The Male Church Leader's Guide to Female Conflict Resolution
- 2009 23 Jan
Editor's Note: The following is adapted from Kelley Mathews' & Sue Edwards' new book, Leading Women Who Wound (Moody, Feb 2009). Used with permission.
I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I say also to you, true companion, help them. They have struggled together in the gospel ministry along with me and Clement and my other coworkers, whose names are written in the book of life.
Women’s conflict in the early church
Two women were bickering in Philippi—women Paul knew personally. They had “struggled together [with Paul] in the gospel ministry.” They were insiders, respected friends, true believers, and he cared enough to be grieved by their conflict and address the situation in his letter. What divided them? We don’t know. But we know that the issue was serious, probably a threat to the unity of the church. News of the dispute traveled all the way to Rome, where Paul was under house arrest. In verse two, Paul appealed to the male leaders to negotiate their conflict, to help these women “agree in the Lord.”
Women’s conflict in church today
Just like in Paul’s day, male leaders today often find they are called to help women make peace. If you are a male leader, people in your ministry will cause conflict, and some of them will be female. When women in your ministry spar, you should care. And because you are sometimes called into the middle of these disputes, you are wise to prepare. An undisclosed part of your job description is the task of intercessor, peacemaker, and negotiator for women.
In our experience, male ministers tend to handle conflict without taking into account the gender of the parties involved. Big mistake. Men and women process conflict differently. Of course, Matthew 18:15-17 applies to both men and women. But ignoring the gender factor as you attempt to negotiate differences can severely hamper your effectiveness and lessen the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Do you understand basic differences in the way men and women process conflict? If not, your effectiveness will be compromised. You will be expecting women in conflict to act like men, and when they don’t, you will be surprised and frustrated. Hopefully, knowing some of the differences in a woman’s approach to conflict will make you more skilled at female negotiation. The result will enable you to sidestep all kinds of turmoil and heartache.
It’s personal Research studies affirm differences in the ways the sexes respond to conflict. For example, boys on the playground fight about twenty times more than girls, but they often become good friends with these adversaries after the disputes. Girls experience less conflict, but when they fight, they do not become friends later. Bad feelings run deep and last a long time.
We observe the same patterns in ministry. Without intervention, often women’s disputes can quickly escalate and become personal. They take an attack or challenge on their ministry or a particular action as an attack on their person. They become wounded at a rejection of their behavior, often projecting it into a rejection of themselves.
Men may see these feminine responses as immature and silly, but they are typical, even in women who are spiritually and emotionally mature. Seasoned women still wrestle with their flesh, especially when their emotions are in high gear.
Note the example of the women in Philippi. These women were respected workers and possibly leaders. But they struggled to resolve their disputes, probably because they felt the breach so deeply. The personal nature of women’s conflicts makes the dispute more challenging to resolve than most men’s conflicts. The personal nature of women’s disputes requires special strategies when you are called to help them make peace.
Give them time... lots of time
Yes, you are busy and loathe hearing details. You want to get this thing over and done with so you can get back to the important topics on your agenda. But if you really want to help these women, and you really want to avert a serious conflict in your ministry, you are going to have to bite the bullet and give them time… lots of time.
Consider the nature of the dispute. If they are arguing over a date on the calendar, and this is their first disagreement, then resolution may come quickly. However, if tension between them is long-standing, involving a series of offenses, then your job will be more challenging. The longer the dispute has festered, the more time needed for healing.
Because men can segregate the conflict from other issues, reconciliation usually comes quicker. Men usually can duke it out and then go out to lunch as if nothing ever happened. You won’t find this pattern with women. For women, the issue is layered, and unless you address the layers, it is not over. Women may need space—they may not be ready to let go after just one session. The process may require stages—a time to listen and talk, and a time at home to consider what they heard and to decide how to respond. The slow rate of progress may make you crazy, but if you show your frustration, the women will know. They may try to hurry past important milestones that short circuit true reconciliation. So slow down and give women time and space so that you won’t have to revisit the conflict in the future.
Pray Most Christian women want to please God. Capitalize on their emotional bond with Jesus to counter the emotions that may have overcome them in the conflict. Pray for these women—in their presence. Your words may help them regain their equilibrium and perspective. An intercessory prayer may help convince them of your commitment to their wellbeing.
Listen First, Fix Later Many times, to resolve a dispute between women, a man must start by being quiet. He should listen first, and long. Asking questions may help the women talk out their point of view, their “take” on the issue. And while they are seeking a solution from you, they may come across it themselves. Usually when a conflict has reached your office, it is tangled and complex, which requires more than a directive from you that will “fix” the problem. So be prepared to listen and ask questions.
Initially these women need to talk about the facts of the disputes and how each interprets those facts. They need to see through the other’s lenses and to understand how each one hurt the other. If you jump in with advice too soon, you will short circuit the process and hinder real reconciliation. Take time to get to know the women involved, especially if they are strangers. Can you hear insecurities in their dialogue? What do you know about their background that plays into the issue? Can you discern their emotional state? How deep is the dispute? Watch body language and tone of voice. Keen listening skills will help you create an effective strategy for this particular situation.
