking the way he was treated was “normal.” “While in college I accepted Christ,” says David. “He helped me to forgive my abusers and brought healthy relationships into my life. Unfortunately, my abusers didn’t change; and for years I could not deal with the emotional fallout.” To overcome the damage caused by years of unhealthy conflict, David attended anger management classes at a local church, worked with a mentor, and continues to see a Christian psychologist, who is helping him apply biblical truth to his sense of self and his relationships. “My abusive family members haven’t changed,” says David. “I have.”

How to Deal with Destructive Conflict

Leslie Vernick, licensed clinical social worker and author of The Emotionally Destructive Relationship: Seeing It, Stopping It, Surviving It, works with individuals like David. She identifies three steps, based on Matthew 18:15-17, we should take when dealing with destructive conflict:

Speak up. "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matt. 18:15 NIV). “God calls us to be peacemakers, not peacekeepers,” points out Vernick. She says pursuing peace might mean risking conflict in order to bring about a genuine peace (Ps. 34:14; Heb. 12:14 NIV). Speaking up is very different from venting, which can have negative consequences. We should speak the truth to someone in love after we have spent time praying and preparing for our time together. Approach that person in gentleness and with humility (Gal. 6:1 NIV).

Stand up. “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16 NIV). God calls us to stand against sin, evil, deception, abuse and wickedness. When others are blind to their sin, God calls us to enlist the help of others. With a supportive person or church by your side, say, “I will not continue to live in fear,” “be lied to” or “be degraded.”

Step back. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt. 18:17 NIV),” says Jesus. In biblical culture, Jews did not have close, personal relationships with pagans and tax collectors. Vernick says when someone refuses to respond to our concerns, the relationship changes. “You cannot have fellowship with someone who refuses to respect your feelings, doesn’t care about you, won’t respect you and who isn’t honest.” When we step back from the relationship, it helps minimize the damage and gives the other person time to reflect on his behavior and the relationship. It sends a message that a pattern of sinful, destructive behaviors is unacceptable to us and to God.

She points out that even when we find it necessary to step back from a situation, God calls us to love. The apostle Paul says, “We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us” (1 Cor. 4:12 NIV). And in Romans 13:10, “Love does no harm (NIV).”

As we learn to identify destructive conflict and apply God’s Word to our situations, we can minimize its damage in our lives. What’s more, we move from victim to victor, honoring God in even the most difficult of circumstances.

Workplace Conflict: One Woman's Story

Sleepless nights, headaches, stomach pain can all result from unresolved conflicts at work.

by Mary J. Yerkes

Joy turned on the news as the anchor began a segment on a local 'bad boss' contest. The story touched a nerve.

“Think I should write in?” Joy asked her husband.

“Not if you want to keep your job,” Tim replied.

The anchor ticked off a list of complaints filed by local listeners. Fired for being sick. Unpaid overtime. Sexual harassment. Obsessive-compulsive behavior. Although Joy’s situation paled in comparison, it grew more intolerable by the day. Sleepless nights, headaches, stomach pain—the mounting list of symptoms scared her. She even experienced a panic attack, her first in nearly 20 years. And that’s not all. She and her husband fought nearly every day that week. Something had to give!

The Problem

Joy loved her job, but recently had considered quitting. Her easy-going boss had received a well-deserved promotion, leaving her with a new supervisor—one that Joy found challenging to work for.

One morning, Joy’s supervisor confronted her about a complaint lodged against her by a co-worker. “Joy, instead of emailing team members about the project, just walk down the hall and work out the details in person,” she said. “People are complaining.”

Joy struggled with an “invisible disability” that sometimes made walking difficult and painful. Recent stress in the office had caused her symptoms to flare. In fact, she spoke with her doctor, who cautioned her to “pace” herself and to “limit the amount of walking” she did until the flare subsided.

When she tried to explain her limitations to her boss, she just did not understand and responded harshly. Crushed, Joy called her husband sobbing during her lunch hour. “Tim, I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to quit!”

Tim listened patiently and said, “Joy, you’ve tried to talk with you supervisor and she didn’t hear what you were saying. I think you should take it to the next level. Why not talk with human resources to see if they can help?”

Joy agreed to meet with human resources.

Prayer and Preparation

The director of human resources suggested she schedule a meeting that she would mediate with her boss and her boss’ supervisor. In the days leading up to the meeting, Joy spent time in prayer, asking God to reveal those sinful attitudes in her life that contributed to the conflict. She confessed her pride, her rebellion and her anger that recently had begun to seep out in sarcastic comments. She asked for the women in her Bible study to pray for her.

Joy prepared practically, too. She asked her doctor for a letter, describing her illness, her limitations and ways she could work around them. Further, she copied portions from a book her doctor had given her, explaining her condition, how to manage it and how to remain productive at work.

When the day of the meeting arrived, Joy was ready.

Joy Speaks Up

After the human resources director opened the meeting, she invited Joy to voice her concerns. She began, “I enjoy working for this organization. I look forward to helping you meet your objectives for many years to come. I admit that I’ve struggled with the changes at the office. I’ve been frustrated and angry and I’ve allowed that to spill over into my relationship with you and my co-workers. I’m sorry. It was unprofessional.”

