Full Court Press: Tools for Pastors and Other Leaders in Times of Conflict

Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 10:16, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." The Charles Wesley hymn "And Are We Yet Alive" (which used to be sung at the beginning of every Annual Conference) sings in verse 3,


What troubles have we seen, What mighty conflicts past, Troubles without and fears within, Since we assembled last.

Let's begin by stating the obvious. The context of our ministry as pastors and congregations is deep partisan division, with little room in the center for compassionate interaction and little creativity to find "third places" where people can come together in search of fresh direction. It is a hazardous time to be in ministry (with personal and church casualties), and we find ourselves disoriented, disappointed, knocked down, and fearful. While fighting theologically, the people called Methodists are methodologically reflecting the violence and the polarizing culture around us. Those outside the church, as well as many within, find that obvious. In such an atmosphere, how shall we function? If we retaliate, we will be seen as hypocritical, further damaging our UMC witness, which the division has already done, particularly with the next generation. If we merely function with "soft skills," we will become casualties ourselves and our churches. This is a time to be contenders for the faith in truth and holy love. We may need a campaign entitled #UMCtrue.  
This blog entry is the first of eight articles that will appear weekly on my blog at the Smith Center. My dad was a basketball coach for our church in my formative years. I was the scorekeeper. But more, dad and I played one-on-one basketball on a dirt court until dark through high school, and I learned fundamental life lessons about "staying in the game." They serve me well, so I pass them along as reminders of what you already know. My friends in Christ, in basketball language, we face a full-court press and must be better equipped than we are.

The first and most important lesson is the one you and I will want to return repeatedly. Listen to the coach. In John 15, Jesus teaches us to abide in Him, as branches from a vine, saying ever so bluntly, "without me you can do nothing" (vs. 5b). Don't skip your quiet time, as rest and good soul nutrition is your most important tool, so that you might not only survive but thrive (along with the congregation and community you serve).  

Follow the pattern of Jesus and take time away to pray and get away from the fray. Read the Word. Pray and listen for God's voice. Still the noise and find peace in the storm. This is often the first thing that goes into conflict because our time is taken, and our energy is zapped. The coach has the best view of you and what is happening in the game. As we read in Proverbs 3:5, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your understanding." This is the time to fine-tune the ears of your mind, heart, and spirit to the coach's instructions and philosophy.   

Questions for reflection: 

  1. Who are you listening to? The voices of the panic-stricken voices of disciples around you, the angry critics, the opinions of self-proclaimed experts? Or are you listening to the voice of God offering you peace of heart and mind? 
  2. Are you feeding your fears and inadequacies or feeding your confidence in the sustaining grace of God?

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