How to Keep Conflict From Ruining Your Small Group

The first thing we must address here is, what kind of small group/Christ-centered community are we talking about?  The kind that meet together once a week or two, discuss topics over coffee and snacks, and whose primary function is for its members to get their “spiritual food” for the week?  If this is the kind you hope for, then I’d recommend this first method for keeping conflict from ruining your small group…

Avoid it

If you want this type of small group to survive, make sure the atmosphere and content of your meetings stays in social space.  What does that mean?  Don’t let the small group’s interaction get too personal/intimate.  Keep it very mechanical.  Come prepared with what to talk about and stick to the program.

Avoid Conflict

Talk about your general thoughts about spiritual topics and the surface-y things about your lives.  Don’t interact outside of the meetings.  If relationships start to develop, make sure you set boundaries that won’t let them progress past a certain point.  Keeping your small group and the people in it a compartmentalized part of your life helps here.

Don’t try and make decisions together by consensus.  Assign a person to direct the group and make decisions for it.  If you disagree with their decisions or the group starts getting too personal/intimate, leave as soon as you can and find another group that won’t go there.  You’re looking for something that aligns more with an individualistic mindset, so leave before conflict arises and your departure is messy.  Your presence is just going to ruin what the group is trying to do.

Although you can probably sense a bit of sarcasm in what I’m saying here, it really IS good advice.  For many people, they really don’t desire close-knit Christ-centered community where your purpose and lives become intertwined over time.  They want more of a social club – a place to go to feed the social/spiritual compartment of their lives at regular intervals.  Or they want an emotional club – a place to go while people listen to them unload the emotions they feel.

If this is the case, the best thing we can do together is recognize it and react accordingly.  I would never tell a Christian who was serious about growing in Christ to avoid conflict, keep things at a social level and leave if relationships started growing.  But for some, this is what they want their “Christian life” to be.  If that’s the case, it’s best to just avoid small groups where this isn’t the case.

But, if what you hope for is something that will grow into Christ-centered community, then…

Expect it

You know how relationships are at the beginning.  All nice and rosy.  But that soon fades.  We all bring different perspectives, levels of maturity, baggage, etc.  Those are bound to clash eventually.  And if they don’t, that’s not a good sign.  Liken Dale Hunter says in The Art of Facilitation

Lack of any conflict in a group may indicate apathy, lack of interest, boredom, people feeling unsafe to share, and low self-esteem among group members.

Too often, small groups/Christ-centered communites are marketed as places where you can “grow closer to God and each other.”  The problem with this message is that people expect what that entails to be mostly feel-good experiences.  When they come in with those expectations, they’re already set up for failure.

Instead, people need to know this will be hard.  At times really hard.  Like marriage hard.

Manage Expectations

First, this allows people that aren’t up for that kind of thing to revert back to method #1 (avoid these kinds of groups).  Second, for those that stay, it sets the expectation of what’s to come.  Then when conflict does arise, they’re more likely to work through it and stick it out.

Prevent it

Wait…I just said conflict is going to happen.  How can I say we can prevent it then?

Of course, ALL conflict can’t be prevented, nor should it be.  But conflict that regularly arises around some of the more important issues like purpose, culture, boundaries, decision-making, and more can be by setting the standards at the beginning.  This doesn’t mean there won’t be times when these things have to be re-discussed and maybe adjusted a bit.  But when these things are agreed upon up front, it helps to curb some of the unnecessary conflict that might occur later on.

For example, let’s say someone comes to the group with an idea to do something.  Instead of throwing out opinions about the idea, the group can weigh the idea together against their already-established purpose, culture and boundaries.  Many times, it will quickly come to light if the idea fits.  If it does, the group can go through their normal decision-making process.  If it doesn’t, the idea is dismissed.

If there is disagreement about whether it does or not, then it’s important that decision-making standards were set at the beginning and not in the midst of the conflict.  It’s not time to start deciding the foundational processes and principles the group will operate by when emotions are running high.

If any members will not honor their commitment to the standards of the group, then it’s important the boundaries remain strong so the group is protected.  Allowing one person in one situation to get away with breaking the standards of the group becomes a slippery slope as time goes on.

Therefore, one of three things will need to happen…

  1. The group member(s) submit to the commitment they made to the group standards.  
  2. The group member(s) self-selects themselves out of the group.  
  3. The group holds its boundaries and doesn’t allow the group member(s) to participate until they are willing to submit to the group standards.

But again, in order to do this, you can’t just make up standards on the spot.  They have to be clearly communicated at the beginning, thereby setting member’s expectations so that no one is surprised when they’re enforced by the group.

