There are seasons of incredible joy in ministry, and there are inevitably seasons where conflict rears its ugly head and needs to be dealt with. I have come to believe that failure in the season of conflict—failure to deal with it, failure to learn from it, failure to move beyond it—prevents entrance into a new season of joy. For that reason alone, I have tried to handle conflict in the best possible way. Two verses tucked away in Proverbs 26 have been very helpful to me, and I have been reminded about them again just recently. On the page they look like a contradiction, but in real life they work together like hand and glove, if you let them. Here’s the first one to master:
Proverbs 26:5 “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
Answer the fool—he thinks he’s so smart, has it all figured out in his brashness and needs to be set straight. Do your job, don’t fear the fallout. Tell him directly and with kindness what his folly is and why his insolence or block-headed pride or denial are destroying him. Step up to the plate and take one for the team. There is nothing worse than a fool on the loose, and they can devastate any organization or ministry. Do your job, stop the fool in his tracks and set the fool straight. OK? Just do it!
The problem is, fools do not like to be set straight. Which leads to the all-important balance of the proverb in closest proximity.
Proverbs 26:4 “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”
Fools are fools for a reason, and it’s not because they are deaf or blind; it’s because they are dull of hearing. Just one verse earlier we are told, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.” And knowing that we cannot bring the rod to bear upon a fool in our churches, we try to ‘bring the rod’ with many words. This has been one of my greatest errors in ministry. Becoming a fool to try to get a message to a fool about their foolishness. Have you ever heard yourself doing the same? Have you seen yourself stooping to the level of foolish arguments? Have you felt yourself allowing the intrusion of pride? Have you heard your own tone rising to meet the challenge of a fool? Beware your noblest attempts to get a fool what he wants least of all, truth! Sometimes we care too much and end up playing the fool while trying to help a fool. I know that I have tended to overestimate my ability to change the behavior of others. One thing we have learned through much pain and many failed attempts to fix a fool: “When you want it for someone more than they want it for themselves, it’s not going anywhere good.”
Putting these two verses together, I have returned often to this principle: “Tell them once with clarity and brevity. Anything more than that draws us into the web of folly.” I have known this for a long time, but an emergency meeting Saturday night, a surprise conversation in the hall between services, an email that should not have been sent, no matter how well intentioned—all dealing with different issues in the church, all together reminding me of a lesson I return to again and again.
Say it once, clearly and lovingly. Anyone seeking wisdom will get the message and benefit. Fools will argue, debate and blame-shift—and if you don’t get off that train in a hurry, you will become a fool trying to help a fool and that doesn’t help anyone.
Proverbs 26:4-5. Put them together in a season of ministry conflict and you can look forward to another season of joy, just ahead.