It Only Takes a Spark: Managing Conflict in Christian Camps & Conferences

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It Only Takes a Spark: Managing Conflict in Christian Camps & Conferences 

Originally published in Christian Camp & Conference Journal, March/April Dean Ridings

“It only takes a spark to get a fire going,” so says the song we’ve sung through the years at many a Victory Circle. Certainly that’s true of the Good News. Sadly, it’s also true of the bad news—destructive conflict.

Where there are relationships, there will be conflict. This article takes a candid look at several sources of conflict in the Christian camp and conference arena. Names and specifics are changed or withheld in order to freely share the essence of real-life Christian camping conflict scenarios.

The purpose isn’t to take sides or delight in any way in morbid details—like “rubber-neckers” who gawk at an accident. The aim is to show, through a variety of scenarios from various aspects of the industry, that those in ministry are neither immune to conflict nor destined to be destroyed by it when its sparks are fanned into flames.

Through the scenarios and “considerations” that follow them, this article’s aim is to help you—the Christian camping professional—to manage conflict effectively so that you can focus your efforts not on extinguishing fires but on advancing the kingdom.

“Change your view or leave.”

I was 25, fresh out of seminary, and eager when I got my first full-time call as the youth pastor at a large Baptist church. To my surprise, before long the church’s work environment began sapping my spirit.

The domineering pastor, a man in his fifties, told me what to do and what not to do: “Don’t let the neighborhood kids play in the parking lot.” “Teach this Sunday school class.” “Even if it is inconvenient, do the weekly bulletin board in front of the church.”

The pastor never offered words of affirmation. After one summer of arduous camp programs, I expected a “good job!” but was chewed out over a parishioner’s complaint.

Two years into the position I was up for ordination. I defended my theological position before a board that included my pastor. I was successful, and even the pastor signed the ordination certificate. I felt very pleased about completing the whole ordeal. Yet on Monday the pastor called me into his office and said, “We are no longer compatible, since you hold that certain theological view. You will either have to change your view or leave the church.” There was no room for discussion. By the end of the week I was out of my office. I never saw him again.

Several months later I was hired by a camping organization in another state. I went there feeling in a real sense that I was a failure. I had been fired from my first job. I was hurt, angry, and frustrated for more than a year. A very wise counselor told me I needed to work out my feelings and forgive that pastor for his act against me. The counselor also gave me tools to deal with conflict properly.

Eventually I could look at the whole firing situation objectively. That experience showed me how not to treat subordinates when I became the founding director of a Christian camp. I learned how to express my feelings and deal with conflict in an acceptable manner. During the 20 years I was at the camp, hardly a month passed that I didn’t look back on the lessons I learned following my “release” from the church.

Considerations: The very fact that there’s conflict in Christian circles takes many by surprise. While the Bible has much to say about conflict (it’s a major theme from Genesis to Revelation), most Christians—even young seminarians, as this scenario suggests—are unprepared for and thus ill-equipped to deal with it constructively. It was only years later that this Christian camping leader learned about such biblical principles as those offered by Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries, summarized in what he calls “the four G’s” (see The Peacemaker’s Pledge). “These were things I should have learned years before,” this Christian camping leader says today.

“Would you eat last week’s mashed potatoes?”

Our camp has traditionally held a lot of guest-group banquets in the fall, winter, and spring. In addition to having a cozy, controlled atmosphere—Christian music playing, no smoking, no excess noise—we also have a reputation for excellent food. So our place is the first choice for church appreciation dinners, fund-raising events, Christmas banquets, and the like.

Our procedure and policy regarding payment has always been as follows: The group leader calls our office with a final count 10 days out. Before departure, the group pays for the final count or actual number, whichever is greater.

I remember a Christian softball league awards banquet that was scheduled close to Memorial Day weekend, with a final count of 295.

At serving time, half of the seats were filled. Following dessert there were still a good number of empty chairs at the tables. My head waiter gave me an actual count of 207.

Between the meal and the program, I pulled the group leader aside and presented him with a bill for 295 people. His face turned red and he exploded in anger, “I’m not going to pay that much!”

I showed him the policy on the contract that he had signed. Still he refused to pay. Since we were near the entrance to the kitchen I showed him all of the unserved mashed potatoes and carrots sitting on the stove. Angrier than before he bellowed, “You have banquets next week. You can reuse all of that. Why should I pay for it?!”

My response was not rehearsed and less than tactful: “Would you eat last week’s mashed potatoes?!”

He suggested boycott.

I hinted at eviction.

He threatened lawsuit.

I mentioned a collection agency.

We were not getting anywhere. Despite my “need” to win, I knew we were going to lose more than some vegetables—namely our testimony—if we didn’t approach this differently.