Another way to prevent some conflict is to practice the one anothers.  You know…encourage one another, give to one another, serve one another, and so on.  When practicing the one anothers, it forms relational bonds between members that are stronger when conflict rears its head.  When it does, the strong relational foundation gives the members the strength to overcome it together.  They feel like loyal brothers and sisters to each other rather than just members of a group.  This makes it more likely that they’ll react to conflict by fighting for the relationship instead of against each other.

Recognize it

Even after you’ve done all the right things to help prevent conflict, it’s still going to happen.  And you want it to happen.  You need it to happen.  Getting all the issues out on the table is the only way you can have the opportunity to react appropriately.  It’s how the group and the people in it is going to grow.  You remember that cross Jesus said to pick up daily?  This is where it is.

Paying Attention

To do this, you have to be aware of what happens inside and outside of your meetings.  Listen to people expressing themselves.  Watch people’s body language.  If someone shares an opinion in a meeting and people disagree, you’ll be able to see it in their body language for the most part.  If someone shares something outside of the meeting about internal conflict they’re having with the group or someone in it, don’t shrug it off.  Take note of it so it can be dealt with.

If you notice something and aren’t quite sure if your perspective warrants attention, bring it to others outside of the meeting times.  Not in a gossip-y way, but in a way that clarifies feelings and perspectives before taking up group time with the issue.

Deal with it

When conflict occurs, make sure to attend to it at once.  If you don’t, one of three things will result…

  • It’ll simmer.  People will start bickering about each other; typically behind their backs to other people.
  • It’ll go underground.  People will become disengaged with each other.  They’ll lack energy and enthusiasm, avoid each other, indirectly attack each other and maybe even try and subvert each other’s efforts.
  • It’ll blow up.  If it gets to this stage, hurt and resentment will result from people saying destructive things to each other.

If you’ve made attempts to deal with it that were unsuccessful, don’t sweep it under the rug for later thinking time will help the situation.  Instead, bring in a skilled facilitator to help mediate the situation.  This is a third party that is skilled at handling conflict.  Bringing someone in from the outside helps to control the interaction between people that is leading to the issue not being resolved.

Remember, you and the members of your group are not good at relationships for the most part.  In school, you were taught math and science, but you weren’t taught relationship skills.  Asking you to build relationships by yourself is like asking you to build a house when you don’t know how to install electricity and plumbing.  Therefore, humbly ask for help from the outside.

Remember, every conflict has a Christ-centered solution if those involved are willing to humble themselves, listen to each other, accept the other’s thoughts and feelings, and compromise.  But most of us aren’t always mature enough to take this approach.  A facilitator can come in and set boundaries in conflict resolution by not allowing people to enter into interaction that isn’t productive, and leading those involved through processes that will resolve the conflict.

If the people involved aren’t willing to accept those boundaries and just want to be selfish and fight for themselves, it’ll likely end in fractured relationships no matter what you do.

Embrace it

If you truly want your small group to develop into Christ-centered community, you can’t try to avoid conflict.  You must embrace it.  If someone (or multiple people) are violating the purpose and culture of the group by their actions, they should be challenged by the rest of the group members.  This offers an opportunity.  An opportunity for everyone to express the peace, love and understanding of Christ to each other.

No matter what “side” each person is on, conflict is more about the reaction than the content.  It’s more about respecting that the other person has thoughts and feelings that are valuable than about what they’re actually saying.  Is what is said important?  Sure.  But in the end, what’s most important is that everyone was heard, respected and valued on the way to laying hold of the mind of Christ together.

Challenge Each Other

Yes, you want to work hard together to obtain Christ’s perspective in every matter.  To do that, everyone must come humbly before each other with an attitude that they may be missing it just as much as everyone else.  That Christ has a solution that’s outside of what any individual is bringing to the table.  That He has a solution that serves His body first and not any specific individual’s agenda.

But a word of caution about this.  It’s not wise to do this at the beginning.  At the beginning, relationships need to develop a foundation that will stand strong when conflict happens.  Something must be formed between individuals and the group as a whole before you start to challenge each other.  If you start challenging each other at the beginning, there’s an overwhelmingly good chance the group won’t last.

Conflict is a difficult thing for a group to deal with.  Just like a baby isn’t ready for the harsh conditions that life can bring when they first come into the world, a group has to have some time to grow to the point where conflict won’t destroy it.  So give it some time.  Keep the atmospheres of your meetings light for a while.  You’ll be able to sense as a group when the time is right.

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