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Preventing Staff Infection: An Associate’s Perspective

By Carl L. Miller

The church is the world’s greatest agent for peace. This also makes it a target for conflict, even between the senior pastor and his staff.

The New Testament provides a window through which we can view conflict experienced by ministry leaders. Differences concerning direction for ministry produced conflict (Acts 10:9 through 11:18). Conflict occurred because of personal differences (Acts 15:36–41). Sinful motives also produced conflict (Matthew 21:12–16).1

Conflict does not need to weaken ministry. Well-managed conflict can strengthen the church (Acts 6:1–7). By facing conflict head-on, the Early Church brought disagreeing parties together, clarified issues, resolved conflict, and accomplished God’s will. The same can happen in the church today.

Conflict is the No. 1 reason pastors leave a church or the ministry. Pastoral staff conflict also damages relationships and the church. Many staff pastors have left churches and the ministry because of unresolved conflict with the senior pastor or other staff pastors. As a staff pastor, I would like to share my perspective concerning what senior pastors can do to prevent or effectively manage staff conflict.

Pastor/Staff Relationships — A Source Of Conflict

While many senior pastors and their staffs work together and have harmonious relationships, ministry issues can cause disagreements and misunderstandings that create conflict among staff. Conflict among pastoral staff may come from how the senior pastor and his staff define the purpose of their particular ministries and the competition for power between staff pastors. When this takes place, staff cannot achieve unity and common vision and goals. Also, church members will soon notice staff conflict that is not resolved.

Poor communication between senior pastor and staff, ineffective management styles, weak leadership, dishonesty, and disloyalty are other sources of conflict. A pastor’s internal conflict or unmet needs or wants can create dissatisfaction with others. When one staff pastor questions the values and perceptions of other staff, or a staff member tries to force his unrealistic expectations on others, these cause strains in relationships that must be addressed.

Conflict between the senior pastor and staff can also result from changes in leadership style due to pastoral transition, resistance to changes in leadership style, rumormongering, or retaliatory behavior. Vague job descriptions and expectations also enhance the potential for conflict.

Symptoms of conflict may be manifested through body language, a disagreeable spirit or negative attitude, or a lack of respect for one another. Being aware of these factors can help a senior pastor address conflict issues before they escalate.

Developing Healthy Pastor-Staff Relationships

When conflict arises, some pastors and staff react negatively rather than in ways that honor God and resolve conflict effectively. When pastors recognize conflict indicators, they need to deal with them. Unresolved conflict will hinder the church’s progress.

Conflict becomes destructive when it diverts attention from the church’s vision and undermines the senior pastor’s leadership. It also weakens staff morale, causes separation and polarization, reduced cooperation, and collapsed communication.

Pastors need to set the stage for building strong staff relationships. They can do this by communicating, demonstrating trust and loyalty, and by being transparent in all relationships with staff. Pastors must also be truthful in dealing with conflict that sabotages pastoral leadership. Glossing over conflict and strained relationships by pretending everything is fine will create more tension and conflict.

Healthy senior pastor and staff pastor communication is nurtured by honest and constructive feedback in the safety of openness. This comes when the senior pastor builds an atmosphere for open communication. Staff loyalty is fostered through honesty and team building.

Senior pastors who allow for an open and honest exchange of ideas and constructive objections are more likely to see the same behavior expressed between staff pastors. Confronting and resolving conflict occurs more readily in an atmosphere where openness and honesty are practiced. Senior pastors who provide this atmosphere in staff meetings are less likely to see staff withdraw into silence or subversion.

Viable conflict management thrives when there is mutual confidence and willing submissiveness between staff. Mutual respect and constructive dialogue contribute to a healthy sensitivity to issues, each other, and promotes healthy discussion. Questions regarding vision, program direction, and ministry projects can then be addressed in an atmosphere of trust and respect.

It is inevitable that the pastor will need to address painful issues with a staff member. When these issues affect pastor and staff relationships, both parties need to be honest in addressing the issues. When the relationship between the senior pastor and staff member is marked by love, humility, and transparency, constructive conflict management is more easily accomplished.

When correction is needed, two-way communication between the senior pastor and staff, undergirded with gentleness and love, facilitates godly discipline. Practicing corrective discipline can promote healthy senior pastor-pastoral staff relationships.

Strategies For Managing Conflict

When conflict between the pastor and staff or between staff members occurs, the senior pastor needs to see that the conflict is resolved. Pastors can do several things to increase conflict management among staff.

Framing is the process where the problem and participants are clearly defined. At this point the senior pastor and staff need to discover the real issue that is causing the conflict. Some involved in the conflict may have become overly sensitive to something they perceived to have happened. In this stage those perceptions need to be addressed.2

The senior pastor and staff need to provide opportunities for clear, constructive communication. Each person needs to be able to freely express himself without fear of retribution.

As a preventative measure, the senior pastor needs to establish conflict-solving procedures by developing a process for conflict resolution and decisionmaking. This includesminimizing conflict by preventing the recreational complaint syndrome — gossip with other staff and church members.

The Senior Pastor And Conflict-Management Styles

Conflict-management styles are basic assumptions coupled with specific behavioral patterns. How pastors use or abuse these styles can help or hinder effective conflict resolution.3

Avoiding

Conflict avoiders protect themselves by staying out of conflict. Senior pastors who use avoidance are generally hesitant to confront problems. When they acquiesce because of the pressure of conflict, it reinforces their frustration and weakness, pushes deep-seated hostility underground, and inevitably weakens or forestalls the solution needed to resolve conflict.

