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7 mins

Dan Webster on Navigating Conflicts

Q & A With Doug Fields

Editor’s Note: For a decade Dan Webster led the largest youth ministry in the U.S. 1 — right up to the moment the wind in his sails suddenly died, right along with his heart for ministry. As the dark days that followed stretched into years, Dan left his ministry and set off on a journey to understand his own heart better—to learn what it takes to build your own heart before you build a ministry.

We’ve given Doug Fields free rein to interview anyone he wants on an important youth ministry issue. Here he talks with Dan Webster, a giant in the history of youth ministry. Together the two of them tackle a tough topic—moving well in the midst of conflict.

Now, for the last 13 years, Dan has dedicated his life to helping ministry leaders discover who they are and what they were made to do. Through the organization he founded, Authentic Leadership 2, Dan has helped scores of leaders not only avert the ministry-sinking icebergs lurking in the dark water, but also chart a better path for their lives. Doug interviewed Dan at his home in Holland, Michigan.

Fields: Give me an idea of what drives what you do every day.

Webster: My passion is to help leaders live authentic lives of great impact. My heart is really in leadership development now more than strategy development. I want to help [youth] leaders learn how to manage their own lives before they inflict themselves on kids.

Fields: It seems like that’s backward—we get into leadership so young, when we have no idea how to manage our life. (Laughs)

Webster: And that’s okay. I think the energy of youth is needed to plant and to build ministries. As a young leader you never feel guilty that you don’t know a lot, and you’ve got a lot of energy. I think God leverages that. What’s important to remember, especially in the context of conflict, is that conflict is the setting in which God grows you up as a leader. When we were in our 20s, if someone offered us two books—How to Tend Your Forgotten Soul and How to Change the World in 90 Days—we’re going to put the soul book on the bottom shelf and make all of our volunteers read How to Change the World in 90 Days.

The door to the Promised Land is learning how to welcome conflict, manage it, and grow through it. The idea is to increase the size of our heart and the depth of our character so we have greater impact.

Fields: When you say “welcome conflict” I can see people getting stuck on those words. How do we do that? Most of the time we’re running or hiding from conflict, or we’re hoping it will resolve itself.

Webster: Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 7: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” When difficulty happens we have to learn what it is to sit at the feet of our own pain—to pay attention to what our lives are telling us. Long-term leadership development happens when we bump into life. That’s where God is alive in the life of a leader. Maybe I need to enter the house of mourning, which means I’m going to be uncomfortable or hear things I don’t want to hear. Versus, you know, running to the house of pleasure, where I overeat, I pretend, I hide, I make excuses, and I dig deeper holes. I don’t grow, and I don’t contribute to the kingdom of God.

Fields: I think I just trusted Christ. (Laughs)

Webster: (Laughs) I’ll hum “Just As I Am.”

Fields: You said the key is to “sit at the feet of our pain” and pay attention. Unpack that a little bit for average youth workers who maybe don’t feel appreciated at their church.

Webster: Well, let me be quick to say that I don’t want to spend my whole life sitting at the feet of pain. (Laughs) But we often assume that our kids are our ministry. That’s true, but the prior truth is that we are our own first ministry. A foundational principle for youth ministry is: I must bring to the kids a life that is in the process of being changed and transformed by Christ. Therefore, entering into my own pain is an opportunity for God to be alive in my life at that point. Jesus is walking with me right now. This is a very important thing for my own heart. And it’s also a very important thing for the kids—they live in homes of conflict, and they’re looking for someone who can model what it means to stay close to Jesus in the midst of disappointment and inner conflict. The vast majority of their friends run into the house of pleasure.

