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5 tips to resolve church conflict (part two)

By Rev. Kimberly Pope-Seiberling

Last month, we shared 7 tips to prevent staff conflict. However, even if you follow each of those to the letter, conflict will still arise.

It is easy for leaders to avoid becoming involved in disagreements or to overreact to staff conflicts. Neither approach is healthy. Below are some reminders for leaders who are more than just staff referees. Let’s get rid of our whistles and striped shirts and meet staff conflicts head-on.

1. Be creative: In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras suggest leaders “live in the possibility of the ‘and,’ instead of the tyranny of the ‘or.’” In other words, just because the people embroiled in the conflict can only see a win/lose situation; it is the pastor’s job, when possible, to find the win/win resolution.

2. Stay focused: Many churches have mission statements, identified values and strategic objectives. Often conflict is not a matter of who is “right” and who is “wrong”; it is a matter of moving the church in a direction that helps you meet your objectives. For example, should the undesignated endowment funds go toward men’s ministry or youth ministry? If your church’s youth ministry is growing and gaining huge momentum, you may be tempted to place funds either in the weaker ministry or with the ministry closest to your heart. Use your strategic plan to dictate where extra resources should go. This allows you to make a strategic decision without discounting the value of other ministries.

3. Beware of the squeaky wheel: Matthew 5:9 says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It breaks my heart when people come into my office complaining bitterly, pointing fingers and threatening to leave if things are not resolved according to their specifications. This bully-like behavior is designed to manipulate situations and rarely comes from a servant’s heart. In these cases, it is important that the leader remember there are always two sides to a story, and when things get ugly, rarely are there innocent parties. Squeaky wheels need to be changed, not oiled. Don’t allow negative behavior to set the standard for conflict resolution in your church.

4. Address the heart of the matter: What people are arguing about is rarely what people are really arguing about. Just like a married couple’s feud over dirty socks on the floor, the real issue may be about control or respect for the other person. In the same way, arguments about who gets the desired office space may really be about being valued. Fights about what music should be sung are likely to be more about change than music. Ask probing questions that go beyond the issue on the table. Behind every conflict is fear. What are staff members afraid will happen if they don’t get their way?

5. Understand your mantle of leadership: Conflict within the church is inevitable. A “conflict-free” environment is an atmosphere where conflict exists, but no one is talking. Part of our job as pastors is to manage disagreements through a theological lens. Occasionally we must tell valued staff “no.” At other times, it is necessary to draw a person’s attention to his or her less than Christ-like behavior. As leaders, we are mandated first to know God and then to lead.

Balancing the high standards of Christian behavior with funding, a variety of personalities and different working styles is enough to drive the best supervisors crazy – but it is our job! The good news is meditation, prayer and study of God’s word can provide a guide for staff interactions.

Now put away your referee’s shirt and your whistle. As pastors, our job is to know God, stay focused and be creative in solving potential conflicts.

The Rev. Kimberly Pope-Seiberling is pastor at Immanuel UMC Lima, Ohio. She blogs about church change at churchchangesucks.com. She and her husband, Eric, have one daughter, Lindsey, and reside with two adorable pugs and one very fat cat.