Some conflict issues involving pastoral staff may not warrant involvement by the senior pastor. Evaluating conflict on a 1-to-5 scale can be helpful. A 5 warrants the senior pastor’s intervention. A 1 would be a misuse of his time and energy. Some hills are not worth climbing. The senior pastor’s involvement may cloud the boundaries of staff responsibility and diminish the opportunity for growth and maturity.

On the other hand, to avoid intervention can forestall the inevitable. The pain of doing something, and doing it swiftly, can be far less costly than the pain of avoiding or forestalling.

Accommodating

Accommodators either preserve relationships at any cost or concede their personal interests for the broader interests of the organization. Those who preserve relationships at any cost, even at the risk of hurting others, tend to deny or avoid dealing with conflict too long and finally succumb to quick-fix solutions. Their tendency is to sweep conflict under the rug, and by pacifying or accommodating, sacrifice the better and greater interest and effectiveness of the ministry.

Those who concede their personal interests for the broader interests of the ministry prefer appeasement at the expense of principle. When Paul confronted Cephas in Antioch for perceived hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11–21), he was not accommodating. Paul did not withdraw or hide behind false cooperation or cheerfulness to accommodate because he was willing to defend the truth.

Accommodation can cause confusion. Strength comes when staff members are willing to confront and ask difficult questions. “What am I doing to cause tension?” “What is happening?” “What is at stake?” “Who is in charge?” Points of tension may need to be identified. Threatening issues may need to be avoided to prevent further deterioration of communication. Accommodation through appeasement is not acceptable. Accommodation through selfless conciliation works.

Collaborating

Collaborators want all parties involved to define the cause of conflict. Collaborators desire to manage conflict effectively. Collaborating includes open communication. Pastors who use this style emphasize achieving the higher goals of ministry, safeguarding the ministry, and striving to maintain healthy relationships. They believe relationships will endure when people exercise patience and perseverance in upholding what is right.

Despite the pain of expressed differences, collaborators exercise flexibility, keep the differing parties communicating, and are committed to the premise that conflict can be managed in a way that strengthens the ministry and relationships. Collaborators proactively turn conflict into a problem-solving situation. They are synergistic and have a win-win philosophy.

Collaborative senior pastors are more likely to develop collaborative protégés. They are less likely to be ego-driven and more likely to be people focused and team builders. They are confident and emphasize cooperation, communication, positive compromise, and consensus with conviction.

Consistent collaboration increases trust, strengthens relationships, energizes implementation of agreed-upon solutions, and increases goal achievement.

Compromising

Compromisers provide each side with some winning to minimize loss. They believe if everyone cannot be satisfied, people should seek the common good to preserve relationships, but not necessarily protect them. They attempt to spread the winning and losing as evenly as possible. Persuasion and manipulation may need to be used to satisfy both sides. This style presupposes that conflicting parties are willing to submit personal desires to serve the common good of both parties and the ministry as a whole.

Caution has to be exercised with this style to avoid the possibility of greater harm to the ministry; limiting search time for more creative, mutually satisfying solutions; or spending needless time and energy working on issues when the conflicting parties are of mutual strength and are firmly committed to different goals.

A senior pastor might see compromise as more effective in resolving conflict in the short run if greater harm can be avoided. A strained relationship with a pastoral staff member could be given a cooling off period. A mutual agreement for a temporary consensus may give the time needed to achieve a more satisfying solution.

However, compromise in a strained relationship can also produce a halfhearted commitment to agreed-on solutions, limited goal attainment, and recurring conflict under the guise of new issues.

Competing

The competing philosophy holds that conflict has only two possible outcomes — winning and losing — and winning is preferred over losing. While the competitor does not desire to intentionally hurt others or damage relationships, he places prime importance on personal goals and his interpretation of what is best for the ministry. Relationships may be sacrificed to accomplish this. Aggression and control drive this style of conflict management that attempts to prove the point of the conflict competitor. He believes he knows what is best for all parties concerned. His sense of self-esteem may be on the line; therefore he must win at any cost.

This style does not presuppose that the person be perceived as ruthless, but it tends to reinforce the need for power and coercion as legitimate methods in conflict management. Long-term use of the competing style can produce forced acquiescence, covert hostility, halfhearted implementation of solutions, and decreased goal achievement.

Resolving Conflict Is Essential

The senior pastor is responsible to ensure relationships between staff are harmonious. Not only must he have a healthy theology of conflict, he must teach and practice that theology with his staff. When he proactively promotes good relationships between himself and his staff and between staff members, church ministry will be more effective. And they will be an example to the church concerning what it means to live in harmony with one another.

Endnotes

  1. Norman Shawchuck, How To Manage Conflict in the Church: Understanding and Managing Conflict, vol. 1 (Leith, N.D.: Spiritual Growth Resources, 1998), 37.
  2. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, codirectors, University of Colorado’s Conflict Research Consortium. “Conflict Management and Constructive Confrontation: A Guide to the Theory and Practice.” International Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict. Colorado.edu/conflict/peace/
  3. Shawchuck, 22–27.

Carl L. Miller, M.A., is staff pastor at First Assembly of God, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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