Consider identity issues
When some women are criticized, their identity is threatened. The weaker their self-image, the more likely they are to exaggerate the criticism in their own minds. As a result, they may take the criticism to heart and see themselves differently. You may observe hypersensitivity, fear, and even depression, uncharacteristic of this woman before. This kind of negative thinking impedes a woman from healthy interaction in the reconciliation process.
If you observe imbalance and extremes in a woman’s behavior, demeanor, and body language, help her understand that she may be experiencing an identity crisis. Teach her that we all make mistakes and have much to learn. Show her that the Bible helps us ground our identity in Christ—the only One who will never disappoint us. She must learn to perform for an audience of One.
Teach women to be more direct in their communication
The tendency of some women to be indirect in communication hinders them from working through conflict effectively. If you observe this communication style either in the negotiations or in behavior that caused the conflict, point out this tendency and the problems this causes. Challenge them to be direct, but do so with a gentle spirit and kind words unless you sense a hard heart and rebellious spirit. Then a firm, strong disciplinary style is appropriate and sometimes required.
This is especially true if you sense that one or both are emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. Marshall Shelley refers to these people as “dragons” in his excellent book, Well-Intentioned Dragons, Ministering to Problem People in the Church (Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1985). If you are working with a dragon, you may want to read this book, but remember it is written from a male perspective and will not always apply when you are overseeing a negotiation with women.
Teach women to stop avoiding conflict
Many women are master “avoiders.” They see conflict as a threat to relationships, a precious commodity in most women’s lives. Help them understand how avoiding conflict leads to serious consequences that actually endanger relationships instead of preserve them.
Teach women that Matthew 18:15-17 applies to them too
If, after listening to both sides process through the issue, you see sinful patterns of gossip, avoidance, slander and the like, point them to Matthew 18. Teach them the “pure milk of the Word” even if you think they should already know it. Help them understand that you are not taking sides, but that you are committed to biblical standards. And you expect them to do the same. Help them see that their particular controversy is not the exception and that sidestepping Matthew 18:15-17 is sin.
Stay on point
Wounded women tend to wander wherever their emotions take them. Be ruthless in bringing them back to the facts of the issue. Once the facts are clear, give each woman all the time she needs to tell her side of the story and how she was impacted by the situation. Challenge each one to listen without creating responses in her head. Guide the women to mutual empathy and understanding. Ask them to summarize what they are hearing or do so yourself.
Include a trusted woman if appropriate
Sometimes women can hear what men cannot, especially when other women are involved. If you struggle to grasp the intricacies of the situation, consider asking a woman on staff or a female counselor to join you. However, she must be the right woman. She must be neutral, above reproach, and able to keep a confidence. One advantage of bringing women on staff is that they serve as capable partners in the peace process with women.
Exclude spouses if possible
Spouses are usually aware of the dispute, and they should be. But their attendance at the peacemaking table is not a good idea. Most spouses find it almost impossible to remain neutral and their very presence adds an extra level of tension in the room.
Are you a bull dozer? Forceful, in-your-face male leaders can scare women so much that the peace process is shackled. Do not be timid in your approach but a gentler tone of voice is usually more productive with women.
When is it over? How do you know when true reconciliation has been achieved? Your goal is to help each woman understand and empathize with her opponent. Do they both see things through the other’s eyes? If so, you are making progress. Do they each realize how the other feels and have they both honestly asked for forgiveness? Do you need to hammer out a practical plan together that will pave the way to lasting peace and put the issue to rest?
With women, it is often hard to tell if they have really buried the hatchet. Follow up questions offered a few weeks or months later may be helpful to ensure that the issue is not bubbling to the surface again, about to erupt. Is the conflict over? Are they moving on? The women will probably appreciate that you cared enough to check up on the status of the issue.
Just as Paul instructed the male leaders in Philippi to intervene in the women’s dispute in their church, God may use you to help women in your ministry make peace. We don’t know the outcome in Philippi. Neither are you guaranteed favorable results. But experience has shown us that when male leaders involve themselves in the process, women listen. Most Christian women highly respect the men who serve God in their church, especially when these men show that they value women as sisters and appreciate their contributions. You can make the difference!
Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too.
Kelley Mathews, Th.M. (Dallas Theological Seminary), married and blessed with three young children, spends her spare time freelancing as a writer and editor. She served several years as the Women’s Ministry Director at Rowlett Bible Fellowship. Her newest book release is Leading Women Who Wound (Moody, Feb 2009), which can be found on her web site www.newdoors.info.
Sue Edwards, D.Min. (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Dallas Theological Seminary. Her heartbeat is to reinforce ministry partnerships between men and women, which strengthen church and parachurch organizations locally and worldwide. She has 30 years of experience in Christian education and Bible teaching, directing women’s ministry, retreat and conference speaking, training teams and teachers, overseeing staff, and writing curriculum. As former pastor to women at her local church she experienced healthy men and women partnerships on staff, and her passion is to pass on what she has learned. She is the author of New Doors in Ministry to Women and Women’s Retreats: A Creative Planning Guide. Married to David, she especially enjoys romping with their four grandchildren. Dr. Edwards’s research and teaching interests include women’s epistemologies and leadership styles.
Original publication date: January 23, 2009