Embrace Conflict in Your Small Group!

Because ignoring a problem is the worst thing you can do.

If you lead a small group, sooner or later you will have to deal with conflict in it. Unfortunately, conflict is a surefire consequence of people really sharing life together. Why? Because you cannot bring together a room full of people from different cultural, social, economic, religious, and family backgrounds and expect them to always agree on every issue.

The truth is, conflict can be healthy if it is dealt with the right way. In my experience, the biggest mistake small-group leaders make when dealing with conflict is ignoring it and hoping it will go away. It won't go away just because you want it to, and if you try to ignore it, it will often create division within the group as people begin to take sides. Simply put, when conflict happens in your small group, it needs to be dealt with in your small group.

How do you deal with it? If the conflict is not too severe, which is usually the case, it can be dealt with during the group by just asking that cooler heads prevail. Talk out the issues that started the in the first place. If that happens, then it is not a big deal and you move on. However, if the conflict escalates, it may need to be dealt with privately, away from the group, before it can be resolved in the group.

Here is the model we use when teaching small-group leaders how to deal with conflict in their groups.

Step In

The first thing the leader needs to do is step in and stop the conflict before it gets out of control. This is critical to the healing process because it keeps the conflict from getting personal. Once the conflict has already happened, and it cannot be resolved in the group, you have two options.

  1. If cooler heads have prevailed, you can ask each party to stay after the meeting to discuss the conflict and to try to seek some resolution. The success of this depends on how intense the conflict was. In most cases, the problems can be worked out fairly easy. However, if the conflict got out of hand, resolution may not be possible until the parties involved have had time to cool off. If that is the case, the second option may work better.
  2. If you are not able to find resolution after the group, call each party individually the following week and have a discussion about what happened. Giving the parties time to cool off and think more clearly will usually be a catalyst for healing. Remind each person that the truth almost always lies somewhere between the two sides, and each person may have to give a little so that resolution can happen. Usually a resolution can be accomplished by talking the issue out, but sometimes the parties involved may just have to agree to disagree, which is fine as long as the conflict is resolved. Both parties need to see that resolution must happen for the benefit of the entire group. If possible, get both parties together prior to the next group meeting so that everything is dealt with privately before it is dealt with in the group.

Once the problem has been solved, the next step is to discuss it in the group. Do not just hope the problem will go away on its own. If it happened in the group, discuss it in the group. Openly discussing the process of resolution with the group can be a great teaching tool that may keep the same kind of conflict from happening again.

Tough Love

Leading is not always easy, and sometimes you have to step in with some tough love. If one of the parties is not the least bit interested in finding a resolution to the conflict, they may have to be asked to leave the group, regardless of who started the conflict. The conflict must be resolved, and the group must be a part of that resolution, or the future long-term health of the group will be affected.

Of course, nobody ever wants to have to remove someone from the group, but you cannot sacrifice the rest of the group because one person is not willing to resolve the issues at hand. But if you find yourself in this situation and you are unwilling to deal with the problem person because it is too hard, you will look up one day and find yourself leading a group with no one left but the problem person because, one by one, everyone slowly disappeared.

Conflict does not have to occur at the group for it to have the same effect as if it happened during the actual meeting. If people from the group are in the midst of conflict, it affects the group regardless of when or where it occurred. The same path to healing works whether it happens during the group or outside the group.

Practical Tips

Here are some things a leader needs to know when going into conflict resolution:

  1. Do not take sides! If you do, you will not be able to keep an open mind while leading the healing process. Both parties will be hurting from the conflict and that will blur their ability to see the situation except from their own point of view. Stay neutral so you are able hear both viewpoints.
  2. When confronting, it is important to know that how you say something is just as important as what you say. Successful conflict resolution requires patience and grace. If you lead with patience and grace, people will listen to you even when you are speaking a hard truth into their lives.
  3. Not all conflicts can be resolved, and often leaders are devastated by their inability to fix the problem. Remember this: you do not have the ability to change a person, only God can do that. If you have led with grace and love in trying to find a solution to resolve the conflict, and someone is not responding, then you have done all that you can do. You must move forward for the sake of everyone else in the group, even if it means moving forward without one of the parties. Removing someone is always hard on a leader, so be careful. You don't want to find yourself focusing on the ones that left instead of the ones that stayed.

What will keep conflict from destroying your group is an open and honest discussion about what happened. Whether resolution happened and both parties returned, or whether one or both parties left because of it, take time to talk it out with the group so they feel like they have been a part of the solution. Believe it or not, conflict often ends up drawing a group closer together.

You may be hoping I am wrong and this kind of stuff will not ever happen in your group. But I'll say it again: if you lead a group long enough, sooner or later you will experience conflict.

"But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food" (Acts 6:1, nlt). The only difference between people of the Bible and people today is language and culture. People are people regardless of when or where they lived. And if the early Christians were dealing with conflict, there is a pretty good chance that we will, too.

John Atkinson serves on the management staff at Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he oversees all of the church's Discipleship/Care ministries. John is the author of Go Big with Small Groups.

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