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Part One: “Conflict Management and Team Ministry”

An Overview

Glen E. Dawursk, Jr. --

A rapidly growing church on the north side of Milwaukee has an unusual neon sign showing through the glass windows of its front doors.  The brightly lit purple colored sign says, “Sinners welcome here!”  How appropriate that the place where forgiveness should reside should encourage sinners to “come on in.”  It is exactly this issue of “sinners” that we also need to consider when we discuss the leadership and professional staff of our churches as well.  For even ministry teams are made up of “imperfect people.” 


Among the most successful ministry staffs across the country, sin still transcends into the personal daily grind of each parish ministry member and with it comes the potential for conflict.  Dr. Phil Van Auken in his book, “The Well Managed Ministry” states that “When imperfect people interact in imperfect ways, conflict results.  Conflict is inevitable in all organizations, including those with a Christian mission.” (Van Auken, 8.1)  Ken Sande says that “you cannot prevent conflict in the church.” (Sande, 1) He further suggests that God may even allow conflict in order to bring about a change at the congregation or to encourage spiritual growth.  Marlene Sweeney in her article “Dealing with Conflict” says that “conflict may be unavoidable, but it is not unmanageable.” (Sweeney, 1) 


Conflict is expected in a church – after all, Satan desires to divide a congregation.  It is especially anticipated among the parish ministry staff. For if Satan can divide the spiritual leadership of the church, the consequences will gravely affect the congregation and its mission as well. Sande cautions that “anytime a conflict between two people in a church is not properly resolved, it can grow to infect an entire congregation. Such conflicts are often more intense and destructive than those in secular organizations.” (Sande, 1) Scripture tells us to “pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.” (Romans 14:19 NKJV) For this reason, a ministry staff needs to learn ways to respond to conflict positively – especially when it is among the ministry staff.  There needs to be a pro-active process to maintain and resolve the potentially destructive nature of any staff conflict.


Conflict is not always a negative.  Sometimes conflict can help teams to refine their ministry goals or objectives and promotes a dialog among staff. It can also encourage problem solving and challenge the staff toward a greater vision or goal.  Negative conflict will destroy communication, energy, and productivity and cooperation among the parish staff members.  It is essential that negative conflict be dealt with as soon as possible in order to minimize its caustic effect on the ministry.


Dr. Van Auken of Baylor University in Waco, Texas suggests that the best way to manage conflict is to first understand its root cause.  He suggests that most conflicts originate from a lack of goal assimilation and suboptimization.  If the parish team does not take ownership of the goals they will not be willing to “suboptimize” or compromise their own departmental preferences or desires for the sake of the greater ministry.  (Van Auken, 8.2) 


Understanding how the individual members of the parish team deal with conflict is also a pro-active method toward conflict resolution.  A simple test from the Alban Institute called “Discover Your Conflict Management Style” offers six responses used by many parish workers.  Note, often times we will use more than one response to deal with a conflict.  They are:

·      Persuade others of your position (this works only if they trust you),

·      Compel them through the enforcing of rules, regulations and penalties,

·      Avoid discussing the issue or Accommodate the issue by “giving in”,

·      Collaborate a mutual solution,

·      Negotiate a deal (can be done as part of a collaborative solution), or

·      Support a resolution as just an observer (non-involved third party). 


The Conflict Resolution Center of Pittsburgh, PA suggests these ten ways to easing tension in a church and toward solving congregational conflict:

·      Admit you need each other; work together toward a resolution.

·      Face the conflict; don’t ignore it.

·      Listen to others opinions without judging it.

·      Know your audience and respond accordingly.

·      Recognize the effect of change on the congregation before conflict sets in.

·      Be alert to your emotional involvement to an issue.

·      Keep issues separate; deal with them one at a time.

·      Empower all parties in a conflict – everyone should own into the solution.

·      Stay objective and respect everyone’s perspective on an issue even if you do not agree.

·      If necessary, bring in a mediator. (Mendelson, 2)


Dr. Van Auken offers three “conflict-reduction” and four “conflict-coping” strategies for

dealing with ministry team issues.  The conflict-reduction strategies are:

·            The conflict should not be about person or personality – stick to an issue.

·            Always separate a person’s feelings or emotional delivery from their actual thoughts.

·            Remain non-confrontational throughout the process.


The conflict-coping strategies are:

·            Superordinate: seek a common cause and commitment toward a ministry vision or goal among those having the conflict.

·            Fractionize: break the conflict down into smaller more manageable issues which the ministry team can more easily deal with.

·            Cross Pollination: create an understanding and acceptance between the various ministries of the parish team with the intent of promoting interdependence.

·            Compromise: not always plausible, but works well when the purpose is agreed upon by the team but the process or facilitation has not been clearly defined.


These “strategies” and suggestions are all well intentioned and they clearly desire to promote a pro-active approach toward conflict resolution; however, the process still requires a change in attitude and behavior.  A “holy habit” needs to be developed in order for the team to work effectively through the inevitable conflicts Satan and our sinful condition are going to bring to the ministry table. 


In my 21+ years of team ministry, the most effective approach I have found to developing a “holy habit” in conflict resolution is based upon a book by Ken Sande.  Sande has simply applied Biblical methods and responses for dealing positively with conflict. Part two of this presentation will take a closer look at his approach to conflict resolution and you will see how it can easily be applied to a parish team ministry, a marriage or a simple disagreement among friends.  The program is called “Peacemakers.”



Lott, David B. (2001). Conflict Management in Congregations. Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute.


Leas, Speed B. (1997). Discover Your Conflict Management Style: Revised Edition. Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute.


Leas, Speed B. (2002). Moving Your Church through Conflict. Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute.


Mendelson, Abby (1999, March/April). Tips on Solving Congregational Conflict: Ten Ways to Ease Tension in the Church. Your Church. Retrieved on January 31, 2004, from


Peacemaker Ministries. The Problem of Conflict in the Church. Retrieved on January 31, 2004, from


Peacemaker Ministries. Responding to Church Conflict. Retrieved on January 31, 2004, from


Sande, Ken (2003). Transforming Your Church: Cultivating a Culture of Peace. Peacemakers Ministries. Retrieved on January 31, 2004, from


Sweeney, Marlene (2004, January). Dealing with Conflict. Catechist. Volume 37, Issue 4, Page 4. Retrieved on January 31, 2004, from


Van Auken, Phil (1989). The Well-Managed Ministry. Victor Press.  Retrieved on January 30, 2004, from


Washburn, Patricia & Robert Gribbon (2003). Peacemaking without Division. Retrieved on February 1, 2004, from