After talking with my business manager I decided to compromise—even though, according to the signed contract, I had the right to collect the full fare. I offered to split the difference with him: He would pay for 44 people that didn’t show and I would absorb the direct expense for 44 people.

Feeling he won something of a victory, he was obviously satisfied with the compromise. I was frustrated that a Christian group would reject their obligations in such a manner; however, we won in the long run because he brought his group back the following year.

Considerations: Marshall Shelley’s Leading Your Church Through Conflict and Reconciliation (Bethany House Publishers,1997) is an excellent resource for Christian camps and conferences. Its four sections address “anticipation,” “prevention,” “confrontation,” and “redemption,” and it includes a chapter by Andre Bustanoby titled “Wars You Can’t Win.” Bustanoby said there are several factors to consider when deciding if the conflict you’re facing is a “no-win war.” Among them: “Do you know why you’re fighting?” “Are the leaders willing to pay the price to win the war?” “Is the opposition willing to negotiate, or do they demand unconditional surrender?” In this scenario, the camp director determined a quick compromise was the best, most appropriate solution. In fact, he says he did so when he remembered something his father used to say: “A hound dog can whip a skunk . . . but it ain’t worth it.”

“Lord, remove us from this place . . . “

The board called my husband, Jeff, to serve as the camp’s first full-time program director. The other person on staff, the administrator, did the job of a caretaker and was the only full-time staff person for 20 years. Board members carried out most of the staff recruitment, programming, publicity, and such.

The board placed Jeff “under” the administrator but told us from the beginning to report to them. Jeff’s job description said he was to report to both. One of our first times at camp, one board member sat down with us for a meal and said something along the lines of, “We’re kind of hoping you’ll, uh, move him along, get him going.”

Jeff was now responsible for programming, recruiting and training staff, fund raising, promotion, budgeting, and the like. He began to do the job of a director, but reported to a man who mowed lawns and washed dishes when guest groups came.

The conflict arose almost immediately. When we moved into a trailer at camp, the water wasn’t on. The place was infested with flies, mice, and even rats. Obviously, our arrival was not valued by our co-workers.

In their two decades here, the administrator and his family had made the camp their home—with little or no boundary between the two. Their kids took camp vehicles to prom. In the middle of a camp week, they took a camp teepee and drove it in the camp truck to a music festival. Even though not all their boys worked at camp, they moved into a centrally located cabin and blasted heavy metal music throughout the camp. Jeff asked if their boys who didn’t live there would live at home and if the ones who were on staff would live with the other staff and adhere to the same handbook. That didn’t please their mother.

Of all our struggles, the gossip that started right after that was the most destructive. Their pastor even called our board to complain about us—even though he didn’t know us.

“Lord, remove us from this place unless it is essential that we remain,” we prayed every day. “We have no desire to be here, except that we want to serve You where You call us.”

Before long our prayer changed: “Lord, either call us away or do one of two things for that couple: Transform them or remove them from this ministry, for the glory of Your name.” However fervently we prayed, we had little faith that He would actually remove them from this ministry. But that’s what He chose to do.

The board wasn’t blind to what was going on. They talked with Jeff and the administrator and his wife and decided something had to be done. They tried a conflict resolution session with a licensed psychologist. Then they gave the administrator a sabbatical for prayer and soul-searching to determine whether he wanted Jeff’s and his job descriptions revised, or if he wanted to look elsewhere for a more suitable position. When we were at the CCI/USA national conference in Orlando, we got the call that he had resigned . . .

I often tell people that our first full-time ministry experience was “a baptism by fire—a refining.” God was developing our character in tremendous ways. Luke 14:25-35 meant a great deal to us that summer. But we never realized that giving up everything for Christ might even mean our reputations.

Considerations: Role confusion was only part of the problem in this conflict scenario. The real heartache came from the cold reception and fiery gossip from the other staff couple . . . In How a Man Handles Conflict at Work (Bethany House, 1996), Paul Tomlinson observes that jobs often have their “Egypt,” “desert,” and “promised land” stages. Much like the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings, this staff couple endured a lot on the way to what is today the ideal position. It’s easy to overlook the part spiritual warfare plays in such conflict. Indeed, Satan and his fallen-angel followers thrive on sparking conflict and fanning its flames—anything to disrupt effective ministry.

“You guys waste too much electricity!”

We were in the middle of a “senior adult day.” The seniors had just left the dining hall after having a snack, and I was picking up the remnants when I heard someone yelling across the room. I looked up to see one of our board members, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying.

“What?” I called back. I still couldn’t understand, so I started walking toward him. “I’m sorry,” I said. “What are you saying?”

“Shut off the lights!” That time I heard him clearly, but I was dumbfounded. “You guys are wasting electricity, and you need to shut these lights off!”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying! For one thing, the group had just left. For another, he was speaking to me as if I were a small child.

