Seven Reasons for Staff Conflict

When seen for what it is, much conflict can be easily handled and turned to constructive ends.
—Wayne Jacobsen

Tension in multiple-staff churches is caused either by the ego of a staff member or the incompetent management of the senior pastor."

I wish to expose that statement for what it is—a myth. Staff members are just not that rebellious nor senior pastors that incompetent. Assigning blame at either point misses, in most cases, the real issue and only perpetuates conflict.

The vast majority of staff pastors I've spoken with, though they admit the reality of conflict, find it neither overwhelming nor everpresent. Deep joy in ministry and affection for their pastor undergirds their labor. Personally, leaving my staff position was the hardest decision I ever made, knowing how much my relationship with my pastor would change once I was fifty miles down the road instead of fifteen feet up the hall.

No management system or technique can ensure an absence of conflict. In fact, I'm not so sure eliminating conflicts is desirable. Conflict often indicates healthy growth processes are at work. Too often, however, failure to recognize the source of conflict and to handle it appropriately can lead to destruction.

In conversations with pastors and staff members, seven major areas of conflict continue to surface, none of which has anything to do with staff submission or pastoral mismanagement. When seen for what they are, each can be easily handled and the conflict turned to constructive ends.

1. Generational differences


"I've tried to get my pastor to use contemporary choruses in worship with more spontaneity, but he is too locked into old traditions."

"These young kids think they know how everything ought to run. Don't they think we've learned anything after years of ministry?"

"When I was their age, I was pastoring the smallest church in my section and working a second job to pay expenses. They don't know how good they have it."

Generational realities—differences in age, cultural background, and experience—consistently surface as contributing factors to staff conflicts. Failure to appreciate generational distinctives presses minor differences into major conflicts.

These differences shape the way we respond to circumstances and how we make decisions. Many senior pastors came of age between 1940 and the early '60s, a time when society's efforts were successful and the church held a more prominent place. The age of technology brought economic expansion. At the same time, fads came and went. Change almost always meant regression. As a result, many senior pastors generally believe in the value of tradition and working for the kingdom of God within existing structures.

Conversely, many staff pastors came of age in the late 1960s and early '70s, witnessing the limitations of human effort. The West lost prestige abroad and the war on poverty at home. The church lost its place in society. As a result, younger pastors are more willing to tamper with structures. They usually fall on a spectrum somewhere between simple openness and prideful disdain of anything traditional.

When these two generations come together, there is bound to be some conflict. Something I may attempt on a whim might still prove difficult for someone from a previous generation even after months of careful research and prayer. I could misinterpret the caution as closed-mindedness. They could mistake my suggestion as criticism of their experience. In reality, we'd both be wrong.

Background differences are further compounded by recent changes in church life. In the last two decades, people have gravitated to larger churches. In an earlier generation, pastors fresh out of seminary usually took small-town pastorates, where today many begin as staff members. As a result, many senior pastors have never been staff members and can't empathize.

These barriers are not insurmountable. Joel envisioned a community where the visions of sons and daughters would fit side by side with the dreams of old men. His prophecy pictures a community able to draw on the wealth of God in each individual. The idealism of youth can be tempered by the wisdom of experience, and the routine of tradition can be energized by the exuberance of youth. The end product need not be either idealism or cynicism, but biblical realism.

Understanding and respect can diffuse these conflicts. Don't evaluate someone else's actions on your perspective alone. Try to see what they see. Their hymns may be as meaningful to them as your choruses are to you. When you understand why people feel as they do, you are in a better position to work with them. Though this respect must flow both ways, my generation will have to admit that part of our culture has removed from us a respect for the wisdom of age. We must in humility recapture it.

2. Theological disagreements


Differences in biblical interpretation produce conflict even where love abounds. A youth pastor from the Midwest shared his current dilemma. His church had just voted to build a new gym and youth activity center at considerable cost. Though grateful, he was growing in concern for the needy, both for those in the Third World and those across town. Was it right to go to such expense for the recreation of some believers, with others in such need?

It's easy either to support him or to cry "ascetic," but his crisis is real. Theological concerns affect daily ministry.

Certainly each congregation holds theological essentials, and I'm not talking about these. I'm referring instead to differences in applying theology to twentieth-century living. The role of women, divorce, worship patterns, the present ministry of the Holy Spirit, and applied sanctification (legalism or leniency?) all bring struggles. History proves that theological differences among people who seriously study the Word are a virtual given. The only churches I know that are one-minded in all matters of theology are churches where only one mind is allowed to function.

The importance of these differences cannot be underestimated. Yet they do not have to divide people; instead they can become stepping stones to personal growth and biblical enrichment. Growing in theology with co-workers is a great benefit of serving on a ministry staff.

