The mere mention of it makes our stomachs churn, and our palms sweat. We don’t want to deal with it, we get hurt by it, and it’s just plain unpleasant. The sad thing is that we missionaries face it a lot. In our training, I learned the surprising fact that the number one reason missionaries leave the field is that they can’t get along with other missionaries. That’s right...it’s not the food, not the language, and it’s not even adjusting to the culture. It’s the other missionaries.
I think we all know that this is a sad, but true, reality. We’ve heard horror stories of missionaries burned by their fellow missionaries, or by their sending agency. We’ve also heard of sending agencies disappointed by their workers on the field. Many of you have probably experienced this, or know someone who has. Maybe you are even “getting burned” right now.
The question is why are so many missionaries hurt by other missionaries? Well, I hate to break to all of you, but missionaries are sinners. We sin against other people, and we get sinned against. We are all broken people in need of grace and there is just no way around that. We need to recognize that, own that, and be gracious to every other broken person that shares this planet with us.
But that statistic about missionaries is still out there, so we have to ask what makes conflict on the mission field such a deal breaker? First off, the stakes are high. The call to missions is one that requires loss and sacrifice…loss of home, familiar culture, and support systems. After giving up so much, the cost of failure is great and often missionaries may perceive that others are getting in the way of their “mission” or their “calling.”
Second, I think that many missionaries are people who push the envelope, who get in the action, who like to be breaking into new territory and conquering new frontiers. I distinctly remember one of our missionary trainers saying something like, “With so many John Waynes on one team, there is bound to be a shoot-out.” This is right “on target.” We have egos, and we get offended. We get annoyed when our agendas get sidetracked, or our pride gets bruised. We live in a pressure cooker of language learning, fund-raising, and really, really bad traffic. So we fire away and in the process we get hurt, and we hurt others.
But can we find any positives when we are facing conflict? Is there a way to deal with it, and maybe even be better for it in the end?
I just want to share a ffew practical steps for how to cope when you are stuck in a "shoot-out."
1. Deal with it. Avoiding conflict is a bad idea, and usually causes more problems for everyone involved. It’s human nature to avoid unpleasant circumstances. Things go unsaid, tension builds, and a silent volcano is ready to explode just beneath the surface. Suddenly something triggers an eruption and words are said, bridges are burned, and damage is done. Don’t hold it in. Deal with it, face it, and resolve it.
2. Go directly to the person involved. If you have a conflict, talk to God and talk to the person involved. Matthew 18:15-20 is well known by many people…it’s the Gold Standard for conflict management. But do we practice it? I claim to follow it, but how often do I call my mother or my friend to talk about the person I have conflict with before I even bother to talk to the person I’m complaining about? The Bible is telling us to go to the person involved before everyone else. We cannot control someone’s reactions, and eventually others may need to be involved, but initially we need to confront the person who has offended us.
3. Be humble. If you want to have a healthy conflict where everyone benefits, then you must go through it in humility. Pride is the source of so many problems…from conflicts with God, to conflicts in our marriages, to conflicts with co-missionaries. If you go into a conflict with “winning” as your number one priority, then you will end up losing. Every time. Seek to understand where the other person is coming from, pray for them, and open yourself to being used by God to build them up through the experience.
4. Don’t hold grudges. Do your very best to resolve the conflict in a calm and loving way. Forgive, and don’t hold it against the person. We have been forgiven so much by God, that we don’t have a right to withhold forgiveness from others. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the famous passage on conflict is followed by the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18: 21-35). When we realize how much we have offended God it becomes easier to forgive others. Don’t leave things open-ended, but seek to resolve the conflict, forgive the others involved, and move on. Even if you cannot find a common ground and you must part ways, you can still do so in a spirit of forgiveness.
5. Hold on to your integrity. In Romans 12:18 Paul exhorts us with these words: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” As much as we can, we need to be at peace. Even in a conflict, we need to hold on to our integrity and not stoop to back-stabbing and name calling. We cannot be responsible for someone else’s actions, but we can be responsible for our own actions and the witness we bear for Christ in the middle of a conflict. Your integrity in difficult moments speaks volumes about your relationship with Christ. Don’t forget that in the middle of the conflict, other people are watching and waiting to see how you will respond.
6. Embrace it as an opportunity for growth. Okay, this one is a lot easier said than done! Have you ever noticed how much the Bible talks about suffering to grow, and walking through painful circumstances to grow in character? Well, conflict is kind of the one-stop shop for character growth…humility, self-control, suffering, and pain all wrapped into one experience! Through conflict, we have a choice to grow in bitterness and anger or to grow more like Christ. Jesus Himself was misunderstood and falsely accused. We can rejoice in moments when that happens to us because that is when we truly learn to identify with Christ.
The truth of it all is that our world is broken, and it has been damaged by sin. That is why we are on the mission field anyway, right? If we are going to engage that world we are going to run into conflict. Period. Remember all the John Waynes out there? There is no other path but right into the fight sometimes, and we need God’s perspective on what to do when we are in a shoot-out. I know this is tough, and I’m writing about it because I’ve been walking through conflict myself recently and I’ve been learning a lot about what not to do.
Conflict hurts but I encourage you to hang in there. Keep your eyes open to what God is showing you. These moments of hurt and struggle are often the moments when God shows up big time and does serious work in our lives. Just maybe someday we can look back and thank Him for it.
So…what are your thoughts about missionaries and conflict? What advice to you have for those who are in the middle of it right now?