Why Conflict is the Deadliest Word in Missions

April 25, 2017

conflict mission field

“Often the real trauma is feeling mistreated, bullied, or discriminated against by our own fellow humanitarians, those who should be there to share the same values and ideals.” –Alessandra Pigni-

In general, conflict in relationships is one of the most difficult things to manage. This is especially true when serving overseas.

Team conflict with other missionaries and missions’ agencies can be especially devastating.

In my life coaching work, I hear stories all the time of heartache, frustration, and hopelessness surrounding these relationships.

In fact, a 1997 study by the World Evangelical Alliance found that conflict with peers was the TOP preventable reason North American missionaries leave missionary service.

Team conflict IS the deadliest word in missions.

In my time overseas, it was always conflicts with friends and peers that rubbed my soul the rawest. I wasn’t always good at it.

For a long time, I was afraid of it, afraid to lose people if I was honest. I would let things build up and then explode.

I found these interpersonal issues incredibly draining.

But over the years, I’ve developed more skills to deal with team conflict.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about how to do conflict on the mission field:

Forgiveness

I know, it’s the last thing we want to hear when we’ve been hurt. But before we come to someone with our grievances, we need to work through the issues in our heart. One of the ways you can do this is by writing a letter you’ll never send where you write out how the person hurt you, what you wish would have happened, try to understand their perspective, release the person from owing you anything, and ask God to see the gold in this person and what redeemable things you’ve learned from the circumstance. Then crumple or burn the letter. It’s amazingly therapeutic. I also love to imagine the scene where Jesus offers restoration to Peter by making him breakfast, even after Peter has abandoned him. This is the heart of grace, I try to have with others. Another thing you can try is filling out one of Byron Katie’s worksheets called “Judge Your Neighbor.”

Own your stuff

For most of us, the level of being triggered or hurt in a situation is directly tied to wounds or traumas we carry from the past. Realize that the wounding you are experiencing may go deeper than this person or this instance, and in fact be playing off past pain that God still wants to heal.  Conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Deal with your own fears about losing relationships if you’re honest and communicate your hurts and needs. Say where you are burned out or tired, or haven’t handled things well. See this situation as an opportunity to draw near to Father God for healing. Journal with Him and ask Him what He thinks of the situation and about your identity. He may want to heal something in your heart. Lastly, don’t be afraid to seek out counseling. 

Believe the best not the worst

Try not to make assumptions about the motivations behind someone’s actions. You might be surprised that the other person might be struggling or feeling rejected by you too. Perhaps they are stressed or fatigued. Try to have faith in them and think the best of each other. Most conflicts are misunderstandings. Try to ask questions and have curiosity. “Is this what you were meaning by this?” Try to appreciate each other’s personality differences. A good team activity would be to each take the Enneagram test and notice your strengths and weaknesses and how you work. This can help you appreciate one another’s unique skills. Really get to know each other! It will help in stressful times.

Seek Reconciliation

Don’t let small problems turn into big problems. Address things as they come up. Go to that person directly instead of other teammates and say “Hey, I’m feeling some distance between us…” It is a much higher call to make the relationship between the people in conflict my number-one priority rather than being right. To be compassionate means to be moved, deeply, by the state of another. In order to be moved by someone, we must struggle to understand his or her condition. It is a sign of spiritual maturity to be the first one to lay aside (if only temporarily) one’s own feelings in order to listen to someone else’s. An apology can go a long way. “I’m truly sorry I hurt your feelings. I value this relationship. Please tell me how you can feel safe.”

Healthy Communication

So often we can be so concerned with how we’ve been wronged that we are just waiting to get our words in to prove we are right. Stop for a moment and be fully present, and really try and hear what the other person is saying and the pain underneath their words.

Seek to understand them by rephrasing to ensure you’re getting it. Focus on behavior and events rather than personalities, “When this happens I feel…” rather than “When you do.” Focus on specific events versus generalities. “Our relationship is important to me. But when you don’t return my calls, I feel rejected and unimportant.” No one can read your mind. Communicate what you’re feeling and your needs in a humble, non-combative way.

Be Teachable

This means being willing to understand how someone’s been hurt, even when you are the one who has done the wounding. See every opportunity as one for growth. Ask the other person to suggest a solution to the conflict. Ask what you can both do differently to ensure the conflict doesn’t continue. Ask yourself what is this teaching me? How is God using this situation to sanctify me? Where do I need to change?

Recognize spiritual attack

Realize that Satan wants to wound you where you’ve already been wounded so that you will hide your true identity and not be authentic in relationships. He also doesn’t want you to fulfill your mission. Scripture tells us that “we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies” so always pray through disunity and discord together as this might be a ploy of the enemy. Maybe invite an unbiased third party in to help mediate and provide clarity and wisdom to a hurtful situation.

Build trust

People share concerns and criticisms when there is a relationship of trust. This means we won’t be judged harshly for sharing what we think and feel. We believe each other has the other’s best interests at heart. We believe we share a common vision for the work even though we have differences. Let them know you truly want to work things out with them and for things to get better. Building trust takes time and patience.

Pray for them

Don’t pray about them but for them. In this process, you will develop a sense of empathy for where they are at. It’s very difficult to stay mad at someone you are praying for.

Surrender

In the end, we can’t always fix every relationship. Trust the Lord to work things out. It’s important to have boundaries, to know what you can and cannot do or handle, and to know when those are being violated. Don’t remain in an extended toxic work environment. We can’t control people. We might want someone to open up to us or forgive us but we cannot force them to. As sad as it might be, sometimes we might have to back off and let the Lord do the healing work of reconciliation in hearts. Release them, but keep your heart open, do not let it grow hard. In the end, God can do more than we can to bring restoration.

How have you learned to deal with team conflict?

**(If you’re struggling with pain over team conflict you can always reach out to me for inner healing)

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