When we answer God’s call to serve, no matter where that leads, we don’t always anticipate some of the finer nuances of life on mission. I’ve talked about some of them in this blog—serving in another language, food you might not be able to stomach, or the loss of your local Sonic. The reality of life on the field looks much different than that in our minds. While all these challenges can be difficult, we learn strategies for overcoming. There’s one challenge that we, not only don’t expect to face but also don’t gain the tools for handling. What is it?
The number of people who commit to a life of service for the Kingdom of Christ can be viewed as a remnant. Many have said that mission life is like being in a family. The problem with this family is we all have not only different mothers but different fathers too. While it sounds spiritual and right to say we’re united in Christ, there are days when we’re just not feeling it and the differences are giving us a headache.
I remember the first time I attended a “mission meeting.” I was a young, twenty-three-year-old, freshly pressed short-term worker. I was sitting among the people I had idolized all my young life. These were the saints of the faith; many having lived for decades on the field. I was expecting a harmonious discussion of the pressing needs, decisions bathed in prayer, and a unified outcome. Let’s just say: “It didn’t quite happen that way.”
While my first foray into mission life was a shocker, I did come to find a balance between my idealized concept of how things worked and the nitty-gritty of making decisions with not always “like-minded people.” Just as I come to the table with my unique spiritual giftings, talents, and abilities, I also bring my educational background, family dynamic, and excess baggage galore. If I’m complicated—which I admit I am—then why should I expect others to be any less different and unique?
Awareness of differences is the first step.
I will be very transparent here. I have a very short fuse for what I’ll call “artistic types.” Though I love the art, I know that people who have this gifting in abundance are perhaps a bit “less structured” than I am. Having been a manager for the past twelve years, I hope some of my staff will say, “I didn’t know that!” I can only hope.
Anyway, when I was on the field, I found myself struggling with how to work with colleagues who couldn’t get their financial reports in on time or who were always late to meetings. Why couldn’t they get their act together? Why? Because they were different. Another way to say that: They weren’t me. I could either choose to completely avoid them, or I could learn to know them better and find a way to work with them.
I will never forget a word of wisdom my late husband shared with me after one contentious mission meeting in another region. There was one particular colleague who always shot every idea down. He would share why that idea wouldn’t work. I rarely heard a positive word come from his mouth. When I complained about this to my husband, he said: “Carol, we need those people to help us stop and look at an issue. They help us to self-evaluate and make sure we’re looking at the best solution.” We all know that critical thinking is important; we just don’t recognize it when it comes in a negative package. I learned from that experience to recognize a person’s different way of processing and eventually grew more appreciative of their input.
A three-step solution for handling conflicting personalities.
Over the years, once I realized that differences are inevitable and needed in mission life, I have come to better relate to such colleagues with these three tools:
- Learn their story.
- Pray for them.
- Keep a healthy distance.
Similar to the awareness step, one of the best ways to begin to adjust our mindset toward a colleague is to get to know them. Listen to them share about their background and family life. Ask them to share how they came to Christ (something that always gives us a more profound sense of empathy). Learn what’s been their biggest struggle on the field and why. The “and why” is crucial to insight into how they think and process. The more you know, the more you understand.
With what you’ve learned, pray. Asking for specific requests is great, but also just pray that the Lord will help you to be a better friend and colleague. It might be that you need the biggest attitude adjustment, not them. Prayer invites God into our relationships. Don’t be afraid of calling him in, when you can’t handle being with them in a meeting or at home for a meal.
Keeping a healthy distance is my go-to phrase, again from the wisdom of my late husband. Mission life can get crowded, and if you’re with a colleague on a daily basis, it might be that you just need some space. Extroverts can be overwhelming to introverts. Introverts can be frustrating to extroverts. Space helps us to better handle the interactions we must have with grace.
There’s no silver bullet to personality conflicts.
While the Bible gives clear guidance for dealing with conflicts between believers, we only get glimpses of what could be seen as personality conflicts. I think of Paul’s exhortations for people to “get along,” and for Peter’s reference to Paul being hard to understand. The important thing to remember is this: How we relate to our fellow believers in service reflects on how those around us view Christianity, our message, and the Church. Some conflicts may require a wider separation in service, but the majority of our idiosyncrasies as humans can be solved by practicing one thing—grace.
As we know, grace costs, but it’s worth the price.
Grace and Peace