By Danny Von Kanel
Small groups depend on member interaction. Yet the same interaction that leads to growth and healing can lead to anger that tears things apart. Differences of opinion, abrasive personalities, and unresolved anger can create a volatile mix that challenges any small group leader who seeks to maintain unity.
Through years of experience working with small groups, I have found six ways to neutralizing the potential for angry outbursts.
Know your enemy.
James 4:1 says, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (New King James Version). Sometimes we fight with other people because we are at war with ourselves and ultimately with God. James continues, “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (v. 4). Typically, enemies fight—not friends. The world and its system are Satan’s domain.
Satan is our real enemy. Scripture admonishes us in 1 Peter 5:8 (King James Version), “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” In The Satan Syndrome (Zondervan, 1990), Nigel Wright observes, “The thoroughly evil nature of the devil consists in the fact that with Satan we have spontaneous, self-generating sin expressed in pure defiance and pure arrogance.” Pride gives Satan a foothold. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, NIV 1984).
Jack, a middle aged husky gentleman, struggled with pride in our small group. When Bill, equally large in stature, made a critical remark about the boots Jack was wearing, Jack lost it. Only the grace of God kept fists from flying. Calming the group led to a discussion of underlying conflicts. Pride was an issue both men faced.
Consider if pride is an issue in your present conflict. If so, Satan is probably steering the debate. Humble yourselves before God, resist Satan, and he will flee from you.
Connect on an emotional level.
Healthy small groups connect emotionally. Yet, because people tend to keep issues buried because of past hurts and fear of rejection, they can explode at inopportune moments with angry outbursts.
Prevent such flare-ups by connecting emotionally. Ask questions and listen carefully. Don’t make accusations. Help group members understand. Assume nothing. Clarify issues. Encourage members to empathize with one another.
Marilyn was a new teacher whose style was strict, conservative, and authoritarian. Although I was the education minister, some members of her class confronted her without my knowledge and asked her to step down from teaching. From reports of the meeting, few emotional connections were made. Marilyn left the church soon after the confrontation.
Confront differences graciously.
Some small groups struggle to show empathy. If so, confront the issue head on. In doing so, ask members of the group to use “I” messages instead of “you” messages. For instance, say, “I feel hurt when you . . .” instead of, “You are to blame for the problems in this group.” The first approach is less threatening. The second is accusatory and causes members to put up defenses and retaliate.
Many common conflicts can be resolved this way. More serious issues can be addressed in this manner, but often require additional approaches.
Jesus Christ unites us. He’s our rallying cry. We would not exist as the body of Christ without him. A.W. Tozer wrote,
Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers [meeting] together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.
Gentle reminders help small group members understand it is not about us, but about Jesus. No disagreement, argument, or issue is worth bringing harm to the body of Christ.
Charman was different. Coming from a Pentecostal background, her views clashed with mine. We had some heated disagreements. But one thing kept us in fellowship and harmony. I never doubted her
love for Christ, nor she mine. Indeed, I learned much from her: how to pray fervently, worship without constraint, and love deeply. Looking back on the brief time she came in and out of my life, I realize we shared more commonalities than differences.
The apostle Paul said, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). Jesus made it clear: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). The psalmist described God as the one “who forgives all your sins and heals all your disease” (Psalm 103:3).
God heals broken relationships through forgiveness. It comes when we “Bear with each other and forgive . . . one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13).
Years ago I served in a church where a gentleman gravely mistreated me. Verbal abuse was his ammo. I knew I had to forgive him if I were to avoid bitterness. I chose to forgive. Nothing frees the human spirit like forgiveness.
Sometimes small groups just need the opportunity to make things right. Try this when your group faces conflict: Place two chairs in front of the group. Say, “I sense we have some members in our group who need to make things right with each other. While the background music plays, come and kneel at the chairs, pray, and restore the damaged relationship before you leave tonight.” Watch what God’s Spirit will do during that time.
Know when to separate.
Paul and John Mark separated this way:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work (Acts 15:36-38).
Though John Mark continued his ministry and later was at Paul’s side during his first Roman imprisonment, the two parted company on this occasion.
One thing many years of ministry have taught me is that not everyone can work together. Personality traits, temperament, upbringing, and leadership styles complicate relationships. When nothing else seems to work, the high road solution is to part company. Burn no bridges and treasure good times spent together.
Division need not wreak havoc in small groups. Understanding our real enemy, making emotional connections, using “I” messages, holding on to things in common, practicing forgiveness, and parting company as a last resort can help bring harmony out of division. The body of Christ deserves our best peacemaking efforts.
Danny Von Kanel is a freelance writer in Franklinton, Louisiana.
Advice From a Conflict Avoider
I don’t like conflict. I’m sure most people don’t. I avoid hard-to-talk-about issues. I want to be liked by everyone. Confronting people threatens their glowing perceptions of me!
To my own amazement, I confronted someone in my small group the other day. A few issues had been brewing. Some of his words rubbed me the wrong way. Some of his actions caused people to keep him at arm’s length. Yet I never found the right moment or the boldness to step in. Instead, I backed off.
That’s when it hit me: avoiding him wasn’t Christlike. If his behavior bothered me that much, I had to do something—for my sake as well as his. I didn’t want him damaging other relationships when a few small changes could significantly help his ability to communicate. I needed to be a true friend.
So I prayed. I wrote my remarks so I could communicate in love and in clarity instead of merely spewing all the frustration I felt.
I was nervous about his response. Anger? Denial? Thankfully, it was gracious acceptance. “I’ve noticed these same things lately, but I didn’t want to work on making changes,” he said. “Thanks for being willing to say something. Thanks for caring.”
Name withheld to protect a sheepish conflict avoider.