A church staff working together in harmony and loving one another for God’s glory is a crucial ingredient to a healthy church. Unfortunately, staff conflict is an all-too-common reality, even in theologically sound churches. On the one hand, some conflict is inevitable because people who battle indwelling sin work side by side every day. On the other hand, staff conflict can easily become quite ugly and derail a ministerial team into chaos rather quickly. In this brief article, I hope to identify a couple of causes of staff conflict and offer a few suggestions for handling those conflicts.

Before we begin, we need to be reminded that the church is in a spiritual war (Eph 6:10–12; Rev 12:17). Satan and his demons hate the church and want to destroy her. Satan’s best allies can become those on a ministerial team who unknowingly collaborate with him by stirring up unnecessary discord among church leadership. If we must remember that Satan is at war with the church, we must also remember that Jesus loves the church, his bride. Jesus prayed for church unity shortly before his arrest in Gethsemane (John 17:22–23). Remembering Christ’s desire for a unified church, let us turn our attention to staff conflict.

Some Causes of Staff Conflict

What I have observed over the years by talking to countless pastors and church staff members, is that most church staff conflicts are more character related than doctrinally related. People on church staff are usually highly motivated and passionate people. Yet, giftedness and theological education do not necessarily equate to spiritual maturity. Many people are gifted but spiritually, emotionally, and relationally immature. Immature people tend to believe that their way of ministry is the only way ministry can be carried out and every other approach is wrong. Therefore, some staff conflict is nothing more than a result of a well-educated minister who is spiritually immature and territorially minded. In a situation like this, speaking the truth in love to a person can be throwing that person a ministerial “life buoy”. If they listen, you will win your brother or sister, if not, they will be the source of regular conflict.

Another cause of staff conflict is generational differences. We must realize that people of different ages see things differently. Often more seasoned staff have a better perspective on the history of a church because of their years of service there. They have seen how moving too quickly at their church has resulted in devastating consequences. On the other hand, older staff members are often more “stuck in their ways” and lack the vision and vitality to make bold moves for kingdom advancement.  These differing approaches to church vision can deteriorate into conflict. Spiritual maturity teaches one to appreciate the insights of others and to work through differences in a prayerful and godly manner. If those who are younger approach the conflicting situation showing respect to those who are older and more experienced and if the older staff member understands that their perspective may have more to do with a failure to see ministerial opportunities with fresh eyes, then many differences of opinion can be worked out. In fact, often the best approach to be taken is somewhere in the middle.

Along these same lines, a failure to understand how a church body and a ministerial staff function can result in conflict. Spending time in 1 Corinthians 12 can be helpful to a staff struggling relationally. In that passage, Paul teaches the importance of unity and diversity in the church body. The church is one body made up of people with different personalities and spiritual gifts. Our personalities and spiritual gifts are the lens through which we see ministry. This is why it is essential that we have various personalities and gifts represented on a leadership team. Unfortunately, too often everyone on a staff has the pastor’s personality type and gifting and that is not healthy! This approach to leadership may minimize conflict but results in a church staff that lacks balance. While these differences in personality and giftedness can cause tension and potential conflict, they can also result in a healthier and more balanced staff. If everyone has the same personality and gifts (usually like the senior pastors!), the result will be a very unhealthy situation.

A third and major cause of staff conflict is pride. Pride was a common sin among the disciples (Mark 9:33–37). James makes a similar point when he asks the rhetorical question, “What is the source of wars and fights among you? Don’t they come from your passions that wage war within you? You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and wage war” (James 4:1-2). When inner hostility festers on a church staff because of prideful bickering, God’s people will suffer from poor shepherding. Often, staff members are too smart to openly engage in childish warfare, but they approach it subtly (still childish) by sarcastic comments, or a rolling of the eyes so others can see their disdain when another staff member is speaking. The longer a staff person allows the sin of pride to fester the more dangerous they become to the health of the church, their family, and their own soul. James would say, if you love the Lord, then you will not be a party to arrogant conflict. If you have a reputation for being difficult to work with, you probably are. From the perspective of the difficult staff member, it is their passion for excellence that causes them to behave unkindly, from God’s perspective it is their sinful arrogance and a lack of commitment to personal holiness.

What do we do when there is conflict?

A godly mature staff will not allow conflict to fester but will seek to be reconciled to those with whom they are in conflict. If Jesus wants us to love our enemies, how much more those we labor with in kingdom service! If there is evidence of a growing divide between two or more staff members, the pastor or a ministry supervisor will need to intervene in the conflict. The longer a conflict goes unresolved the deeper the bitterness grows in those involved. It may be your responsibility to address the matter with the parties together. They will need to determine if the conflict is personal (and it probably is) or a difference of opinion that has resulted in hurt feelings.

What do you do if you sense there is unresolved tension between you and another staff member? Jesus is clear on the path to reconciliation. Be the first to initiate the process of reconciliation. Next, before you approach the other person, take a long look in the mirror, and ask yourself some tough questions. Am I too sensitive? Have I contributed to the conflict with this person in some way? If you have been a contributing factor, then be prepared to ask the other party to forgive you for what you have said or how you have behaved. Next, spend time praying for the meeting. Ask God to guide your conversation. We need God’s wisdom whenever we deal with matters of dispute. When you meet with the other person, express your desire to work in harmony with them. Begin with your role in the conflict. Don’t underestimate your contribution to the conflict. Ask the other party to forgive you for your part in the conflict.  Seek to be a good listener and honestly hear what the other person is saying and try and understand their perspective.

While there are many other causes of staff conflict (jealousy, unmet expectations, methodological differences, etc.), staff conflict is not completely avoidable but can be minimized by the development of Christlike character and godly love for those with whom we labor.