Leadership: Leaders Address Conflict

Leadership Blog


“Oh, Pastor, we don’t fight.” During pre-marital counseling, a couple would occasionally make the statement, “We don’t fight.” I worried about those couples.


It is possible that the couples thought fighting meant yelling and screaming at each other. There are many ways people fight. It may be through the silent treatment. It may be thru door slamming. It may be in staying out of whatever room the other is in.


It is not that couples, or people in general, will not fight. Conflict is a natural part of human relationships. The question is how the people handle the conflict. That is what I tried to get couples to think about.


Conflict in congregations is also normal. In fact, a congregation that is growing might have more conflict that one that is in decline where members have lost the energy and will to fight.


Conflict is normal. In leadership, one asks how the leader will handle the conflict. Some leaders will make the situation worse. Other leaders will make the situation better. The goal is leadership that makes the situation better. When that happens, a culture is created where mission can thrive.


Conflict Will Happen
It is not an issue of IF there will be conflict in a congregation, but only WHEN it will happen.


“What did I do wrong?” Once upon a time, there was a member of a congregation who made an appointment to see her pastor.


Upon sitting down in his office, she said, “I think God is punishing me.” The pastor, trained in Socratic teaching, asked, “Why do you think that?” The member told her pastor that every time, before she starts her car, she prays that God will protect her. Then, with tears in her eyes, she said, “Earlier this week, I was distracted and running late and didn’t say my prayer before I drove. And wouldn’t you know, someone ran a stop sign and smashed into my car?” In all earnestness, she asked, “Do you think God is punishing me for not praying?” The pastor responded, “Not really. I think it’s that the other driver broke the law.”


In our pollyannish way of living, we think that if we always do the right thing, there will not be problems or conflict in our lives and in our congregations.


Remember though, Jesus states, it “rains on the just and the unjust.” 1


Having a conflict in a congregation is not a sign of failure. Conflict happens. In fact, having conflict could indicate a higher level of buy-in. People will not fight over issues for which they have no investment.


Avoiding Conflict with Control
While the temptation is to control everything another person says and does, healthy leaders offer freedom with accountability.


One time, while fighting the flu, I made this profound statement to my wife. “I don’t feel well when I’m sick.” Ok, so the statement was more ridiculous than profound.


However, we make similar statements about conflict. We say, “It doesn’t feel good when people aren’t feeling good about each other.”


Sounds ridiculous, but it is important to note. We want to feel good. Leaders want to feel good. For that reason, leaders act in ways to avoid conflict. They will, in essence, try to control every person, situation, conversation, and activity to avoid anything bad being said or happening. Just like a muscle won’t grow if it isn’t exercised, our relationships won’t develop if we avoid conflict at all costs.


An aside. Don’t be the leader that causes conflict, then justifies their personal dysfunctional behavior by saying having conflict is good for the congregation.


So, what should we do instead? I recommend a process that gives people freedom to act and to speak, and then holds them accountable for what they do and say. Leaders will affirm people for what they do and say when it benefits the situation and will hold people accountable for what they do and say when it brings harm to the situation. It is more emotionally challenging for a leader to lead in this way, but I believe it is a best practice for leadership.


Factors that Can Lead to Conflict or Avoidance of Conflict
Conflict is not a spontaneous explosion, but it is an outcome of relationships being tested—yet we try to avoid conflict.


Here are some factors that can lead to the Avoidance of Conflict:

  1. We avoid conflict to avoid discomfort. We avoid conflict because we prefer emotional homeostasis. Chiefly used in physiology, homeostasis means that all parts of the body and body system are balanced. It is necessary for health to have homeostasis. This means there is a natural human move toward keeping balance. We desire the same balance in our relationships. Unfortunately, we assume that health of our relationships depends on always having a balance. Conflict is present when the balance is disrupted. We don’t want the discomfort that comes from a lack of balance. Avoiding the discomfort can lead to trying to avoid conflict at all costs. Resistance to the disruption of conflict can also mean that the change that needs to occur won’t happen. The widely popular book, “Who Moved My Cheese” offers an observation about why people will finally a make a change. The authors state, “People will finally change when it is more uncomfortable to stay the same than to make the change.”2

  2. We avoid conflict because we are insecure about our capacity to handle negative or intense feelings. Unfortunately, being conflict averse is a common quality among leaders. I don’t know any emotionally mature person who enjoys conflict. We doubt our capacity to handle the conflict and the fear, anxiety, and anger that accompany it. Doubting our capacity to handle conflict, we chose to avoid conflict.
  3. We avoid conflict because we don’t understand what is happening. At times, we find ourselves in conflict because people are broken. People who are broken tend to interact with others in ways that can break them too. The adage is “Hurt people hurt people.” Leaders become the targets of these people. Broken people will find ways to beat up competent leaders verbally and emotionally (and unfortunately sometimes physically). In these moments, determining the source and cause of the conflict will take a level of detachment and compassion for the person who is broken.
  4. We avoid conflict because we are the ones who created the conflict. We can find ourselves in conflict because we made a mistake. Remember, you could be the one who caused the problem.
  5. We avoid conflict because we are naive about conflict. We can find ourselves in conflict when there is a genuine disagreement that is needed, and it is good for the congregation to disagree and faithfully argue about an issue. Being naïve about conflict can lead us to think that there shouldn’t be conflict.


