The transformative power of conflict

Jen Bradbury
Jun 03 · 5 min read

For the next two weeks, we'll be talking about transformational moments in ministry: Moments that have transformed our faith or changed the way we do ministry. You'll hear from me today and over the the next two weeks, from several other women in ministry who serve in various capacities - some paid, some volunteer; some in youth ministry, some not – from different denominations around the world.

My first year in ministry, I was incredibly arrogant. Looking back, I see the irony in this. I was 22, new to full-time, professional ministry, and operating without a net and with very little training. I was fresh out of college and the proud owner of a Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering (just the degree that makes you well-qualified for youth ministry).

Even though I knew nothing, I was convinced I knew everything. Not only that, but I was convinced that my methods were the “right” way, the only way, in fact. I had little tolerance for anyone who disagreed with me, and very little desire to learn from anyone who's opinion differed from my own. As you can probably imagine, this attitude often resulted in conflict.

Lots of conflict.

In fact, I would describe my rookie year in ministry as being one in which I ran toward rather than away from conflict, over and over again.

Things came to a head just less than a year after I began my ministry at my first congregation, during my one and only summer mission trip with this group. In a week filled with repeated frustrations, things exploded after an evening talent show. During that talent show, students from my group did a goofy skit that among other things involved eating peanut butter from one another's arm pits. Meanwhile, students from other groups sang songs of worship and performed liturgical dance numbers.

Afterward, while processing the day with my students, one of my adult leaders shared how he had seen God in the heartfelt worship of other students during the talent show.

To me, the comment felt harmless.

But that's not how my students heard it. To them, it felt as though this leader was judging and condemning their worship; Telling them that some forms of worship were “right” while others were “wrong”. My students were devastated: Heartbroken and more than a little angry.

So angry, in fact, that that night, unbeknownst to me, multiple students called their parents, sharing this adult leader's comments with them and telling them how I had sat silently by and allowed him to make this hurtful statement.

Unfortunately, one of the parents who was called that night was also the head of the worship committee. The next morning, her first call was to my boss, the senior pastor. Rather than defend me or even ask what had happened, he immediately sent out a letter to the mission trip parents, inviting them to come and discuss the matter with him.

Meanwhile, back on the mission trip, it had become obvious to me that this comment had done damage among my students (though I still had no idea what was going on at home). Knowing this, I spent much of the next 48 hours meeting with students, listening, and apologizing. By the time our trip ended, we'd come together and experienced reconciliation and forgiveness as a team.

The problem is the same reconciliation and forgiveness had not simultaneously taken place at home. While parents had received frantic phone calls from sobbing kids hurt by this comment, they hadn't received any follow-up phone calls explaining how the situation had been resolved. As a result, when we returned to the church, I was greeted by angry parents and an irate boss, all of whom were convinced of my incompetence.

I wish I could say that after returning home, the same reconciliation and forgiveness that happened during the trip itself happened on a larger, wider scale among the congregation as a whole.

But I can't because it didn't.

Instead, this incident was the beginning of the end for me at this church. A few short weeks later, I left this church.

My once arrogant self had been thoroughly humbled.

It was a painful and devastating time for me.

Even so, I hate to think about who I would be today – as a person and a youth worker – if it were not for this painful time in my life. In so many ways, it was this moment that transformed both me and how I do ministry.

This was the moment that taught me ministry is hard; That churches can leave painful scars. Even though I take full responsibility for much of what went wrong in my tenure at this church, the truth is, I left wounded; deeply hurt by people I once counted as friends. Because of this, this was the moment that forced me to choose whether or not to continue in youth ministry, knowing just how difficult it could be. This was the moment that forced me to really wrestle with my vocation.

This was also the moment that taught me to value community and my team. It taught me to listen to things said as well as to things left unsaid. Through this experience, I learned the importance of conflict resolution. From that day forward, though I never avoided it, I never ran toward conflict again.

This experience taught me that I didn't know it all and that maybe, to be an effective youth worker, I don't have to know it all. Instead, this moment taught me the importance of humility and of approaching every situation and relationship with a posture of learning.

Finally, and no doubt most importantly, this is the moment that taught me to depend less on myself and more on God. This moment showed me that really, truly, God's “power is made perfect in weakness”; That it is our privilege to be called and used by God and that sometimes, our ministries may even bear fruit, but that when they do, it is always, always, God who deserves the glory, not us.

In short, this is the moment that changed me, that made me into the youth worker I am today.