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7 tips to prevent church conflict (part one)

By Rev. Kimberly Pope-Seiberling

Church staffs come in many different forms. Staff may already be in place when a pastor arrives. In other instances, one or more staff members may need to be selected. Some staffs operate as well-oiled team machines; others are the height of dysfunction and manipulation. Just thinking about them may make you want to scream and run for the hills.

Here are some tips on preventing staff conflicts – learned the hard way.

1. Lead the way: At staff meetings, make a point to ask each staff member, “What can I do to make your ministry more fruitful?” Soon members will begin asking each other what they can do to enhance each other’s ministry. Staffs invested in each other’s areas of ministry have less conflict.Sometimes pastors underestimate the power of their example. Be a leader other people want to follow.

2. Make the staff practice: Often a staff experiences fracture because an individual becomes overly vested in his or her particular ministry area. It is easy for individual staff members to forget they are one of many parts of a healthy, well-functioning church. Each year we have a churchwide event where the success does not depend on one particular ministry area or on a particular staff member. These large events depend on the staff communicating, coordinating and executing together.

3. Learn each other’s personalities and strengths: Use several different tools such as StrengthsFinderDiSCHermann Brain Dominance Instrument and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help the staff understand different personalities and working styles. Pre-emptive conversation addressing differences allows for healthy dialogue before conflict arises.

4. Treat staff as a Christian community: Jesus had a staff of 12 disciples. They weren’t perfect, and they did not always get along. One of the 12 even betrayed Jesus, their leader. Pastors should remember they are not just creating staffs; they are creating Christian communities. Studying themes of servanthood, sacrifice, forgiveness, peace, joy and patience together can equip us to deal with critical issues that can rip apart church staffs. These discussions can also enhance our work as staff members and make us better Christians.

5. Evaluate teamwork: As a part of each staff member’s annual evaluation, assess how well staff members get along with each other and deal with conflict in a Christ-like manner. This allows addressing small problems before they become big issues. Not only does it make each member of the team think about how he or she contributes and cooperates, but it also communicates that teamwork is expected and part of the church culture. Those who act outside of these norms will be held accountable for their actions.

6. Set guidelines for dealing with conflict BEFORE it arises: Each member of my church leadership team and all of the paid staff know guidelines exist for dealing with conflict.

  • Talk to the person with whom you are having a conflict before going to your supervisor.
  • Own your feelings.
  • Honor staff members by keeping a conflict confidential and by saying only positive things about each other.

Addressing dysfunctional conflict-resolution patterns before they happen can help staff members find new and healthier ways of serving the body of Christ. Check out these conflict resolution policies from Back River United Methodist Church, Essex, Md., and use them to create your own.

7. JustPeace can help: JustPeace is the commissioned Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation of the United Methodist Church. JustPeace empowers individuals to engage conflict constructively in ways that strive for justice, reconciliation, resource preservation and restoration of community.

JustPeace assists United Methodists with regard to:

  • Attitudes to conflict
  • Skills used before and in the midst of conflict
  • Processes for transforming conflicts
  • Ministries of reconciliation that support transformative attitudes, skills and processes.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Take the time now to create a healthy staff. It will pay big dividends when challenges arise. To settle conflict that is already present, read part two of this series to learn 5 tips to resolve church staff conflict.

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.