Making the Situation Worse
A leader can make a bad situation worse.


Here are some things you can do that I guarantee will make a bad situation worse:

  1. Get Angry. The angrier you get at a person the more they are convinced that they are right. I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but when you go at someone in anger, their self-preservation reaction kicks in. When the self- preservation reaction kicks in, the rational part of the brain functions less. As a result, a person will hold on to their opinion in an act of self-preservation. Being angry is a normal and healthy response to a threat. The question is, “What do you do with your anger?”
  2. Repeatedly saying the same thing, but with different words. I consider myself reasonably intelligent. This leads me to think that I should be able to say something one more time with even more clarity, and the other person will get it. If I were to be convicted of anything on this list, this would be the one. I can be delusional in my own power to persuade and the openness of others to hear reason. When that happens, I assume that if I say something one more time, even clearer than the last 3 times, the person will get it. I have not had a very high success rate with this.
  3. Not paying attention to what creates anxiety. Here are some things that increase anxiety: Change, Trauma and Loss, Fear, Secrecy. Remember that anxiety creates more anxiety. When I am anxious about you being anxious, you will become even more anxious.
  4. Not paying attention to triangles. When a person is anxious, that person seeks to reduce the anxiety. Having a direct conversation with the person perceived as causing the anxiety creates more anxiety for some. Instead, that person will go to another who will agree with them, tell them they’re right, and be empathetic. Many times, the third person or group brought into the conversation will feel the need to rescue. This rescue mission means they will go to the person perceived as causing the anxiety and want them to fix it for the other person. This creates an echo chamber of like-minded people and can reduce the person’s anxiety, but rarely solves any problems. The code phrases for when a triangle is in play are: “People are saying” or “Some people are” or “There are a lot of people who agree with me on this.”
  5. Not knowing that people will side with the person who is wrong, defying all logic. Once my wife was at the gym. A young man was sitting on a machine, on his phone, and not working out. My wife asked him to finish and move, but he wouldn’t. A young woman working out nearby went on the attack against my wife, defending the man’s behavior. He was wrong, yet she defended him. A variation on this theme is asking a person who is not doing anything wrong to make changes to assuage the person who is angry.
  6. Not Attending to Micro-Messages. Micro-Messages “are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrations directed at…[others] from well-intentioned people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”3 There are three types of micro-messages: Microassaults which are overt and intentional; Microinvalidations which are subtle, rude, and demeaning actions; and Microinsults which are “Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person.”4 When micro-messages are at work in a congregation, it indicates that there is a conflict.
  7. Making snap judgments about others or a situation. Snap judgments typically assume an intention for a person’s actions or words. Usually, the intention is assumed to be negative. It is better to focus on what is observable and forego the speculation of intention.


Making the Situation Better
A leader can make a bad situation better.


Here are some things you can do to help improve a bad situation:

  1. Remember, when there is conflict, it does not mean you have failed as a leader. (Unless of course it is your fault.) It is important to note that the occurrence of conflict is normal. You haven’t made a leadership error when conflict happens. Why is it important to make note of this? You see, when thinking something is our fault, we usually move right into self-justification. When we self-justify, our time and energy become devoted to defending ourselves and our leadership instead of using the time and energy to work for conflict resolution.
  2. Employ the One Second Concept. Allow for a moment of thought between encountering an action or statement and speaking or acting. This simple moment of thought moves us from knee-jerk reactions to intentionality. If you are interested in the concept of “One Second,” please see the book “One Second Ahead: Enhance your performance at Work with Mindfulness” by Hougaard and Carter.
  3. Don’t send emails or letters immediately. The last thing we want to do is to give someone a piece of our mind. Most of us can’t spare it. The intention behind giving someone a piece of our mind is to take all our negative feelings, anxieties, and fears and force them upon another person in as powerful and painful a way as possible. One way we try to do this is through emails or texts. Sending email or texts creates a safe distance to throw stones. An experienced pastor once said to me, “Never resign after a church council meeting.” Acting in the heat of the moment leads to the desire to “get” the other person and force all our negative emotions onto that person. As leaders, however, we don’t want to get someone, we want them to get it. We want them to listen, process, understand, change. Emotional assault of another will not accomplish that purpose.
  4. Name the argument. This is an important concept in the field of debate. Bo Seo, in his book Good Arguments, talks about his speech coach asking the debate team this question, “’Recall as much as you possibly can about [an argument]: the setting, the particular time of day, the specific arguments, claims and even insults. Now, answer this question: what was the disagreement about?’” Most people can remember the details around the argument but are hard pressed to actually name why they were arguing. Seo goes on, “’If you don’t know the subject of the argument, how can you decide what or what not to say, which points to pursue or let go, and whether you want to have the argument at all?’” Seo concludes, “Consider the act of naming: we name our disagreement and, with it the purpose for our gathering.”5 I am not sure that most people in congregations even know what they are fighting about. So, Name the Argument, then decide if you even want to have an argument about it.
  5. Be kind to oneself. This is especially important if you have caused the conflict or have not been successful in resolving a conflict. Learn to forgive oneself. God forgives you, why would you be harder on yourself than God is on you? And surround yourself with good friends and colleagues who will help you be kind to yourself. I recently read online a friend saying this to a close friend. “I don’t know if you need to hear this, but you’re a great gardener. That plant really should have tried harder.”
  6. Ask questions to determine what is going on. During a congregation meeting, a motion was on the floor to authorize the purchase a new computer network. The cost was reasonable, the system was a good system, and it was replacing a 10-year-old system. The decision was a no brainer. There should have been no conflict, right? Wrong! A congregation member stands up and starts questioning the process used to pick out a new system, the capacity of the new system, and why the old system was being replaced. At first, I was befuddled at the person’s resistance to supporting the purchase. Then, from the deep recesses of my brain, I remembered a simple, yet crucial fact. The man speaking against the new system was the one who had picked out and set up the system that was being replaced. He interpreted the idea of getting a new system as a critique of the system he had chosen 10 years earlier. After asking myself “What is happening here,” I realized what was going on. As a result, I took a moment to publicly say that the system we were replacing had served us well and thanked the member for helping us get that system. He smiled, sat down, and voted for the new system.
  7. Talk back. I don’t mean what my grandmother called “giving her lip.” That would certainly make the situation worse. I am encouraging you to say back what you heard the person say, but in your own words. This allows for a simple, yet important, thing to happen. It allows you and the other person to determine if you are even talking about the same thing. Remember, one word can mean 5 different things to 5 different people. Part of being a leader is to make sure that clear communication is taking place.


