There are several lessons I learned while being in the military. I’ve found that many of them apply to ministry as well as other areas of my life. One of those lessons is to solve problems at the lowest level possible.
In the military you have a clear and direct chain of command. Most of us have worked in jobs where there are too many people in charge. I’ve had jobs where I had to report to different supervisors depending on what I was doing or what my problem was. The military usually doesn’t function that way (and neither should any other organization). It gets too confusing, information doesn’t flow well, and it’s wildly inefficient.
One thing I heard over and over again in the military was that you should always solve problems at the lowest level possible. For example, if I go to my supervisors’ boss with a problem, the first thing I’ll get asked is, “did you talk to your supervisor about this?” They wanted to make sure that I wasn’t stepping outside of the chain of command.
The Lowest Level
It’s easy to think that the lowest level possible is my supervisor. It goes even lower than that. I had a supervisor early in my military career who said, “you should solve problems at the lowest level possible and the lowest level possible is you.” Solving problems starts with me. If I have a problem with a person or a system or a process, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the problem isn’t me.
That coworker that I don’t get a long with. Are we not getting along because of my attitude? Am I mistreating them in some way? Am I poorly communicating with them? I always have to stop and see if the problem in anyway starts with me. That’s not easy because our natural reaction is to blame others.
There’s another level before I take a problem to my supervisor. If I’m having a problem with another individual, I need to try and solve that person directly. That doesn’t mean causing a fight or disruption of some kind. That doesn’t mean that I have the right to unload what’s really on my mind. It means I am responsible for going to them in a peaceful way to resolve any issues we may have.
If we all did those two things, most of our problems would never escalate to the level of a supervisor having to step in. We would have better relationships with our coworkers and better work environments. The problem is, we don’t do those things. We’re quick to blame others instead of looking in the mirror and we’d rather gossip than to approach someone we have a problem with directly.
What does this look like in a ministry context? If you’re on staff with other individuals, you need to be putting this into practice. Don’t go to the lead pastor or church board with issues that could be resolved at a lower level.
We can also apply this with people we minister to. It’s easy to find ourselves in the middle of drama, gossip, and conflict. Some believe that a pastor should fix every problem and have an answer to every solution. The truth is, we often should have them try these first two options before we ever get involved. Have they looked to see what part they play in the conflict? Have they honestly tried to resolve it directly with the other person? Usually those steps are skipped.
Jesus on Conflict
This is good advice from the military, but Jesus also talks about resolving our conflicts at the lowest level. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus tells us that if we have a problem with our brother, we should try to resolve it with him directly. Don’t start gossiping. Don’t ask the church people what they think. Don’t gossip through the prayer chain. Simply go to your brother directly first.
Jesus takes it a step farther for us. In the passages directly following, Jesus gets asked how many times we should forgive someone who has sinned against us. Jesus doesn’t always answer us directly the way we would like. He goes into a story. He tells a story about a ruler who was collecting on his debts. He brings in a guy who owes him more money than he would be able to repay in his life. The ruler is about the throw the guy and his family into jail. The guy begs the ruler to let him try to pay the debt back. The ruler lets the guy go free and unexpectedly forgives the entire debt.
The guy who had the debt completely forgiven should have walked away a brand-new man. Unfortunately, he didn’t learn any lesson from the grace that the ruler had offered. He immediately goes and starts threatening another guy who owes a debt to him. He was forgiven more than he could ever repay, but he’s unwilling to forgive anyone else, not even someone who’s debt is small in comparison to the one that’s been wiped clean.
When the ruler hears of this he is outraged. The ruler calls the man back and scolds him for not passing the forgiveness along. Then the ruler executes judgement on the man.
Jesus is telling us that when we have conflict, we should always start from a place of grace. It doesn’t matter what has been done to us, it’s not even close to the forgiveness God has shown to us. That’s not always easy. In fact, sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes we can truly be wounded by what others have done to us. Forgiveness isn’t always easy or a light matter, but Jesus calls us to keep it in perspective of the forgiveness that God has already given to us.
We need to always solve our problems at the lowest level possible. That’s even easier when we start with the right attitude. An attitude of forgiveness. An attitude of grace. The attitude of Christ.