When we ignore conflict or leave situations where it occurs instead of facing up to it, we take ourselves with us. As Yogi Berra rightly said, “Wherever you go, there you are.” In other words, though you have a new context, you still bring your self into it, and if you are the true cause of conflict, that conflict will show up again. Leaders are often willing to change jobs, churches, roles, and even geographic locations, but not themselves.
Amazingly, God has a loving way of bringing similar people and situations back into our lives to teach us the lessons we choose to ignore. More than any other priority he has for us as believers, it is his loving desire and purpose to develop within us the character of Christ (see Romans 8:29— the very passage that follows the promise of God using all for good). Character development is a prerequisite course in Christianity. If we choose to withdraw ourselves from the class, God will automatically enroll us in a new one. The people may be different; the context may be different; but God will bring the same conflict our way—or better said, he will again attempt to reveal the conflict that was within us the whole time. As Walt Kelly wrote years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”[i]
Leaders who do not learn the lessons found in conflict end up repeating the same mistakes over and over, only with different people. In truth, they do not grow in Christ. The story is told of a man who, in the course of twenty years, held numerous jobs. He left each job due to similar problems. He claimed to have twenty years of experience, but in reality, he had one experience repeated twenty times. Why? Because while he had experiences to teach and grow him, he missed the meaning behind each of them.
On the other hand, when leaders recognize their missteps and confess them to the Lord, they place themselves in a context for divine sanctification. The process of true inner growth begins. "Sanctification" (the process of becoming holy and whole in Christ) occurs when leaders admit before God and others their wrong—becoming more self-aware for the future; growing deeper in the character of Christ, and learning to walk in God’s grace daily.
As for our leadership, we gain valuable insights into what to do, how to do it, as well as what not to do. Simply put, we become more competent as leaders.
All this potential is held in hardships and conflict— and in reality, it is often only held there. As the old preacher said, “We don’t learn when we see the light. We learn when we feel the heat.”
[i] Walt Kelly, Pogo: We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us. 2nd edition. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972)