“Sir,” I said when we were face to face, “I can appreciate your desire to be a good steward, but the seniors just left.”

“They left five minutes ago,” he said indignantly.

“Yes,” I said as patiently as I could, “and we’re cleaning up from the snack.”

“We don’t need all these lights on to do that!”

“I believe the kitchen crew also needs to vacuum and set the line for lunch,” I offered. “I’ll check with the food service director to see if he needs the lights on.”

I admit by this time I was speaking through clenched teeth. I did check and was told we could turn some lights off for awhile. I passed this on to the board member.

“All the board members think you guys waste too much electricity!” he added.

“Excuse me, all the board members think we’re wasting electricity?”

“Yes, all of them!” he confirmed. Then he held out his hand and pointed to his fingers as he listed the names of two board members. I stated I would check with them.

At first the board members he named wondered if this was a joke. Seeing it wasn’t, they told me they’d take care of it. The next board meeting, the board members confronted this fellow and required him to stop his participation in this manner with the staff. Apparently, it provided just the right opportunity for our board to stand up to this individual, whom I can only describe as a negative personality.

I felt uncomfortable with the way things were left, though. I even tried to befriend the board member, and to apologize for any fault on my part.

Considerations: In Leading Your Church Through Conflict and Reconciliation, Marshall Shelley wrote a priceless chapter on “well-intentioned dragons”—”often sincere, well-meaning saints, but they leave ulcers, strained relationships, and hard feelings in their wake.” While such individuals don’t feel they’re difficult people, they can undermine ministry and cause many a sleepless night. In some cases knowing the “dragons” in your midst will help you to circumvent conflict altogether. Also, scenarios such as this one might be averted if board members have a better understanding of their primary purpose.

“We had an agreement!”

The challenge course is a great place to study conflict. I coordinated the camp challenge course program for several years and enjoyed it greatly. Besides all the “manufactured conflicts”—character-building exercises built into the program—we ran into several surprise conflicts.

In particular, I remember a major conflict we had with a sizable school group. In cooperation with the school, we decided to divide the group in half, even though we were still pressing the limits on the number of kids we could send through the course each day. One would go one day, the other the next.

We set up two rotations and ran the kids through. An hour and a half later, when we were conducting our final debriefing and getting ready to dismiss the classes, I received a radio call. A staff member said that the teacher she was with was quite upset that we were finishing up “early” and insisted that we go another hour and a half. I tried unsuccessfully to resolve the conflict over the radio, so I quickly closed things up and left the group.

By the time I arrived on the scene, two staff members were nose to nose with the teacher. I prayed and asked for wisdom as I came upon the three, introduced myself to the teacher, and thanked and dismissed the staff.

“What seems to be the problem?” I asked the teacher.

“This group is scheduled for three hours on the challenge course!” he exclaimed. “You only gave us half of that! We had an agreement!”

I listened to his “take” on things and apologized. I assured him that we wanted to find a solution. “Unfortunately,” I said, “there’s nothing I can do today.” I explained that we had pulled 10 staff members from other areas to make the rotation work, and that we did not have a large enough course set up that day to continue. I then said that I had personally set up the arrangements with his principal, and that we had done exactly what he asked. I said I would call the school, check on the arrangements, and make things right.

The principal confirmed the teacher’s expectations. Although we had a signed agreement that stated what we had prepared for, I apologized and compensated the group with half off the normal challenge course rate. This meant that 200-plus kids went free that day, and we adjusted our schedule for the next day.

Both groups ended up having a great time, with the exception of the shortened time on the course. The kids came back the following year with no glitches and had another great time. To my knowledge they still use the challenge course today.

I’ve learned that I bring my own needs and issues to a conflict situation and that, if I’m not careful, they can become a weakness rather than a strength. I’m now more aware of my own actions and others’ needs.

Considerations: In The Peacemaker (Baker Books, 1991, 1997, 2003), Ken Sande observes that an aggressive and overbearing tone feeds an argument, while a patient and gentle word is often met in like kind. In fact, the challenge course coordinator’s response to the situation—from affirming (and dismissing) the staff members to working with the teacher and principal on a workable, even “win-win” agreement—well illustrates Sande’s PAUSE Principle of Negotiating (based on Phil. 2:3-4 and Matt. 7:12): Prepare; Affirm relationships; Understand interests; Search for creative solutions; and Evaluate options objectively and reasonably. In taking time to PAUSE, the challenge course coordinator built rather than burnt a key ministry bridge to his community.

“Go the extra mile.”

I’d been the camp director for several years when our maintenance man retired. I took résumés and interviewed several people to replace him. A local man named Roger expressed an interest. He was mechanically inclined, a hard worker, and an active member of the church that most of our executive board attended.

There were some drawbacks, though. It had only been recently, through tough times that included caring for an ailing wife, that he started living for the Lord. A couple red flags surfaced concerning “attitude” when I checked his references, but I figured that was before he’d fully committed his life to the Lord.

