Note: This article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training resource Life-Changing Small Groups for Couples.
Picture this: it's Saturday night at couples' small group. Everyone has filled their plates and is sitting around munching and making nice conversation, when suddenly out of nowhere the embarrassing zinger, the digging barb, the snide remark sails across the room and smacks someone squarely on the cheek. Awkward!
So what's a group to do? Deal with it, says Sherry Burnham, Director of Small Groups at Lincolnway Christian Church in New Lenox, IL.
You Can Run, but You Can't Hide
No matter how you slice it, confronting someone's hurtful words or actions is difficult, even if you know and love the person well. According to Burnham: "It's natural instinct for most people to avoid conflict. In fact, people will go to great lengths to avoid conflict. They think, 'If I ignore it, it will go away.'" But it doesn't.
Conflict is conflict, and it needs to be dealt with biblically—especially within the context of small group. "Small group is a great place for couples to learn how to resolve conflict," Burnham explained. "They can witness each other do it, and they can have other people hold them accountable to doing it in a God-honoring way."
The biblical principles of conflict resolution come from Matthew 18, where Jesus addresses how to handle sin within the church. The first step is to go to the person who offended you (or who you offended) and seek forgiveness. "If a group member comes to me and has an issue with someone, the first thing I ask is, 'Have you gone to that person?'" said Burnham.
If no resolution comes from this face-to-face conversation, Burnham says the next step is to go to the small-group leader for help. "I would rather see the leader be a facilitator, not a fixer or a policeman," she explained. If no progress occurs using the leader as a mediator, the final step is to involve the pastoral staff.
Holding people accountable for their comments and behaviors is a value that grows out of small-group community. Ideally, the initial conflict resolution can happen "in the moment," during the group, and become a learning experience for all. However, Burnham did clarify that those immediate accountability conversations are more likely to take place in an existing group that has built up trust and rapport with one another. If it's a new group, or if people still don't know each other well, the leader needs to be proactive and encourage those involved to address their concerns with each other—perhaps being present to guide the conversation outside of group time.
It's Not You, It's Me
"I" messages become the language of love in successful conflict communication because they allow the offended person(s) to explain the hurt without going on the offensive. In a recent sermon series on marriage, Burnham said that they taught people dealing with conflict to say, "When this happens, I feel …."
"It helps people take control of their own emotions," she shared. When people explain how they are feeling and thinking without pointing fingers, it's easier for the offender to listen to the message instead of blocking it out. However, Burnham noted that sometimes "I" messages still aren't heard. "We are responsible for how we present things. We are not responsible for how people receive the message."
Where it gets tricky, though, is when the conflict occurs not within a couple, but between couples. Then the "me" can quickly become "us," with emotions doubling in intensity as spouses side with one another against another couple—even if one is the offending party. Leaders should try to let the group members address the issue but be prepared to step in and steer the conversation as needed.
"Resolution depends on the situation and the personalities," said Burnham. "There are times when you'll have one person who is rather volatile. I'll try to intercede as the leader to bring down the rhetoric, bring down the volume."
However, if the group is strong enough to address a negative incident between couples within the context of their meeting, Burnham said that fellow group members can describe or point out to the individual/couple what's inappropriate and help them find a way to verbalize what's going on without attacking the offender(s) or taking sides. That takes mercy and a lot of grace, but it can be done if the group does it intentionally, knowing they are being Jesus to each other in the process.
Leaders also need to be alert for times when spouses are on opposite sides of the issue. If the conflict does not get resolved in the moment at group, it's likely that the negativity will carryover into homes once people leave. Leaders should try to encourage a husband or wife who is faithfully trying to be supportive and reassure the spouse that group accountability is not individual betrayal.
When life becomes all about "me," people get focused on their own needs and wants, and, being human, we have a hard time giving those up. Especially when spouses live with one another day in and day out or couples see each other weekly at small group, it's easy to take the other person for granted. It's just as easy to know their vulnerabilities and how to exploit them when one person is feeling irritated or ignored. Learning to love one another with the heart of God, even in the midst of conflict, is challenging, but it's a value that the small group needs to uphold if they're serious about building authentic Christian community.
The Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth
Sometimes there are other factors going on behind the scenes which make couples act the way they do in public. From her years of professional experience, Burnham believes that alcoholism is a major contributor to dysfunction within marriages and even within small groups and churches. When alcohol is involved, confronting the immediate issue will be a bigger challenge because what the group sees is not the root of the problem, but a symptom of it. Leaders in these situations may need to call in additional pastoral support.
Similarly, another possibility when marital conflict goes public in the group setting is that abuse is going on at home. That abuse may be verbal, emotional, psychological, or physical and may play out in small group through belittling or controlling behavior. If a leader senses that something more pathological is going, he or she should try to talk to the victim privately or go to the pastor for help, Burnham said. While it doesn't happen often, leaders should not ignore any red flags or gut feelings that cause them concern.
Burnham also said the truth is that leaders shouldn't be surprised by conflict within a married couple or among couples in the group. It's human nature to occasionally annoy other people or have different opinions or ways of doing things. And actually, conflict is healthy when handled appropriately. "If I'm never confronted to look at my view of the world, it won't ever change or grow," she said. "Conflict is only bad when it doesn't get resolved."
The sad truth is, sometimes it won't. Not because the group didn't make a good faith effort to be accountable, but because the offender isn't ready for reconciliation. Burnham told a story about a situation in one of her small groups where one member was in the process of divorcing her husband. One night there was only one male present, the leader, and two of the other group members felt the time was right to challenge this other woman on some of the choices she was making during the divorce.
"I thought the whole thing was handled very well," Burnham said. "The two women were loving and supportive. Everything seemed okay. Well, after the meeting the other woman went and called the senior pastor and was very upset about the conversation. He then called me and said, 'What happened tonight?'"
The woman ended up leaving the small group and leaving the church. That was her choice, said Burnham, because the group desired reconciliation, but that feeling wasn't mutual.
"It's like that old saying," Burnham shared. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Conflict resolution involves honesty and a willingness to see another's point of view. Whether the conflict arises within a couple, between couples, or even between families in a small-group setting, it is a sin to let the conflict fester. Even if the initial response is embarrassment or hurt feelings, when group members hold another person accountable for his or her words and deeds, Burnham said that rebuilding relationships is the far more likely outcome: "Conflict resolution has more to do with the heart of the person involved and whether they're committed to restoration or being right."
—Rachel Gilmore is author of The Complete Leader's Guide to Christian Retreats and Church Programs and Celebrations for All Generations.