One of the little-known facts about me is that once upon a time in the Air Force I was in munitions’ maintenance and transportation – in other words, I played with bombs. I was trained to work with conventional and non-conventional munitions (bombs, bullets, rockets, and missiles) and I had a pretty good understanding of them. Towards the end of my time in the service, I applied to become a bomb-disposal expert and the paperwork was being processed when a mishap between a forklift and my foot put an end to my aspirations.

Clearly, God had other plans for my future. However, I’ve found that the church is a great place for me to practice explosive ordinance disposal (EOD), especially in terms of conflict in the church. Like most of Western Europe, there’s no shortage of unexploded bombs and mines lurking just beneath the surface, except that in the church they’re buried just beneath people’s skin. Defusing these unexploded bombs seems to be almost as tricky as an EOD soldier defusing an improvised explosive device outside the Green Zone, and the results of setting off a conflict bomb in the church may have eternal consequences.

In the real world of EOD, whenever a bomb is uncovered, it’s critical to attend to it immediately. The effects of weather, acts of nature, and intentional or unintentional tampering can start a chain reaction that ends with “Boom.” When an EOD expert approaches an unexploded bomb they move very carefully, they’re as protected as they possibly can be, and they assess whether the device can be safely defused where it is or whether it needs to be removed for disposal elsewhere (which generally means the device is intentionally exploded in a safe place).

The same is true in the church. It’s critical when conflict is uncovered that it be attended to immediately. I’ve worked with far too many churches that were enduring the effects of some long-ago unresolved conflict that created a haunting spirit instead of quickening the Holy Spirit. A bomb had been discovered, but no one was willing to deal with it, so there it lay ticking in the middle of the sanctuary (board meeting, small group gathering, etc.) and everyone who saw it tippy toed around it lest it go off and take all of them with it. Defusing a bomb doesn’t get any easier as time goes by … in fact, the combination of time and the elements generally makes it infinitely more difficult to defuse. Ignoring or dancing around conflict won’t make defusing it any easier either. Time may cure all wounds, but it tends to complicate all conflict. In other words, if there’s a budding conflict in your congregation, do something about it now. If you procrastinate because you don’t like to deal with conflict or if you pretend it’s not really there, the unexploded bomb will start to tick … tick … tick.

Over the years I’ve uncovered three effective ways to defuse or disarm conflict. These aren’t original with me, but I can vouch for each one’s efficacy.

Start With Your Heart

There are a variety of ways church leaders approach conflict. The most common way, of course, is to ignore it and hope that it will work itself out. We’ve already established that won’t work, but that won’t stop some to continue being passive in the face of unpleasantness. Defusing conflict is messy.

Jesus gave us two very specific instructions on how to deal with conflict in the church. Those who follow his instructions tend to whip out Matthew 18:15–17 as the first step. However, long before Jesus uttered these words, he offered much better advice in the midst of his most famous sermon of all. In the Sermon On the Mount, Jesus tells his followers that if they realize that they’ve offended someone, it’s up to them to stop whatever they’re doing to go make it right (Matthew 5:22–24). Notice there’s nothing here about going to someone who offended you. That comes later. Jesus was far more adamant that we deal with our own bad behavior than he was in us dealing with someone else’s behaviors … something about logs and splinters comes to mind.

Most of the bombs in the church would never fall if, when we screwed up, we went to make it right. In my spirituality seminars I often relate that no one generally has to tell me when I sin. Turns out that the Spirit has a prior claim on my attention and reminds me over and over again when there’s something I did or didn’t do that I need to deal with. When I’ve shared that, most of the attendees nod their heads and agree that they too have experienced that phenomenon. In other words, most of the time when I’ve made a mess of things, I know it. And, according to Jesus, it’s up to me to make it right. But too often, I blink and rationalize that if I’d really offended them, then they’d say something to me. Wrong. That’s not the teaching.

Defusing conflict begins with you as the model and you as the teacher. Have the integrity to set things right when you’ve made a mess … and teach the congregation regularly that it’s our job to go get forgiveness, not to wait for others to come to us.

Live, Breathe, and Share the One-Anothers

According to some, there are over sixty One-Anothers in the New Testament. These statements are the basis for how we, as disciples of Jesus, are supposed to treat fellow disciples. Yes, we’re supposed to love our neighbors and even our enemies as well, but the One-Anothers are specific to how I’m to treat you and how you’re to treat me.

It’s not easy to live the One-Anothers in our society. Honoring one another over ourselves is counter to our culture. Submitting ourselves to one another seems almost treasonous in a nation dedicated to independent freedom. And then there’s that pesky command to confess our sins to one another. Love one another as Jesus loved us. Be kind to one another. Encourage one another. Accept one another. Stop passing judgment. Serve one another. Agree with one another. And the list goes on.

These aren’t suggestions. These are expectations. The first step to defusing conflict is to start living these expectations … and it begins with you. The church is sadly lacking in models who live the One-Anothers, so you might as well be one of the few. If you’re a church leader, and if you’re reading this you are, it’s incumbent on you to set the standard. If you’re not willing to live by them, don’t expect anyone in your congregation to do so either. The “Do as I say, not as I do” isn’t a Christian practice. Step up.

But you can’t stop there. Every congregation needs to develop that missing part of the DNA I call Expected Behaviors. I’ve written several articles on this and you can find them on my blog and in Net Results magazine. The key is to develop a concise bullet list of expected behaviors that the whole congregation agrees to adopt. Once these have been officially adopted, it becomes infinitely easier to deal with conflict, since you can legitimately say to someone who’s acting out, “You know, we agreed as a congregation that we’re not going to behave that way with each other.” If that doesn’t defuse the bomb, then you’ll want to move along to step three.