When I was at the zenith of my ministry, I realized that something was wrong inside of me. It wasn’t my love for Christ or kids, but I knew that, emotionally, I couldn’t do it anymore. That was a very painful experience. So I either needed to embrace what was true in my life or pretend like it wasn’t there. So I stumbled on this Ecclesiastes 7 passage, then I stood in front of our kids and talked honestly with them about my life—I told them I was confused, and I told them about the pain I was experiencing. I told them they all knew what it was like to be in pain. And rather than eradicating my pain by drinking or snorting something, I asked myself: Okay, where might God be in this moment?

At the end of that night I told all these kids: “Listen, there are lots of things you can do with your pain. If you’re interested and you want to follow me into the house of mourning, c’mon, let’s go together.” You could’ve heard a heart beat in there.

Fields: Wow…So what do you do when others are leaning into you, trying to get you to do what they want through the leverage of conflict?

Webster: Conflict can sink youth workers if they haven’t done their work to get clear on their identity and what God’s called them to. If we’re not clear, we’re potential victims to anybody who has an idea about anything. In Luke Chapter 4, Jesus starts his ministry—he stands up and asks for the scroll of Isaiah. Then he says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he had anointed me.” Jesus understood that the Spirit of God was upon him and that he was anointed to do something. He spent 40 days in the wilderness, so he’d spent quite a bit of time finding clarity. One way to minimize ideological conflict is to do the work to get clear on this: God, who have you made me to be, and what do you want me to do?

One thing I lament today is that the emerging generation seems fearful, almost neutered. They’ve lost that ability to say, “Listen, the Spirit of God is upon me, and he has called me into this church, and he’s anointed me to…” I knew that God had called me to affect change in the students of Orange County, California. So when I recruited volunteers over lunch, I’d listen to who they were and what they wanted to do. But then I’d say, “Let me tell you why I do what I do.” And I would broadcast a frequency—they were either on that channel or they weren’t. And if they weren’t, I didn’t want them to volunteer in my ministry. I articulated what I was about, and that eliminated a lot of conflict. God’s Spirit is upon me, so what’s he anointed me to do?

Fields: For many of the conflicts I’ve had in ministry, I was wounded the first time around. I mean, these conflicts devastated me—they’d make me question my calling. But after I faced that same type of conflict a second time—or a third time or a fourth time—it became much easier to deal with. Now I realize that those conflicts in some ways shaped my philosophy of youth ministry.

Webster: You’re absolutely right—if you get pushed around two or three times you realize, I’ve gotta get clear on this.

Fields: So, when conflict hits, do you have a default resolution style?

Webster: My thought process goes like this: Okay what’s the source of this conflict? Why is this person against this? Is this person angry at me? Did I unknowingly hurt him? Is this just their opinion? Is this an attack of the enemy? The point is that you try to figure out the source of the conflict first.

Fields: I typically say that in the midst of conflict, you never lose with humility. You know, I’m trusting that the Spirit of God is guiding us here. The word “avoid” comes to my mind right now. As a leader, it’s sometimes just easier to avoid conflict. There are times when I’m in conflict with people and I want to do the right thing—I want to be obedient to Jesus—but they’re avoiding me.

Webster: Well I have two thoughts. There will be times when our cup of conflict will be full. At that point it’s better just to take one small conflict and try to resolve that. Sometimes it’s okay to avoid people who just set you off. I’ve found that when I go to people in humility, with just the right tact, they sense when you’re open. If they’re still not open, our only option is to live with the sadness.

1 Dan grew up in Southern California and committed his life to Christ when he was 17 at a Billy Graham crusade. He cut his teeth doing youth ministry at Garden Grove Community Church, which is now Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. Soon after that he met another youth minister named Bill Hybels who was in the midst of pioneering an outreach to teenagers in Chicago that would later become Willow Creek Community Church. He took what he learned from Hybels back with him to Garden Grove. Over the next five years his ministry exploded with growth. Soon Hybels invited Dan to join him as the church’s director of student ministries. His leadership helped grow that ministry to the biggest in America.

2 To learn more about Dan’s ministry, and his new leadership training experience called PAUSE, go to

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Dan Webster on Navigating Conflicts

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