The first couple of months were great. He was very organized and got a lot done. Then his wife’s health took a serious turn for the worse. He was off most of the summer with his wife as she underwent major surgery. We continued to pay his salary for the two-and-a-half months he was gone.

When he came back he was irritable at times; I knew he was worried about his wife. He started blowing up at different staff members, and then at me. Once I noticed that he’d thrown away a backboard we kept at the pool for emergencies. He went on a tirade about how he wasn’t a junk collector. Then it got personal as he started telling me how he didn’t like the way I ran things. I talked with him for about an hour and prayed with him.

Still, I wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?” I talked with some of my board members and expressed my growing concerns. They suggested, in light of everything, that I “go the extra mile.” More time passed, more angry outbursts followed, and soon the entire staff was walking on eggshells in an unsuccessful effort to pacify Roger. Eventually, I told him that he’d have to go if he lost his temper again.

Another outburst soon followed, so the board and I agreed Roger had to go. The board chairman, several board members, and I met with Roger and decided to give him the opportunity to resign, which he took.

When Roger was on staff I felt a lot of stress. I lost weight and had trouble sleeping. I do feel that it helped me to grow closer to God, however. Through tough times you depend on Him more.

Considerations: Certainly the camp director and board were forbearing with Roger, whose story reminds us there’s a time to “overlook an offense” and a time to confront—we need discernment. Sometimes the “fear of man” keeps us from confrontation. In When People Are Big and God Is Small (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1997), Edward T. Welch observes three reasons why we fear people: They can expose and humiliate us; they can reject, ridicule, or despise us; they can attack, oppress, or threaten us. We’re to fear (i.e., revere) God rather than man, and sometimes God leads us to confront. In so doing, we must practice Colossians 4:6, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

“Is it time to send out résumés?”

A master’s degree in clinical psychology and years of counseling experience had not taught me the lessons I needed to resolve this conflict. It was brought about by a difference in personality and methodology between myself and my direct supervisor in our denominational work. I was confronted for not handling one of the camp employees with stern enough discipline. My supervisor took the side of a complainant without asking for details from my or the employee’s viewpoint.

When my supervisor came to my office to discuss this issue, the conversation quickly turned into an argument about management style and relationships with co-workers. With tempers flaring we quickly escalated into a hard clash of personalities. Even when the original problem was addressed and solved, that clash had driven a wedge between my supervisor and me.

“Is it time to send out résumés?” I asked myself. I knew the answer. I felt there was no possibility of repairing that damaged relationship so that I could continue to work under his authority. Soon I was asked to interview for a management position in an area of the country I really wanted to live. My family was ready to do anything that would improve my mood and demeanor. When I was informed that I was one of two being considered for the new job, I felt certain that God had answered my prayers and was going to remove me from the conflict.

But He didn’t. The other guy got the job and I was left to deal with an uncomfortable and tenuous situation. Because of my announcement to the staff that I would probably be leaving soon, I had lost some of their trust. I had not helped them in their attitude toward our supervisor. I grew distant from my supervisor, dealing with him only when duty demanded it. My family, once ready to move, now felt as forlorn as I did.

Somehow God began to get through all the barriers I had put up and to soften my heart. First I realized that God had placed this man in authority over me. (It is a little harder to be upset with God than a man.) I began to pray daily for my supervisor—at first almost begrudgingly, then slowly with true compassion. As I prayed for him, I started seeing all the good things he’d helped us accomplish at the camp. I even began to defend him and his actions to other denominational employees and with my employees at the camp. Over a period of a year or more, we began to work together effectively and cohesively as a team. Friendship even blossomed. God changed my heart more than anything else to resolve this conflict.

Now the tension is gone, work is fun, and I have no desire to leave my position. My family is settled and loving life where we are, and my employees are satisfied and secure in their relationship with my supervisor and me. The fact that this conflict caused me to seek a deeper relationship with my Lord, of course, is the main benefit.

Considerations: Here we’re reminded that God in His sovereignty allows conflict, and that He often uses it to grow His people toward greater godliness. Christians have the confidence “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him . . . to be conformed to the likeness of his Son . . . ” (see Rom. 8:28-29). When facing struggles, it’s helpful to ask, “What’s God’s purpose for me in this situation?” In How a Man Handles Conflict at Work, Paul Tomlinson offers a variety of eye-opening possible reasons, including the following: to show others patience and discipline in the midst of trial, a witness to His grace and work in your life; to prepare you for leaving at some point; and to show you how to manage more effectively should you move into leadership.

Dean Ridings is CCI/USA’s communications manager and editor of the Journal. He has a master’s degree in communications and is pursuing an M.Div. E-mail him at



Posted on

February 16, 2015