Wouldn’t it be nice if leading a church meant leading a group of perfectly loving, gracious people who forgave quickly, moved on, and stayed unified on mission?

But we know that church is made up of a bunch of broken, messed-up misfits that Jesus loves. And whether a senior pastor isn’t quite seeing eye-to-eye with another staff member, a church member is angry about the new setup in the auditorium, or any other number of conflicts, it’s inevitable that problems will come up between people in church. It is never too early (or too late) to create a roadmap for leading through conflict in a way that honors God and leads others well. 

Here are five tips to create a church culture that handles conflict well:

Define Values

Taking the time to define the core values–the ethos–of your church culture will set the priority for belief and value in several areas, including how to address conflict. Stated values serve as the guiding beliefs and convictions of our church. Your ethos will equip you with a value set and strategy to know how to deal with conflicts when they arise. 

A conflict resolution strategy should be built around Matthew 18 where Jesus gives us a few important principles to handling conflict well: 

  • Have zero tolerance for gossip, including criticism or “concerns” about people without them being present or having already been spoken to.
  • Deal with conflict privately first.
  • Always have the goal of restoring the relationship.
Align Attitudes and Actions

Culture isn’t created by what we say we value; it is created by aligning our attitudes and actions with our stated values. As leaders, culture begins with us; with our own individual attitudes and behaviors. If we say we value Matthew 18 as a roadmap for conflict resolution but then we entertain gossip, we are misaligned and fanning the flame of disunity and brokenness within our church.

We must model our church values through how we handle conflict and complaints as leaders. We need to be sensitive and aware of how we deal with the hard moments. Cultural congruence happens when our stated values, our speech, and our behaviors all line up.

Have Clear Leadership Expectations

Leadership expectations should be clear and mutually agreed upon, whether for staff, small group leaders, high-level volunteers, etc. It is our responsibility to lead our staff with the clear expectation of how to handle interpersonal issues when they come up.

We need to set the culture and priority of handling conflict by not only living out these values in our day-to-day interactions, but by talking about the value on a regular, ongoing basis. Cultural congruence happens when we set the value, model the value, and talk about it often. This creates a culture with clear expectations. Whether it’s a regular topic during all-staff meetings, or a part of leadership and volunteer training, we must equip our people with the biblical knowledge and skills to live out our value of healthy conflict resolution.

Have Crucial Conversations

Crucial conversations are the important–albeit uncomfortable– conversations that happen when stakes are high, emotions are strong, and opinions vary. These are the conversations Jesus talks about having in Matthew 18; the conversations we have when we need to go to someone directly and talk about difficult issues that need to be addressed. Creating a culture where these conversations happen regularly protects unity and keeps issues in check to prevent them from growing like cancer.

Crucial conversations can include defining the relationship, challenging an employee to grow in a weak area, addressing sin issues when they come up, and handling staff transitions strategically. We need to be having crucial conversations along the way addressing issues privately, clearly, and with the goal of developing people.

Prioritize People

When it comes to creating culture and handling conflict resolution, we must keep our focus on the long game. We are all playing to win, and we want to win together. Fighting for the unity of our church means we are fighting for our individual team members. Whether we are having crucial conversations, helping someone transition well, or any other difficult situation, our goal should always be to value and love people. We must always make it our aim to develop and restore.

People problems are a part of what we do. Hard conversations, confrontation, sin issues, division, and more come up far more often than any of us like (we don’t ever like it). But by creating and modeling a plan for healthy conflict resolution, we can help to defend our churches from division and disunity when the difficult times do come up.

The Best Is Yet To Come,

Dave