Hostility, sabotage and open conflict.

That is the lot of the pastor who leads change. Anyone brave enough to be pastor must possess steel in the spine, ice water in the veins and a steady hand at the helm. The American church needs a pastor “who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes.”[1]

Churches may not know it, but they are desperate for pastors who stand firm on principle while managing their own reactions to conflict. We need pastors who have mastered their ABCs.

The problem isn’t the problem

Practitioners of positive psychology use the ABCs to train clients to manage their emotional response to adversity. The ABC sequence works this way:

[A]dversity -> [B]eliefs -> [C]onsequences

Adversity is any setback that throws us. It could be a lost Starbucks card. It might be a public attack on your integrity. Consequence refers to the immediate emotional response and the actions you take. Beliefs lie between the adverse event and the consequent response and action.

The point is that your emotions (C) aren’t triggered by adversity (A). They flow from your interpretation of the adversity. Interpretation is governed by your beliefs (B). Thus, when conflict erupts in your church, you may feel fear or anger or sadness or guilt. These bubble up from how you interpret the meaning of the conflict, based on your beliefs.

How often has this happened to you? You come home late after a long board meeting. You check your email and to find an email blast to the church. A disaffected member is griping about _____________. He demands that you do something.

Do you get angry? Do you fear losing your job? Are sad about another complaint?

Your spouse asks why you’re upset. You show the email. “This is why I’m angry.”

But that’s not why you’re angry. You’re angry because you believe your right to lead has been challenged. Or you’re fearful because you believe your paycheck is threatened.

The adversity—the offending email—isn’t the problem. The consequences—your anger or fear—aren’t the problem. The problem comes from your beliefs. That’s where you need to focus so you can deal with this brewing conflict in a redemptive manner.

Master your ABCs

Separating thought and emotion is the essence of self-differentiation. This self-awareness helps us understand the real issues behind the conflict. That, in turn, furnishes us with the emotional tools we need to be a “non-anxious presence,” the place of calm in the midst of the storm.

Mastering the ABCs when in the midst of adversity helps pastors respond appropriately.[2]

What provokes a strong reaction from you? Consider the following typical scenarios.

  • Your spouse pressures you to be at home more.
  • A volunteer leader flakes out at a crucial moment.
  • The church gossip made catty remarks about your family.
  • Despite your directions, the music is still awful.
  • The church matriarch complains you don’t do enough home visitation.
  • Participation in an “important” program has withered.

If you’re drawing a blank, ask your spouse or a family member. They can tell you.


We all have different responses because beliefs differ from pastor to pastor. Each of us has a different emotion when conflict arises. That in-the-moment response determines our feelings. They set us on a path, good or bad, to deal with the situation.


Resilient leaders act on principle, not emotion. When they notice their emotions, they know which beliefs to evaluate. This is because beliefs and consequences usually come in pairs. [3]

Belief / Consequence Pairs


Your rights have been violated -> Anger

You’ve suffered a loss -> Sadness, depression

You’ve violated another’s rights -> Guilt

Your future is threatened -> Fear, anxiety

You are compared unfavorably to another -> Embarrassment

Consider the problem of Wednesday night prayer meetings. Attendance has been dwindling, but the board opposes cancelling it.

If you believe you have the right to make that decision, you’ll feel anger because they cut across your territory. Perhaps you believe the church is indifferent to prayer. Then you’ll feel sad over a loss.

Often you’ll find alternative explanations for the triggering event. They didn’t oppose canceling the prayer meeting because they’re stuck on tradition. Maybe they balked because you didn’t provide a good alternative! Or maybe they each made a private decision to start going to prayer meetings.

An assessment of alternate explanations moderates your emotions. It creates space for you to calmly make a wise decision and take a principled action.

So what?

If you’re a pastor, conflict is your lot in life. You’ll have conflict if you leave your church just as it is. You’ll have conflict if you lead your church through change.

For your church’s sake and your own spiritual well-being, learn to stand tall when conflict erupts. It will take time, but practice the art of mastering your ABCs.

  • Identify your “triggers” or buttons
  • Examine your emotional reactions
  • Identify the underlying beliefs
  • Seek alternate explanations
  • Take principled actions to deal with conflict


  1. Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve.
  2. See for example Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté, The Resilience Factor.
  3. Adapted from Reivich and Shatté.