Managing Conflict in a Church Setting
Some of Jesus' best known words promise, "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world." (John 16:33). Most of us prefer to focus on the second part of the verse, but the first part is also a promise: in this life, we should expect some trouble.
Something about working in a ministry setting can easily deceive us into believing we have finally landed in the perfect workplace. Surely, between prayers, devotions, and encouraging sticky notes, the church is the best place to experience no conflict at all! But then you actually get that job in the church, and your first conflict slaps you out of your lovely heaven-on-earth sentiment of ministry.
The church is a unique environment: part business, part family, with blurry lines of community and co-workers. The same leader who baptized my children also fills out my performance review. This blurring of boundaries means we have an even higher call to understand and handle conflict within the church. Here are a few tools to help in this inevitable "trouble":
Embrace the Spiritual Reality
Scripture admonishes us that "we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies" (Ephesians 6:12). When I struggle with disunity, discord, and dissent, it sure feels like a flesh-and-blood battle! But we are reminded in Scripture about this spiritual reality: Satan's only method is to "steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10). What better place than in our relationships in ministry? We must be vigilant in guarding our unity and the peace between us. When we sense discord, we cannot ignore the fact that there are forces at work that desire our fracture. This can be a point of motivation in pain, to continue to seek peace even when you feel like giving up.
When we face struggles in ministry, we want to react as spiritual leaders, not as petulant, pouting children. But we often think too highly of our ability to handle conflict. A better understanding of how you will manage your ministry relationships is how you handle your family relationships. Don't expect to be anyone other than yourself when you handle a conflict at work. If you tend to withdraw or avoid conflict in your family or other relationships, you can expect to act the same way at work. Knowing your own relational patterns can help you understand your growth areas and be aware of blind spots in the way you enter conflict.
I am painfully aware that the true "end goal" in many arguments is to get my point across, prove I'm right, or make sure a decision goes in the direction I desire. It is a much higher call to make the relationship between the people in conflict my number-one priority. I often find I want the problem fixed regardless of what happens to the relationship. But I've learned in ministry that this is a shortsighted goal. What must come first, even if it requires compromise on my part, is the relationship with the person I'm struggling to love.
We often see conflict as a thing to be avoided and as a sign of a poorly functioning team. In reality, much of the best growth in ministry, in our personal lives, and in our relationships comes after the painful pruning of conflict. When we face conflict, we also face a choice: we can engage with trouble as inevitable and growth-producing, or we can avoid, withdraw, or lash out. Which choice will you make today?
Nicole Unice is a writer and speaker and the author of She's Got Issues (Tyndale). She serves in family and student ministry at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia.