Dealing with Team Conflict
Team health is vital when it comes to ministry effectiveness. This is true with paid staff and volunteer teams. A healthy team encourages vitality and growth, but malignant teams leak poison into the organization. Creating healthy teams isn't easy and they do not live in conflict-free environments. Every church, large and small, experiences internal friction because people will always be people. And people are wired differently. Plus, we have an adversary who’s always trying to disrupt the work of the church. There are many things than can generate antagonism. Things like low job performance, vision drift, lack of communication and poor attitudes are just a few. Regardless of the root of conflict, there are right and wrong ways to handle it.
Here are four common mistakes church leaders make when dealing with team conflict:
- Sweep it under the rug and pretend it isn’t happening.
- Say what people want to hear to keep all parties happy.
- Have side conversations about the person(s) of conflict with other team members to build a case against them.
- Pray a lot and hope it goes away.
No pain, no gain
So what is the proper way to handle conflict? How can the pains of conflict make a team stronger? Actually, team strength happens the same way physical strength happens. Working out requires the willingness to endure pain in order to gain muscle. After you workout, your body repairs or replaces damaged muscle fibers through a cellular process where it fuses muscle fibers together to form new muscle. In other words, the workout damages existing muscle and the body repairs and rebuilds it with new muscle.
In the world of church, leaders have to be willing endure the pain of dealing with the issues at hand. They have to be willing to stretch the old muscles. Yes, it may hurt and damage feelings, but that’s part of the workout. Contentious seasons, although never pleasant, can actually be an opportunity to build spiritual muscle and maturity on the team. Jesus constantly encountered conflict, often among the twelve disciples. And may I add, he never did any of the four things mentioned above.
Here are four helpful biblical tips that can build team strength when conflict occurs:
- Do not allow out of control tempers in the room. “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins” (Proverbs 29:2). As the leader, you must set the tempo in the room. Allowing hostile and belligerent voices will create the perfect storm for the meeting to go sideways quickly. Provide guidelines before the meeting to establish boundaries and protocol. Remember the words of Proverbs 15:1, "A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.”
- Don’t attempt to resolve team-conflict alone: “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’” (Matthew 18:16). It is helpful to have other leaders (team members, elders, etc) in the room for support, accountability and perspective. Make sure those in the room are level headed and in the know about the current situation.
- Push for truth: “But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). Speak truth about the real problem. Don’t allow the conversations to be influenced by the symptoms of the underlined problems. Treating symptoms creates their own set of problems. Remember, confrontation cleanses and sanctioned incompetence spreads and eventually infects the entire team. Deal with the heart of the conflict, despite the pain that may accompany the conversation.
- Agree to Disagree: “After some time 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.” Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark. But Paul disagreed strongly, since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their disagreement was so sharp that they separated…” (Acts 15:36-39). As mentioned in the workout analogy, strength comes as a result of to repairing or replacing muscle. In Paul’s case, it was time to remove Mark from the team in order to keep things healthy. Later on, Paul talks about how much he values Mark, so eventually they did resolve the matter, but conflict did happen and Paul did make a decision to agree to disagree and move on.
It's not a question of, if conflict happens, but when conflict happens. As a leader, you can allow it to infect your team or embrace it as an opportunity and become stronger and healthier as a team.