The Health of the Leader and the Health of the System
A healthy leader will lead to a healthy congregation which will handle conflict in a healthy way.

  1. Set your congregation an example in word and deed. If you model a healthy approach to conflict, the mature and functional members of the congregation will follow your lead. That functional way of approaching every situation will become a norm. Remember, the longer a pastor stays in a congregation, the more like the pastor the congregation becomes. I had a long-term staff member say to me once, “Pastor, we are more like you than you are.”
  2. Preparing the community to be conflict ready. A congregation that is conflict ready is a congregation that is change ready. The best time to teach people how to handle conflict is when there is no conflict. Introduce and talk about values and strategies prior to when they are needed. If prepared, a healthy response is more likely to be initiated.
  3. Prepare your leaders for conflict. I am a firm believer in taking time during every congregation council meeting to teach about leadership. One of the modules that I like to include is that of conflict management. This works like preparing the congregation prior to needing the skills. If leaders are trained and skilled, they will invoke those skills when needed.
  4. Know the importance of Being Human, Humility, and Humor. There are no perfect people in a congregation. There are humans in a congregation. Being human is to acknowledge that we see all things through a prism that primarily serves ourselves. Know that about yourself and know that about others. No one ever comes to a decision on purely logical and objective reasons. Every decision is reached through a personal bias. Being Humble owns that bias and allows room for the opinion of another and the possibility that another person may be right. And having Humor is to have the capacity to take an honest look at ourselves and the situations in which we find ourselves. One time, my mother- in-law fell at a community gathering. Many people rushed to her side. After the fall, my mother-in-law took great delight in talking about who came to her help. Among the groups of helpers was a gerontologist, 2 psychiatrists, and a pediatrician. She would say, “I had every kind of doctor except the kind that I needed.” Humor is humanizing speech that shapes humility in us.
  5. Understand the impact of growth. It is inevitable that a handful of people may choose to leave a congregation. It is a painful time for pastors, leaders, and congregants. It’s like losing a member of your family. I don’t encourage you to quickly and decisively get rid of a person, but I am inviting you to consider this rule of thumb. When people leave a congregation, it could be for one of two reasons. Sometimes people leave because they have outgrown the congregation. Other times, people leave because the congregation has outgrown them.


The word conflict has a fascinating etymology. The word conflict is made up of two Latin words. The word CON and the word FLIGERE. The word FLIGERE means “to strike”. The word CON means “together”. Ironically, conflict is only possible if there is more than one person. It is a way of engaging with one another. Conflict will happen in relationships and in congregations. Leaders navigate congregation through those storms of conflict. In doing so, leaders can make the conflict worse or can make the situation better. For that reason, it is important for leaders to know:

  • Conflict will happen;
  • We can’t control everyone in an effort to conflict;
  • At times we are tempted to avoid conflict;
  • Leaders can make the situation worse or better;
  • Creating a healthy congregation prepares the congregation for a healthy response to conflict.



1 Matthew 5:45.
2 Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life, 1998. G. P Putnam Publishing: New York, New York.
3 Greatplacetowork.com. Kalia Simms, Match 27, 2023.
4 Ibid.
5 Seo, Bo. Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard, 2022. Penguin Press: New York, New York.