Conflict among ministry coworkers is inevitable. A staff of sinners trying to pour themselves out in service will be susceptible to many temptations. They can be tempted to not believe the best of one another, to disagree with the direction of ministry, or to be hearers of the Word but not doers (1 Cor. 13; James 1:22).
Conflict may be uncomfortable, but it isn’t all bad. Here are five reasons why God may permit conflict for your benefit as a ministry leader.
1. Conflict exposes the heart.
Church leaders spend a lot of time saying the right things. But when conflict happens, our hearts are exposed, and we can see if we really believe what we say. James 4 explains if we have a conflict, it’s often because we aren’t getting something we want. Conflict reveals what we love most. Do we want to please Christ, or do we want to please ourselves? Are we gracious like Christ, or do we force others to bend our way?
Ephesians 4:3 teaches we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Peace is a sign of reconciliation. It’s neither an overly confrontational “my way or the highway,” nor an avoidant “pretend like that didn’t happen” kind of peace. In the process of reconciliation, every person—from the top of the staff chart to the bottom—must concern himself first with the log in his own eye (Matt. 7:5).
2. Conflict teaches us to love like Jesus.
When it comes to reconciliation and peace, Jesus provides our blueprint. He never slinks back from correcting those around him, but he always moves forward full of truth and full of love (John 1:14). He gives us what we need in order to do the same (Eph. 1:3).
Since conflict derives from our inability to meet God’s standard, we shouldn’t be surprised when it occurs. In fact, we should expect it. Since Jesus is the only one who met God’s standard perfectly, he’s the only one who can provide grace in our failings.
Conflict is an opportunity to love like Jesus as we put on his kindness and truth in our relationships with others.
3. Conflict builds trust.
I’ve been under leadership that ignores conflict, and I’ve been under leadership that faces it head on. Leaders who lovingly step into conflict have earned my trust. They fixed problems that needed addressing in a way that was both kind and helpful.
Under leadership that fears God instead of conflict, I’m encouraged to confess my own problems. Under leadership that ignores conflict, I hesitate voicing concerns to avoid being seen as a problem-maker.
If we tell others to bring their problems before Jesus, ministry leaders should exhibit that same willingness to receive concerns (1 Pet. 5:1–7). Addressing conflict in healthy ways grows a team that trusts one another as they minister together.
4. Conflict corrects things that need correcting.
Not fixing 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 limp.
Just as a pastor’s family should be in order before he does public ministry, so too should a ministry staff exhibit Christlikeness first toward one another. Conflict exposes what changes need to be made internally so the external vision of your ministry maintains integrity. If a leader is faithful with internal conflict, it benefits the entire body.
5. Conflict grows you as a leader.
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’s conflict, someone needs correction (James 4:1–2); if there’s potential conflict, it must be navigated with care so no one stumbles (2 Cor. 6:3). Potential problems left unaddressed are like 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 scarce in ministry, it’s time. But a good leader makes the time. Putting on humility toward the Lord and others, ministry leaders can spur their staff toward Christlikeness. In turn, the staff can do the same for Christ’s blood-bought flock.
It may not be the easiest or most comfortable way, but a good leader won’t avoid conflict. Nor will a good leader blow up in anger at conflict. Instead, leaders who love like Jesus will leverage conflict for the benefit of those involved, for the good of the ministry, and for the glory of God. As Paul urged the Corinthians, “open wide your hearts” and use conflict as an opportunity to love well (2 Cor. 6:3–13).