The Key To Handling Conflict On Your Church Leadership Team

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Conflict will be inevitable on any church staff, regardless of team culture or experience of the members. The key for church leaders is to learn how to handle this conflict when it arises while still leading the team well. The Bible gives us many examples of conflict resolution that church leaders can implement next time they find themselves dealing with church staff conflict. 

One of the arguments for the historical reliability of the Bible is that the heroes of Scripture are not painted as flawless characters. We see their upsides and downsides—which gives us all hope! Luke, the historian who gives us the history of the first thirty years of the Christian church, records a rough moment when two leaders on a ministry team had a major disagreement.

Paul and Barnabas were very close members of a team, and had done some strategic ministry together. They had shared leadership of a team that traveled to take the gospel message of Christ to new territory. One of the members of that team was a young man named Mark, who also happened to be a cousin of Barnabas. Halfway through the trip Mark decided he’d had enough and went home. We don’t know if he was homesick, if he couldn’t face the dangers, or there were personnel issues—but he left. The rest finished the mission without him.

In Acts 15 Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are doing.” (Acts 15:36) Barnabas readily agreed, but wanted to take Mark again. Paul adamantly refused to have Mark on the team again! “Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated.” (Acts 15:39) In the original Greek language the sharp disagreement means violent emotion. This was not some mild difference of opinion—it was intense and passionate. So big was the disagreement that they parted ways. Paul picked up a new partner, Silas, and set out on another mission. Barnabas took his cousin Mark and sailed for Cyprus—and sailed right off the pages of the Bible, never to be heard of again. Was Barnabas more people-minded and Paul more mission-minded? Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance, Paul saw Mark’s desertion and lack of perseverance, and would not consider him for the team again.

Even the best Christians will not always agree, and sometimes they will intensely disagree. Tweet: Even the best Christians will not always agree, and sometimes they will intensely disagree. http://bit.ly/1Sw0XNH via @VanderbloemenSG

Patrick Lencioni in his book The Advantage writes, “Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems.”

Lencioni pictures team conflict on a continuum. At one end is no conflict at all, and at the other end is relentless and destructive conflict. When there is no conflict at all, Lencioni says that this could be a kind of “artificial harmony.” He notes that nowhere is this artificial harmony seen more than in mission-driven nonprofit organizations, especially in churches. There is a belief in churches that we should always have harmony and never disagree. However, some church teams also lapse into destructive (and sinful) kinds of conflict. Destructive conflict moves from challenging ideas and perspectives, and resorts to attacking persons.

Dr. John Gottman, marriage researcher at the University of Washington, tracked over 700 couples for more than 20 years, and he could predict with 91% accuracy which of those couples would divorce. How did he predict it? Not by if they argued, but HOW they argued. It is not if you have conflict, but how you have conflict that makes a marriage stable or fragile.

On a leadership team there will be conflict—but HOW you have conflict is the key. Tweet: On a leadership team there will be conflict—but HOW you have conflict is the key. http://bit.ly/1Sw0XNH via @VanderbloemenSG

In his book AxiomBill Hybels titles one chapter, “Disagree Without Drawing Blood.”

Effective teams will have a willingness to disagree, yet hold each other accountable to not move into destructive conflict.

Lencioni recommends five questions you should ask of yourself and each team member: Can we keep our egos in check? Are we capable of admitting to mistakes, weaknesses, or insufficient knowledge? Can we speak openly when we disagree? Will we confront behavioral problems directly? Can we put the success of the team or organization over our own?

Is there a fear of conflict on your leadership team? Is there a willingness to disagree about ideas and priorities, and yet refrain from personal attacks? Where would your team be on the continuum between artificial harmony and destructive conflict?  

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