To negate the destructive possibilities of these kinds of disagreements, staffs must cultivate an atmosphere of freedom. I worked on two staffs I would consider exemplary. In our staff meetings, any of our theological concerns (and generational differences) could be discussed and evaluated without people being threatened, hurt, or asked to resign. This freedom fostered growth whether we were discussing how to handle marriages of pregnant couples or what we were learning about worship.

This freedom requires two understandings. First, decision-making authority must be clearly defined. Honest, open sharing cannot be conducted in a political setting where manipulation, compromise, and infighting reign as tools of decision making. The security of knowing who makes the final decision (the pastor or the board) can open the way for free discussion. The most important gift a pastor can give staff members is for him to be secure enough to offer this freedom without being threatened.

Second, differences must never be paraded before the congregation or made an element of corporate contest. Let growing pains be stamped "Staff Members Only." Cooperation even in the face of differences must be the result of such discussions, or freedom becomes destructive. Your personal growth must never become someone else's bondage.

3. Miscommunication


"All conflicts are communication problems" may be a bit overstated, but miscommunication sure accounts for its share. In church offices these are often classics.

We all know staff members who burn with vision as they begin their new vocation, not understanding they were hired simply to perform certain tasks. Conversations before their hiring and the announcements surrounding it may have been laced with phrases like "becoming part of the team," "freedom to carry out your calling," and "it's not what you do but who you are that counts," which always mean more to the hearer than the speaker.

While the pastor sits in the church office wondering why staff members can't settle into their responsibilities, the staff members are frustrated trying to reconcile reproducing tapes or cleaning the kitchen with the ministry they envisioned.

Honesty is the critical element here. The blunter the better. Worry more about your staff members understanding what you will expect of them than trying to make them like it. Perhaps we suffer from "homiletic hangover," but it's easy to make a staff position sound greater than it is. It may help in recruitment, but it leads to trouble in the long run.

Daily miscommunications—not sending the right information or consistent information—create the same potential for conflict. Working together effectively requires lots of communication. Questions. Memos galore. Make sure people understand what is going on, especially when it will affect, no matter how distantly, something in their field of ministry. Get your information from the right sources.

The pastor who on varying issues alternately placates a staff member by giving in and then denies something else to test commitment is not being honest. Neither is the staff member who attempts to manipulate the pastor by not providing all the facts about a decision or hides some pet project for fear the pastor will disapprove.

Miscommunication can also be negated by demonstrating your loyalty. One staff pastor told me how he looks to do things his pastor cares deeply about even though they may matter little to him (picking up a gum wrapper on the carpet). He likened it to bringing flowers to his wife. Find ways to tangibly demonstrate your love and support (a note of thanks or offering to handle some busywork you weren't asked to do). It will cover a multitude of miscommunications.

4. Perspective diversity


I earned spending money in college as an Oklahoma state football official. Most games, I worked with three other officials. On the occasions when I was head referee and responsible for everything that happened on the field, there were six other eyes watching the game with me. Many times we would see a call differently. One would rule a pass complete, another that it had been trapped. My task was to decide who had the best perspective to make the call.

Diversity in perspective is often a major factor in staff tensions. Whether in matters of methodology, facility, personnel, crisis resolution, or budgets, members of multiple staffs view the body from different angles. "How will this decision affect the people and ministries I'm involved with?" That's not wrong. That's being responsible. It becomes wrong when a staff member seeks to compel his perspective over the perspectives of others and expresses dissatisfaction with them, their viewpoints, or the final decision.

My objective as a pastor is the same as that of the referee—to use the perspectives of others to see possibilities from all angles. It's helping the eyes, ears, and hands of the body to work together.

The church is unique in this regard. It must seek to move not by the opinions of people but by the will of God. Listening to many perspectives with a wholehearted search for God's mind is a powerful combination—a process laden with occasional conflict, perhaps, but pregnant with power.

It is a process only for the mature, for those who have lost the need to use pressure and manipulation as tactics for change. It's for staff members who are willing to be only a part of the solution, for those who can practice submission, which Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline defines as "the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way."

At the same time, staff members must avoid self-protectionist tactics like apathy. Withdrawing denies the larger reality of the relationships between various segments of the body. It does not avoid conflicts; it only delays and compounds them.

5. Minor majoring


Society's preoccupation with power often creeps into staff relationships, distracting us from our primary task—serving people—and turning our energies to secondary things such as buildings, budgets, and recognition. When egos become enmeshed in in-house politics, we can miss opportunities to help those in need and to disciple those hungry for the Lord.

In theory, most pastors are eager to let staff members minister. What pastor wouldn't rather have the youth minister lead someone off drugs instead of fighting for a larger budget? But so much of our conversation centers on expenses, record keeping, and maintaining institutional control.

Recently someone told me how snobbish he used to think I was because I would scurry past hurting people on my way to handle some pressing matter of church business. How painful to hear, but how healing to misguided priorities! The parable of the Good Samaritan was pointed directly at me.

Jesus never grabbed for institutional control, either in the Roman Empire or in the Jewish hierarchy. Yet the fire he ignited in eleven men changed the world. Putting too much emphasis on program distracts from personal ministry. What if I don't get all the space I think I need in the new education wing? Does ministry hang so precariously on such externals?

A good test of whether or not you are majoring in minors is to look at what is frustrating you. Does it have to do with institutional questions or serving individual people? Nothing can really hinder the latter. If it's merely an institutional matter, give input where you are invited and defer to the decision makers. Conflict over minors isn't worth whatever you hope to gain.

6. Environment


It is impossible to examine staff conflicts without looking at the environment of staff relationships themselves. What kind of hierarchy allows for both accountability and freedom to minister? A system based entirely on the power of position can't flourish in a setting where the highest order of personal motivation must be the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Is faithfulness to God challenged when you are asked by a superior to do something you don't fully agree with? How can people be freely released when "I felt God wanted me to" is an oft-used excuse of the immature?

These questions complicate the usual employer-employee model. The church isn't just another business, and answers won't be found at the extremes. Freedom to the point of anarchy is destructive. Conversely, authority that chains the church to one person's will may find less outer conflict but breed deeper conflict inwardly.

Obviously the problem calls for more extensive discussion than is appropriate here. The stress between individual conscience and submission to authority, however, does contribute to staff conflict. Until we reconcile these competing values, they always will. The answer lies not in an ideal management system but in compassionate, personal cooperation that seeks to allow Christ to lead the life of the church.

7. Relationship dearth


"I could count on one hand the number of times we as a staff really prayed together other than to cover church prayer requests."

"In six years I have never been invited to my pastor's home for anything but church business."

"I want to share with him what I'm going through, but my struggles are always misunderstood as a lack of personal support."

I've heard these comments from staff pastors who hunger for strong personal relationships. Without them, conflicts become major obstacles to ministry. With them, conflicts are more easily resolved.

Key terms in disarming conflict are respect, understanding, freedom, submission, deference, honesty, and openness. These words describe personal relationships, not institutional systems. Management systems don't create destructive conflicts; people do. Where conflict destroys ministry, you can be sure that relationships have deteriorated. And preventing deterioration requires maintenance. Here are three principles for building strong relationships.

Relations must be familial. It is easy to let ministry relationships slip into mere professionalism. Relating only on the basis of the organizational chart forces us into an agree/disagree response to each other's ideas and actions. Once that happens, staff relationships become contests of influence, typified by suspicion, hurt, and independence.

The most productive staff relationships I've observed are those in which love was expressed in personal friendship. I'll never forget the morning my pastor came by on his way to the office to sit and talk with my wife and me after our small apartment had been burglarized.

Relationships must be supportive. If our goal is to minister to people and extend the kingdom, then we must work at encouraging one another. As a staff member, can you still support your pastor even if he opts for a different action than you suggested? As a pastor, do you care about helping your staff member go on when you know he or she has been disappointed?

You can't work in God's kingdom with others and ignore their needs. One pastor described the degeneration of relationships among his elders: "Being right became more important than being right with each other."

"You are my friends," Jesus told his disciples. And he cared deeply for their needs. "Familiarity breeds contempt" is a battle doctrine for the world; it has no place in the church.

Relationships must be mature. Being people's friend means saying more than just the things they want to hear. Leadership people must also have enough maturity to accept correction without being hurt or angry.

Jesus' closeness with Peter did not keep him from rebuking Peter when he sought to keep Jesus from the cross. James and John were blasted for wanting to destroy an entire village.

These relationships do not spring up overnight. They are cultivated. Fear of committing time to personal relationships is the greatest deterrent to a healthy staff environment. Maintenance is too time-consuming, some argue. While they do take time to establish, good friendships are not inefficient in the long run. There is no way to measure the time and energy wasted on conflicts that tear people apart, leaving them seething beneath the surface, or requiring endless meetings to resolve.

A local Assembly of God pastor lives out this commitment by meeting twice a week with his four-member staff—once for personal sharing and once for church business.

When you are truly someone's friend, conflicts need not be feared or hidden. They are not seen as the result of incompetence or rebellion but as the natural result of people working together who see through a glass darkly. Even with imperfect people in imperfect environments, the work of God can forge ahead.

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