Not everyone enjoys conflict. But everyone can benefit from it.

I was thinking the other day about a class I took in seminary called “How to handle opposition, criticism, resistance, and passive-aggression.” Come to think of it, I think I missed that course. The class I took was on source criticism, not criticism per se. Not that understanding source criticism hasn’t been useful. I have new attenders coming up to me all the time to ask why J, D, P, and E couldn’t all just get along.

Still, I think the other class would have been more useful.

Opposition is an inevitable reality of pastoral life. Not just spiritual opposition (“we wrestle not against flesh and blood”). Not just the intellectual opposition of Richard Dawkins/Daniel Dennet/Samuel Harris/Christopher Hitchens readers. I’m talking about friendly fire. The deacon board who votes to wish you a speedy recovery 13-12. The e-mail writer who wonders about your orthodoxy, theological literacy, or citation of unsafe authors. The helpful critic who wonders why you don’t do more altar calls.

There are radically different temperaments when it comes to opposition response. It’s been observed that Teddy Roosevelt required opposition in order to be fully energized. If he didn’t have any opposition, he’d stir some up. Winston Churchill got bored by agreement. Criticism—from his own party, from the opposition, or from his nation’s enemies—fueled him like a double espresso. When Hitler appeared, Churchill found the opponent he’d been waiting for his whole life. His finest hour was the courageous fight against a truly evil adversary.

Some leaders are not intimidated by opposition; they actually thrive on it. It wakes them up. It energizes them. It calls them to battle. It causes them to mobilize their thoughts and energy.
But not everybody.

Neville Chamberlain, for example, is historically associated with the word appeasement. “Peace in our time,’ he said at Munich. He thought that if he could just give enough ground to Hitler, conflict could be avoided and everyone would be happy (except the Poles, the Czechs, the Austrians, and the Jews).

I wonder where you are on the Churchill—Chamberlain spectrum? My guess is that most pastors fall on the appeasement side.

I don’t know that either temperament has a spiritual advantage. A friend of mine served as an elder in a church that hired a pastor who made General Patton look like he needed assertiveness training. But this did not mean the pastor was a fearless leader. It just meant he was an ego-centered stubborn little tyrant whose fated ended the same as Yertle the Turtle.

On the other side, I know a pastor in the southwest who has faced mean-spirited, ill-advised, bad-hearted opposition from a key lay leader for years. He’s been trying appeasement the whole time (although he would not admit that even to himself). And it has cost him effectiveness, energy, joy, and self-respect.

I have given up the idea that there is an opposition-free church out there. But I have gained something else—an appreciation for the gift of opposition. When it comes, I learn something about my motives. When it comes, I get to test my courage. When it comes, the truth about my humility (or lack thereof) is revealed. When it comes, blind spots get exposed that would otherwise do damage. When it comes, I am given the opportunity to grow strong. When it comes, I discover that I am the opposition in more lives than I ever would have guessed.

And then I meet the force stronger than any opposition. The force that can call opponents a brood of vipers. The force that can also forgive opponents because “they know not what they do.” In opposition, there is grace.

Article written by John Ortberg (Writer and Pastor)