Last, But Not Least

The last resort, when Christians aren’t acting like disciples of Jesus (i.e., taking responsibility for their own stuff), is to put Jesus’ Last Resort Conflict Directives into practice: Matthew 18:15–17. In a perfect church, if someone “sinned against you,” the Spirit would tap them on the shoulder and they’d be on your doorstep bearing flowers an hour later. However, I’ve never attended the perfect church, so I’ve had to deal with these unexploded bombs pretty regularly. There are two kinds of these bombs. Ones that were aimed at me and ones that are aimed at the church in general. The personal ones are sometimes the most hurtful to deal with, but deal with them you must. However, the ones lobbed into the church can cause the most damage to the Kingdom. As the designated church leader, I was the one responsible for initiating Jesus’ Conflict Directives. If I waited until I had official board action, the conflict would most likely escalate. Besides, most of the boards I’ve had to deal with are more likely to advise “letting it go” rather than dealing with it. I have one word of advice for you: Don’t. Unexploded bombs aren’t going away on their own.

Step 1: One On One Defusing

Jesus said that if a fellow Christian sins against you that you should go and “point out the fault when the two of you are alone” (NRSV). Often I’ve heard this phrased like this: “Confront the conflict one on one.” The words “confronting conflict” might carry the correct etymological literal meaning, but confronting carries with it a good bit of negative baggage. No one wants to be confronted with their faults. When we’re confronted we naturally put up a defense. Instead, of confronting, when you have to go deal with a misbehavior it’s a lot more effective to presume the offender had no malice aforethought, but was instead responding out of their own fear or hurt. Most of the time, you’ll be correct in the presumption. It might have been bad behavior, but they weren’t necessarily trying to be destructive. Come with an attitude that inquires rather than confronts and you’ll generally get much further.

It’s also often safer to disarm a potential bomb by using “I Statements” rather than “You Statements.” Instead of, “When you accused the worship committee of neglecting the senior members of the congregation … ” own what’s yours (or what’s the church’s). “I was hurt when I heard that you may think we’re abandoning our commitment to our seniors.” This doesn’t put them on the defensive, but allows them to hear the effect they had on you and/or the church. You’ll get more traction with owning rather than confronting.

In the end, if there are contributing factors the church leader needs to address, they should take responsibility for them … and deal with them immediately (as mentioned above). However, if the fault rests in the acts of the offender, confession (“Yeah, I guess I did act out inappropriately”) and repentance (“I won’t let that happen again”) should follow. If so, in Jesus’ words, “You have regained the one.”

Step 2: Two On One Defusing

Here’s where the rubber starts hitting the road. If your one on one doesn’t produce fruit, then you must take the next step. If you don’t, the bomb will begin to seriously tick. This is when you go to your executive team/committee or your elders or your deacons. It’s not time to take the issue to the larger decision making body, but to confide in a few of your wise leaders. If you’re dealing with a church issue, they are probably already aware of the potential conflict. If not, make sure you fill them in. If their “wise counsel” is to put their heads in the sand and advise you to join them, make sure you nominate new counselors next year. However, if indeed they are wise counselors, they’ll likely invite whomever has the most influence and send the two of you to confront the offender.

In most circumstances, your counterpart should carry the conversation. “I statements” are still preferred over accusations, but this time out a firmer hand will more likely prevail. Most of the time … really  … the offender will capitulate and either they’ll be won over or they will at least put an end to their misbehavior. In my experience, most church folk are good people deep down and they really do want what is best for the Kingdom (but often with the proviso that they want what’s best for the Kingdom so long as it doesn’t affect them). To paraphrase Bill Easum, the point of this conversation is to either convert them or neutralize their behavior. Hopefully, the two of you will leave on good terms and with a commitment to behave appropriately.

Step 3: EOD 101

What happens when, despite your best efforts, the bomb not only continues to tick and even starts to tick louder and with more urgency? Then you’ll have to turn to the final step in Jesus’ Directive: Take the matter before the church. Listen carefully, though. This does not mean to take it to the pulpit or even to the general worshipping body. This is an issue for your key decision makers. If you have a small board/council/session, then this is where you make your stand. If you have a seventy member board, hopefully you’ve managed to get your executive team empowered to make the tough calls of Matthew 18:17. Taking the issue to the general church will likely do more damage than it will solve. Think faithful containment.

The final step is to practice explosive ordinance disposal. If the time bomb will not be defused, then it must be removed so that it does not blow up and cause collateral damage. Whomever is vested with the authority to exercise Matthew 18:17 should summon the offender to a meeting. If the offender attends, and you shouldn’t count on it, the members should fully review the issue and remind one another that the church has agreed on what is acceptable behavior. Point out the breach of the covenant and how the church leadership has followed Jesus’ Conflict Directives to the letter. Take some time to hear any defense or rebuttal, but even before they got to this point, the members should be clear about the expected resolution. When the conversation is complete, the offender must be given a choice. Either they cease and desist from their misbehavior, or they are no longer welcome at church events or functions.

I know, that sounds harsh. But the fact is, with 80 percent of all church transformations failing, and most of them failing because a very small minority derails the process, the future of your church depends on it. As we’ve said over and over and over again, the church is called to be faithful and kind. We were never called to put being nice above the work of the church.

Remember that Jesus is the model for defusing ticking bombs. He had no problem cutting people loose and inviting them make a decision about whether to be faithful followers or not. If they chose “or not” then they either went away “sorrowfully” or they were sent to “Go do what you have to do.” They were not invited to remain and hinder the Kingdom.

Defusing potential conflict is one of the absolute musts of the church, and leader … you’re the one it falls to. Either deal with it or find another vocation. Really. It’s that critical.