Responding Wisely to Conflict in Ministry

Nehemiah was doing God’s work, yet many people still resisted his ministry. Like him, when we seek to build up God’s people, we may expect pockets of envy, dishonesty, apathy, fury, mockery, and hostility. 

Prayerfully, you will face few or none of these. Picture the following as the worst case scenario, the perfect storm. Nehemiah models how to weather the worst ministry storm imaginable. 

Anticipate Pockets of Envy: Respond with Unity 

When Sanballat and Tobiah heard that the King approved Nehemiah’s plan, “they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites” (Neh. 2:10b). They questioned Nehemiah’s character not because they were concerned, but because they were afraid and envious. The intrusion of this outsider would strip away their power base and influence. 

Rather than going toe-to-toe with these men, Nehemiah encouraged God’s people to minister shoulder-to-shoulder (Neh. 2:11-20). He invited a trusted circle of colleagues to assess the need, and then he called people to unite to conquer the problem. It wasn’t avoidance of the enemy, but rather a purposeful focus on God’s family. 

Anticipate Pockets of Dishonesty: Respond with Humility and Integrity     

When Geshem joined Sanballat and Tobiah, between the three of them their nations nearly surrounded Jerusalem. When they saw God’s people united in service, they falsely accused them. “Are you rebelling against the king?” (Neh. 2:19) They painted Nehemiah’s good as if it were evil because Satan curses whom God blesses. 

In response to their dishonesty, Nehemiah spoke the truth in love with humility and integrity. Instead of standing up for himself, he exalted God. “The God of heaven will give us success” (Neh. 2:20). Rather than exalting himself, he saw himself through God’s eyes. “We his servants will start rebuilding” (Neh. 2:20). 

It is not that Nehemiah stubbornly refused to search his heart. Rather, he had already been doing that. “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you” (Neh. 1:6). Biblical self-awareness and spiritual confession are God’s antidote for false accusation. 

Anticipate Pockets of Apathy: Respond with Tenacity

Problems from without are hard enough, but problems from within are even more difficult to endure. Nehemiah launched the work with great enthusiasm only to face a potential interruption. “But their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervision” (Neh. 3:5). 

Interestingly, the text offers not a single word in response. The work continues unabated. While welcoming the support of all who offered it, Nehemiah had sufficient inner resources to stand alone if need be. In the tenacious discharge of his responsibilities, he was prepared to have no one but God. His energy was not dictated by other’s apathy. 

Anticipate Pockets of Fury: Respond with Vulnerability

In Nehemiah 3, thirty-eight diverse work crews labor harmoniously to advance God’s kingdom. Then we read, “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed” (Neh. 4:3). 

When someone pushes us, our inclination is to push back. When someone gets in our face, we’re tempted to get in their face. Nehemiah chose to get face-to-face with God. Vulnerably he prays, “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised” (Neh. 4:4). “Despised” means to view someone as insignificant, useless, worthless. In the Old Testament, this frequently results in discouragement. Think of that word: dis-courage, to have your courage melt away as you curl up in a fetal position feeling overwhelmed and undermanned. Rather than give in to that, Nehemiah gave up to God.     

Anticipate Pockets of Mockery: Respond with God-Reality 

Critics generally run in packs. Sanballat and Tobiah did. In the presence of their associates, Sanballat ridiculed the Jews. “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day?” (Neh. 4:2). Tobiah, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” (Neh. 4:3). They pile one on top of another cruel character assaults, relentless mocking, and malicious slicing and dicing. 

Drop after drop, drip after drip, it takes its toll. Verse ten records what the people felt. Commentators believe it was actually sung as a funeral dirge. We might translate it as: 

      The strength of our burden bearing is drooping.

      The rubbish heap so vast.

      And we ourselves are stooping.

      Unable to fulfill this impossible task. 

If ever a people needed perspective—God-reality—it was them and it was now. Nehemiah looks things over, gathers his people, and says, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome” (Neh. 4:14). When life stinks, our perspective shrinks. When our perspective shrinks, we need a full dose of eternal perspective, of God perspective. We need to remember Who God is, who we are in Christ, Who it is that is calling us, and what He is calling us to do. 

Anticipate Pockets of Hostility: Respond with Creativity 

When they reached the half-way point, opposition went from bad to worse. “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart” (Neh. 4:6). When Sanballat and his crew heard about their progress, “they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it” (Neh. 4:7b-8). To make matters worse, their own people told them “ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us’” (Neh. 4:12). 

The half-way point is often the point of greatest opposition and greatest temptation to abandon our post. It’s the point at which others begin to take notice of our progress, but when we begin to focus on the huge task still ahead. Great leaders respond to the potential death and destruction of a dream with life and creativity. You can define the greatness of leaders by what it takes to discourage them and by how they encourage everyone around them. 

Creative thinking in a crisis often requires both/and thinking, such as prayer and practicality. “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this need” (Neh. 4:9). Nehemiah creatively suggests both working and protecting: “From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor” (Neh. 4:16). He creatively emphasizes both individuality and community: “Fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes…. We all returned to the wall, each to his own work…. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there….” (Neh. 4:14, 15, 20).  

Join the Conversation

Of the six areas of conflict, which have you faced in ministry? Of the six biblical responses, which would you like to add to your ministry?

Note: The preceding material is summarized from Chapter Five of Equipping Counselors for Your Church.

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