Staff Conflict: Positive Solutions to Build Up Your Team

By Alison Zeller

Summer is long gone and your ministry is taking off with another year of programs and activities. Of course, you expect there to be a few minor issues here and there. We all know nothing’s perfect, right? Adjusting goals, tweaking the budget, expanding programming - you’re a pro at it!

What about staff conflict? Often times, it reaches elephant-in-the-room status because few church workers know how to effectively diffuse issues between co-workers in ministry. According to reports from an organizational development professional, “Every unaddressed conflict wastes about eight hours of time in gossip and other unproductive activities.”

Misplaced anger, selfish motives, overflowing pride, disrespect, hostility, resentment - these sins are often as prevalent in churches as they are in secular workplaces! Has your staff ever dealt with these pitfalls?

  • Fighting over resources like funding, meeting spaces, or volunteers
  • Working in “ministry silos” with limited cooperation and communication
  • Operating like a secular business, setting goals based on earthly measures and forgetting to treat staff members like brothers and sisters in Christ
  • Burnt out, depressed, and unmotivated staff members

Yes, we all know about conflict, but what do you know about resolving staff conflict? Consider the ways your staff usually handles issues and then read this list. Jot down a few of these strategies and plan to incorporate them in building up your staff on a regular basis.

  • Reach across ministry lines to find unity

Your church may have specific ministry areas like a men’s ministry, children’s ministry, and senior ministry. Specialized ministries can be successful, but not if they segregate your staff and cause infighting.

At least three times each year, find common goals that unify all of your ministries under the church’s mission. Make a special effort to bring together staff members from each area of ministry. Think about it as if you’re a crew team, all sitting in the same boat, rowing toward the finish line. For example, your church may have the goal of building a missionary presence in Kenya. Ask your children’s ministry to collect school supplies for the children in Kenya. Ask your women’s ministry to host a chili cook-off fundraiser for travel expenses. Ask members of you senior ministry to commit to spending a week in Kenya each summer. Specialized ministry and staff unity can coexist!

  • Foster humility

Your church is not a Fortune 500 business and your staff members are not working in ministry to become millionaires. However, you’ll find competition, pride, know-it-all attitudes, and other get-to-the-top-at-all-costs behaviors in church staffs everywhere.

God calls us to act differently:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:5 ESV

How can you get staff members to leave their egos at the door? Challenge them to listen twice as much as they speak. Provide a forum for constructive criticism. Reward cooperation over competition. Point out experts in your staff who are willing to help - Sarah knows computers, Aaron knows volunteers, Krista knows local business relations, and so on. (See more ideas in this article from Harvard Business Review.)

  • Learn together

Life experience is a pretty good teacher when it comes to teamwork, cooperation, and conflict resolution. However, books and Bible studies can help, too. Make time in your staff members’ schedules for learning and discussion. Try selecting a book, asking your staff members to read one chapter each week, and saving 15 minutes of your staff meeting for discussion. Look for Teams That Thrive, Lasting Impact, QBQ! The Question behind the Question, or ask for suggestions from your staff members.

  • Retreat!

A retreat can be the ideal time to get out of the office, resolve underlying conflicts, and get to the heart of each person’s perspective. Even if staff relationships seem amicable, adding a retreat session on conflict resolution is a great idea. Retreats may also prevent future conflicts because they offer time for all staff to voice their opinions. Plus, retreat sessions foster deep discussion of the issues that matter most to your ministry staff.

  • Create a conflict-resolution policy

Conflict happens in even the most harmonious church offices. Instead of debating how to handle each issue, write a general conflict-resolution policy to direct all contentious situations. A policy like this will take a lot of the emotion out of the conflict and provide a logical way to handle things. Consider creating two policies - a policy that directs co-workers to handle the situation in private and a policy that uses a mediator.

With a quick Internet search, you’ll find many conflict-resolution policies that can work for church staffs. Try this 10-step meeting, the “interest-based relational” strategy, or this detailed process from the University of Wisconsin.

One final note about staff conflict - it’s healthy! When your team can discuss issues and disagreements in a positive manner, conflict will help your staff grow and achieve more than you first thought possible. As the church-staffing specialists at Vande rbloemen said, “Healthy teams engage in healthy conflict because they are striving to do what is best for the church. A lack of healthy conflict could mean that team members have lost their passion for their role or the overarching vision of the team.”

Keep up the passion! Keep up the healthy conflict! Keep your team working for God’s Kingdom “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2–3 ESV).

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