team-conflict-progressFor most youth workers, few things in ministry are as dreaded as navigating conflict—especially when it comes in the form of an angry parent or frustrated volunteer and when it comes suddenly and unexpectedly.

You know the scenario: You’re hanging out in the youth room doing your youth pastor thing, and before you see it coming, he’s in your face. He’s on a mission. He’s got a few concerns, and he’s gonna share them with you right now. He has no desire to think about the timing. His agenda is the only one that matters. He’s a ticking time bomb, and time is running out.

Don’t panic—what looks like an explosion waiting to happen can usually be defused quite easily and turned into something positive. Here are steps I try to take in these types of scenarios to defuse the bomb.

1. Directly engage. It’s tempting to try to avoid the person, especially since you’ve got a program to run. But time bombs can’t be ignored. They demand the proper attention. I’ve learned the best thing to do is to proactively engage the person immediately. This lets the reasonable person know you’re concerned that he’s concerned about something, and it lets the unreasonable hothead know that you aren’t afraid to engage—that you won’t be bullied or intimidated.

2. Don’t get defensive. This isn’t the time to defend yourself. The truth of the matter is that most frustrated folks simply want to be heard. When you take a defensive posture, you reinforce their suspicions and concerns. However, when your first response is to acknowledge their concerns and listen to what they have to say, it shows them their concerns are important to you and things (usually) begin to cool down right away.

3. Delay the rest of the conversation. Chances are you won’t be able to address the entire issue in the two to three minutes you can afford to give this person before youth group, so don’t try. Instead suggest that you delay the rest of the conversation to a later time in the very near future. Invite them to coffee or lunch, and let them know you would welcome the opportunity to continue the conversation at that time.

This will do two things: It will give everybody time to cool down and think about the issue at hand, and it will communicate you’re taking their concern very seriously and want to address it as best you can.

I’ve learned over the years that trying to avoid frustrated, angry people almost always serves to make the situation worse. But when I’m willing to directly engage, when I don’t get defensive and when I offer to reconnect about it later, I not only defuse the bomb but also often build trust and loyalty along the way.

Kurt Johnston has been on staff at Saddleback Church since 1997 and currently leads the student ministry team. He is the founder of and has written numerous books, including Middle School Ministry Made Simple, and has created dozens of resources for youth workers.

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