Conflict among co-workers in ministry is inevitable. A staff of sinners tirelessly pouring themselves out to the community around them is going to be susceptible to temptations of many kinds. A ministry staff can be tempted not to believe the best of one another, to disagree with the direction of ministry based on differing perspectives or expertise and insist on their own way, or to hear God's word but not do what it says (1 Cor 13; James 1:22). Sometimes church staff members don’t seem to care as much as for each other as they seem to care about the flock for which they co-labor.
Conflict amongst ministry staff isn’t all bad, however. Here are five reasons why God allows conflict for your benefit as a ministry leader.
1. It exposes the heart.
Church leaders inevitably spend a lot of time reading and saying the right things. When conflict happens, it exposes hearts in a way that uncovers whether or not the things we teach are sincerely truths we believe. James 4 tells us that if we have a conflict, it’s because we want something and aren’t getting it. When conflict in ministry happens, it reveals what those involved love most.
Do we want to please Christ or do we want to stay comfortable?
Are we sincerely gracious like Christ or do we force people to bend our way?
When we read in Ephesians 4:3 that we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” ministry leaders must recognize that peace is actually a state of reconciliation. It is neither an overly confrontational “my way or the highway,” nor an avoidant “pretend like that didn’t happen” kind of peace.
To be reconciled amidst conflict means to restore relationship as Christ has restored our relationship with God (2 Cor 5:18-19). To truly do this, each party must first get the log out of their own eye (Mt 7:5). This includes every person, from the top of the staff chart to the bottom.
2. It forces Christ-like love.
When it comes to reconciliation and peace, we have the perfect blueprint in Jesus. Jesus never slinks back from correcting those around him, but he always moves forward not just with full truth, but with full love (Jn 1:14). He gives us what we need in order to do the same (Eph 1:3).
If your desire as a ministry leader is to love like Jesus, that means you step into conflict like Jesus. Since conflict actually derives from our inability to meet God’s standard, we shouldn’t be surprised when it happens. In fact, we should expect it. Since Jesus is the only one who met God’s standard perfectly, he is the only one who can help us with grace in our failings towards one another. Conflict is an opportunity to love (e.g. lead) like Jesus as we put on his kindly grace and comforting truth.
3. It builds relational trust.
I’ve been under leadership that ignores conflict; I’ve been under leadership that faces it head on. Leaders who lovingly step into conflict have personally earned my full trust. This is because those faithful leaders fixed problems that needed to be addressed in a way that was both kind and helpful; I witnessed these leaders embody Christ (2 Cor 5:14-15). Under leadership that fears God instead of conflict, I am encouraged to confess my own problems. Under leadership that ignores conflict, I hesitate voicing concerns in order to refrain from being seen as a problem-maker. If we tell others to bring their problems before Jesus, shouldn’t ministry leaders exhibit that same willingness to receive concerns (1 Pet 5:1-7)? To be a minister who is trustworthy like Jesus, we must not ignore conflict.
4. It corrects what needs correcting.
Not fixing problems that are well . . . problems, is like letting your children limp around with broken bones. If you’re not willing to lovingly deal with internal ministry conflict, your staff will be limping. Just as a pastor’s personal family should be in order before he does the work of public ministry, so too should a ministry staff exhibit Christlikeness first towards one another. Conflict is helpful when it shows what changes need to be made internally so the external vision of your ministry maintains integrity before God and others. If a leader is faithful with internal conflict, the external ministry will maintain integrity (Prov 11:3).
5. It forces good leadership.
Proverbs 27:5-6 says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” If there is conflict, someone needs correction (James 4:1-2); if there is potential conflict, it needs to be navigated with care so that no one may stumble (2 Cor 6:3). Leaving potential problems unaddressed is like leaving grenades lying around that haven’t yet gone off.
Navigating the intricacies of sinners working together admittedly takes time; and we all know if there’s one thing that’s scarce in ministry, it’s time. A good leader sacrifices for the good of those with whom God has entrusted him or her. Putting on humility first toward the Lord and second toward others, a good leader will spur their staff on toward Christ-likeness so the staff can do the same for Christ’s body. Are you going to be a leader that spends precious time and energy caring for the hearts of those under you? Or will you avoid the inner man of those you lead, letting problems lay hidden, because that’s easier or more comfortable for you?
A good leader won’t avoid conflict; a good leader won’t blow up in anger at conflict. Instead, leaders who love like Jesus will leverage conflict for the benefit of those involved, for the care of the ministry and for the glory of God. Just as Paul urged the Corinthians, “open wide your hearts” and use conflict as an opportunity to love well (2 Cor 6:3-13).
Rebekah Hannah is a biblical counselor at The Grace Center for Biblical Counseling in Jacksonville, Florida. She is married to Andrew and has three daughters.