Conflict is inevitable in every work environment, but we can learn to manage it well.
When Madison reached out to me for coffee, I could tell she had a lot on her mind. Madison was a young staff member at a large church where we both worked, and although we didn’t cross paths often, I admired her energy and passion and was happy to get to know her better. But twenty minutes into our meeting, Madison admitted she was ready to quit her “dream job” that she had accepted just a year before. This role was her first in church work, and through tears, she shared how the infighting and conflict in her department had shaken her confidence in herself and her faith in God. Her expectations for what church work could be clashed with the reality of a demanding role on a dysfunctional team. And Madison is not alone: Her story echoes many others I’ve heard from churches and ministry leaders, struggling to know how to handle conflict when working in the church.
It may feel like church work should be less conflictual than the average job, not more. After all, when we work together at church or in ministry, we share common values, a common vision and a common Lord. It would seem that all that sharing would make for a conflict-free workplace, but in reality, that is rarely the case. Conflict among church members and pastors, pastors and the board, and among staff is an oft-cited reason for pastor burnout, not to mention young leaders like Madison.
Conflict is inevitable in every work environment: In a survey of 5,000 full-time employees in nine different countries, 85% dealt with conflict at work. In my consulting work with churches and pastors, I often remind them that working for a church or a ministry is an objectively difficult assignment. Most of these environments are usually understaffed, underfunded and drawn to a great mission where the needs are never all met and the work can never all be done. What’s more, church work brings together a wide variety of occupations—at one staff meeting, you might have a person working with children, a person working with music, a finance professional and someone working in community outreach. Those are very different jobs that require very different personalities, with inherent competing demands on time and resources. Rather than being surprised that church work brings conflict, maybe we should see it as a sign we are doing something right. Let’s look at three ways you can improve your conflict management in church or ministry work:
1. Nice Is the Enemy of Depth.
One of the greatest enemies to real connection is when we choose to distance ourselves from others because we are being “nice.” And if you are using Jesus as your model, you won’t find “nice” as one of his management strategies. Nice is fine for pleasantries exchanged at the grocery store, but too often in ministry, we use being nice as an excuse to avoid confronting issues. When we avoid confrontation, we also end up avoiding the person with whom we disagree, which means the mission will ultimately suffer. Distance inevitably creates discord. Church staffs are infamous for working around one another in order to avoid confrontation. The next time you are tempted to avoid dealing with a co-worker directly, be curious about your choice. What will you gain by avoidance? What might you lose by avoidance? Courageous confrontation always starts with raising our own self-awareness about what’s behind our own action (or inaction.)
2. Family Is Different Than Team.
When a church or ministry staff compares themselves to a family, I get worried, because families are usually not the model of healthy relationships in conflict! In a family, we are bound together for life. But on a church staff, we should expect (and celebrate) that people will move in and through jobs. What binds us together as family is our faith in Christ, not our position in church. To be bound as family in the faith is to treat one another with a level of mutual respect and admiration that goes beyond our jobs on a staff. When we are on a staff, a better analogy is to compare ourselves to a team. We have certain positions, and together, we have a certain mission. We are responsible to play our positions and to work together toward a common mission, but we are not bound for life by that particular mission or position. If you are operating with the “staff as family” model, conflict will feel threatening because your identity is now bound up with your position. So although it can be difficult to delineate the two, seeing yourself as sisters and brothers in Christ together regardless of position is a healthier expectation that allows each team member the freedom to handle and confront inconsistent performance or behavior.
3. Practice, Not Perfection.
One of the most amazing things about our faith is that we are free to not get it right. Jesus said that those who have a solid foundation in Him “hears my words and puts them into practice.” (Luke 6:47, emphasis added). Jesus calls us to practice, not to perfection. And conflict is the training ground for growth in the practice of listening, validating, and compromising in order to experience greater connection with one another. Practicing better conflict management might look like this:
Seek to understand: Choose to enter a conversation with curiosity, not condemnation. When we enter in to seek to understand, we choose to believe that we are not 100 percent right in our understanding of the situation or the perspective of the other.
Seek the common good: Enter a conflict with a win-win mindset. Validating the position and priorities of the other, rather than defending your territory and perspective, allows room to find what you both need to move forward.
Seek restoration: Many of us want to hurry up and end a conflict, but seeking restoration looks like circling back later to confirm that you are both holding to your compromises and moving forward together.
Conflict isn’t easy for any of us, and it especially isn’t easy when the stakes are high. But miracles are possible in our work relationships when we face conflict head-on, believing that conflict can lead us to greater connection. There is no greater training ground for humility, openness, grace, and growth than in engaging in healthy conflict. In your next misunderstanding or misstep, choose to move toward the conflict, rather than away, and see what miracle moments can result.