Conflict in a small group presents opportunities for Satan to divide, but also for group members to grow. The question is not "Will our group have conflict?" but "How will we handle our conflicts?" The answer to this question will depend on the nature of the conflict and who is involved.
When the Conflict Is Between Group Members
Jesus offers some practical steps for solving conflict between individuals:
- Disagreement should first be handled by the individuals involved, and should be addressed outside of the group meeting. This situation is governed by Matthew 18:15, where Jesus advised those who have differences to begin by endeavoring to work them out privately. Admittedly, this is the toughest way to approach differences, but if this step is taken seriously, anger and disunity usually melt away.
- If a private conversation is unsuccessful, the disputing individuals could approach other group members and ask them to play some kind of mediating role in resolving the conflict (Matthew 18:16).
- If the individuals still cannot work it out, they might ask their small-group leader to play the role of arbiter (Matthew 18:17a).
- In extreme cases, if the above steps do not result in resolution, it may become necessary for the group leader to ask an offending person(s) to take a break from the group until healing comes. Sometimes the health and survival of a whole group cannot be sacrificed for one or more stubborn individuals.
What if the differing individuals are married to each other? If the couple's hearts are submissive to Christ and they desire healing, the group may choose to gather around them and walk with them through the crisis. However, most small-group members and leaders are not professional counselors, and in thorny situations the couple may need to go beyond the help of peers and seek Christian counseling.
When the Conflict Is Between Group Members and the Group Leader
On the one hand, small-group leaders have been given a position of authority by the leadership of the church. And any leader should be regarded with the respect suggested by Scripture. On the other hand, small-group leaders are human beings, and sometimes they get off track—or may be perceived by one or more group members as being off track. This can result in a strained relationship between themselves and group members.
It is always awkward when group members reach a place where they feel they need to confront their leader. If approached by group members, a leader should resolve to be the stronger Christian and listen without becoming defensive. Matthew 18:15 is also a good place to start in this situation—speaking the truth in love to each other as individuals. Hearing something face-to-face over a cup of coffee is always truer and more fruitful than our speculation about another person's motives assessed from a distance.
If the group leader and group members cannot get the conflict worked out, it may be time to sit down together with the director of the church's small-group ministry, or with a pastor.
When a Small Group Is At Odds with Church Leadership
The spirit of Hebrews 13:17 can be applied here. A small group should never distance itself from the church over a difference with church leaders. The Bible consistently portrays divisiveness as a grievous offense to the unity of the church. Healthy, frank, and loving conversations between church leaders and members can be beneficial to both, and should provide sufficient resolution to such conflicts.
—Rick Lowry is the Small Groups Pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Newburgh, Indiana. Copyright 2008 by the author and Christianity Today International.