Managing Conflicts on the Team

Ervin Stutzman
Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA

By Ervin Stutzman

A team relationship can be like a marriage—either a harbor in the storm or a storm in the harbor.

Sooner or later, most leadership teams will experience conflict, even after highly successful times of team ministry.  For example, the church planting team that experienced dynamic success in their first missionary tour split up when they attempted to arrange a follow-up visit (Acts 15:36-41).  This month for Equipping I’ll look at some of the causes of team conflict. Next month will briefly discuss ways of dealing with conflict to strengthen the team.

There are many causes of conflict in our leadership teams.  Team members may disagree on the allocation of limited resources such as space, money, or materials.  Or our preferences may differ, creating a clash of tastes or opinions.  We may differ on organizational issues such as job descriptions (or the lack thereof), church structure, or the purpose of meetings.  Again, team members often espouse different values, differing in theological convictions, ethical positions, or ministry goals and priorities.

These differences, in and of themselves, need not lead to conflict.  Such differences can be normal and healthy.  However, if the team devalues differences, or if differences become too extreme, conflict will likely ensue.

Team conflict often stems from relational difficulties.  Some of us simply find it difficult to get along with others.  When we are unable to openly discuss or work through our differences, we may find it difficult to work together even in areas where we agree.  A substantive issue can become a relational issue.

Issues of power and authority often lurk in the background of leadership conflicts.  Because humility and service are high values in the church, we may find it particularly difficult to acknowledge the power we hold.  Or we may be threatened by the power of other team members.  Power comes in many different forms—natural ability, spiritual gifts/qualities, acquired skills, race, ministerial/professional credentials, social status, gender, education, and so on.  If we deny the extent of our power we run the risk of abusing our power.

Whereas power is the ability to make something happen, authority is the right that is granted to a person to exercise power.  Team leaders generally have been given authority to lead, which is in itself a form of power.  Conflicts may arise in teams when authority is unclear or when team members feel that power is abused or wrongly distributed.  Teams cannot function without properly designated authority.  Groups that throw authority out the front door will likely find it creeping in the back door under a different guise.

I have found that as teams, we generally respond to conflict in one of three ways: 1) to deny it, 2) squelch it, or 3) attempt to manage it.  Particularly in churches, people may find it difficult to acknowledge conflict, even when it swirls wildly under the surface.  In such cases, team members are likely to respond to each other in passive-aggressive ways.  Suppressed feelings may lead to inappropriate actions— “What people don’t talk out, they act out.”  We may express our disagreements by remaining silent, slowing down our work, or deliberately ignoring others.

Even when we acknowledge conflict, we may try to quickly suppress it.  Team leaders particularly may be tempted to use authority-based power to force a quick solution.  But this generally does not work well as a long-term solution, particularly if issues of power and authority come to the fore.  Furthermore, forcing an issue may raise complaints about abuse of power.

We may deny or suppress anger because we fear loss of control.  We may be afraid of what team members might say or do if conflicts were brought into the open.  Based on Biblical admonitions, (e.g. James 1:20) the church rightly teaches against displays of anger such as violence or cursing.  Yet not all anger is sinful (Ephesians 4:26).  Anger points the way to matters that need to be addressed and resolved.  Anger may help to bring conflicts into the open, clarify issues, and get things moving when they are stalled.  Anger becomes sinful only when it lasts too long or leads to harmful words or actions.  Teams that suppress feelings of anger tend to be depressed and passive in nature.  Healthy teams provide a place for their members to express strong feelings without being sanctioned.

As a peace church, we have many resources to assist us at times when we experience conflict on leadership teams. In the next issue, I will discuss steps that we may take in addressing those conflicts.

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One thought on “Managing Conflicts on the Team

  1. Wish my father had lived to see this one ~ M. Morrow-Farrell, Philadelphia, PA.

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