“I understand my co-worker’s frustration at how my disability limits my personal interaction,” she continued. “It frustrates me, too. But as much as I’d like to change it, I can’t. However, I’d like to give you a little more information about my illness so that we can work together to resolve the problem. I’m confident we can reach an agreement that meets your objectives, yet takes into consideration my limitations.”

For the next half hour, Joy shared with her boss and others in the meeting the information she had brought with her, handing each a copy. As Joy spoke, she saw her boss’s face soften.

Suggest Alternatives

During the conversation, Joy acknowledged her boss’s preference that she work with team members in person. “On days when I’m having problems walking, perhaps team members can come down to my office,” she suggested. "On other days, we’ll meet in theirs.”

“And on days that’s not possible, maybe you can pick up the phone and talk with team members rather than e-mailing,” interjected her boss.

“Of course!” said Joy.

The meeting concluded and both had what they needed. Joy felt validated and heard and that her supervisor had a new understanding of her illness.

God’s Intervention

While the meeting addressed Joy’s immediate concern, she continued to struggle with aspects of her boss’ management style. She continued to pray about the situation and asked members of her Bible study to pray as well.

A few month’s later, there was a second reorganization. Joy was placed under a different supervisor, one whose management style worked well for her and which gave her an opportunity to gain new skills.

“If I had quit when I wanted to, I would have missed this opportunity to gain new skills,” Joy explains. She loves her job and looks forward to going to work each day. “It’s the most satisfying job I’ve had in my entire professional career,” she says.

Unresolved Conflict: Next Steps

Despite diligent prayer, careful planning and a humble spirit, attempts at conflict resolution rarely go as planned.

by Mary J. Yerkes

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” says John Steinbeck in his classic novel, Of Mice and Men. That line seems particularly fitting when applied to the topic of conflict resolution. Despite diligent prayer, careful planning and a humble spirit, attempts at conflict resolution rarely go as planned. What happens if we are unable to reach an agreement? What’s next?

Let’s examine our options as we look at three, real-life scenarios:

Take One or Two Others Along (Matthew 18:16 NIV)

Wendy and Ginger 1attended the same church. Wendy’s daughter, Christina , had severe food allergies. She approached Ginger, Christina’s Sunday school teacher, concerned about the types of food she served in class and offered to help be part of the solution. Ginger did what she could to accommodate Christina’s needs while maintaining as normal a class as possible.

They reached an impasse. Wendy and Ginger responded biblically; they took it to the next level and asked Marc Romero, the children’s pastor to help mediate the situation.

“I’m not trained in conflict resolution,” confided Pastor Marc. “I did the only thing I knew to do—go to the Bible and pray for wisdom.” As he prayed, he felt God revealed the root issue—the adults’ focus had shifted away from the child. Once he redirected their focus back to the child, they experienced unity and began to work together toward a solution. With Pastor Marc’s help, they are now working on guidelines that focus on the child’s best interests.

What makes this incident so compelling is that Wendy and Ginger’s church have no formal peacemaking structure. “Scripture has promised that God has disbursed his gifts in the body, and he makes good on his promises, even if there’s not a formal peacemaking ministry in the church,” says Ken Sande, president of Peacemaker Ministries and author of The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict.

But what if bringing in a third party to help resolve the conflict doesn’t work?

Consider a professional mediator.

Professional Mediation

That’s what Karen O’Connor did when faced with a conflict over her relationship with a friend. “She wanted a ‘best friend,’ status,” explains Karen while she wanted to enjoy a variety of friendships. “She pressured me with gifts, phone calls and time together.” Unable to manage the mounting tension in the relationship, Karen invited a mutual friend—a professional mediator—to help resolve the conflict. “With his help, we were able to ‘hear’ each other and to apologize for anything we did to hurt the other,” says Karen. Through it all, Karen learned to recognize unhealthy or 'toxic' relationships and to identify those personality types that best complement hers.

Karen’s situation is not unusual. We all carry baggage from our past that affects our relationships in the present. When unresolved heart issues result in the toxicity spilling over into the relationship through such destructive and manipulative behavior as verbal and emotional abuse, compulsive lying, denial, control and addictions, seek outside, professional help. If you’re unable to locate a professional mediator or conciliator in your area, talk with a Christian counselor who could guide you through the process of reconciliation and restoration.

Treat Him as a Pagan or Tax Collector (Matthew 18:17 NIV)

When bringing in a third party fails to help, God’s Word calls us to “tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt. 18:17 NIV)." This raises the rarely discussed topic of church discipline. Although this remains a difficult doctrine to understand and an even harder one to implement, it rests on the divine authority of Scripture. For that reason, we must carefully examine this option.

Consider the situation I found myself in a number of years ago.

As a member of my church’s prayer team, I routinely met with members of the congregation to pray for specific needs. My prayer partner and I had met with a woman whose husband was involved in an extramarital affair. The wife confronted the husband about his sin, but he refused to give it up. She asked elders in the church to speak to him, which they did to no avail. Finally, the pastor met with a man. He refused to give up the affair.

This man’s wife, the elders and even the pastor admonished, warned and appealed in love to this man. Still, the man would not repent. Consequently, the pastoral staff asked the man to step down from leadership.

To my knowledge, he remains unrepentant to this day.

When we face difficult situations that fail yield to one-on-one confrontation and discussion, God gives us clear principles that we can apply to the situation. Even if those involved in the conflict fail to respond, we can rest in the knowledge that we have pleased and honored God by obeying his Word.

“Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58 NIV).

1Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.