Resolving Conflict in the Church Office
5 ways to biblically approach a disagreement

The scenario that got both Sally and Jim both terminated from their company could have run like this:

Jim: All I said was that I needed the documents, completed and signed, by tomorrow night.

Sally: Don't tell me that's all you said. You demanded it!

Jim: I asked nicely.

Sally: Yes, but when my boss was here you kissed up to him really well and then asked me nicely. But your e-mail screamed at me.

Jim: Well, you made me do it because you didn't write back to me.

Sally: I'm your boss and don't have to get back to you. I tell you what to do.

And so it went, until the screaming attracted the attention of the entire office. Most office conflict doesn't spiral out of control. But everyone has a conflict in the office from time to time. Even if you don't have frequent conflict with others, you will be around people who do disagree with one another.

In office conflicts, there are "only" three major causes of conflict. If your office has any of the following, then you will have conflict:

• Money

• Power

• People

Humor aside, everybody is going to have conflict. The book of James gives another example of the source of conflict:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. —James 4:1–2 (NIV)

Conflict begins when someone shares their salary with a co-worker, who then becomes envious of the other. Or, one person gets a promotion, while the one who doesn't takes out their angst on the new boss. It also can start when a subordinate continually makes insulting jokes and jabs, undermining morale.

What should we do when conflict happens? Here are some typical steps to consider when conflict happens in your office:

1. Acknowledge the conflict: By saying, "Yes, this is a conflict," you have identified it and can now contain it. Ken Sande from Peacemaker Ministries suggests the "Three-Day Rule." Many conflicts are minor and can be overlooked. But, if after three days you are still feeling angry, hurt, or insulted, then you need to resolve the conflict.

2. Get the log out of your own eye: Conflict is often seen in the Bible, so we shouldn't be surprised to get great advice there as well. Jesus asked:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. —Matthew 7:3–5 (NIV)

Practically, this means reflecting on what you have brought to the problem. We all want to think that the other person is 100 percent to blame. The truth is, we often are 25 percent, 50 percent or 75 percent of the reason for a problem. How can you unearth what your part of the problem is? Own your own stuff!

3. Allow for two confidants: Everybody needs a confidant, a person that they can share their story with and get honest and supportive feedback (I recommend that men talk with men and women talk with women). Many times people do well with one office confidant and one non-office confidant. In a small office, it's hard to have a confidant. But in offices with more than ten staff members, I recommend allowing employees to have a confidant in the office. There should be limits to the number of confidants in the office, though. Many people like to have two, three, or more confidants in the office, which creates a gossip chain.

Here are some thoughts for you and your confidant:

• Ask your confidant to keep your story confidential;

• Ask your confidant to let you tell your side of the problem;

• Specifically ask your confidant: "What could I have done better?" and "Are there amends that I need to make?" and "How do you think I can resolve the issue?"

4. Go and talk to the other person: For most office conflicts, this is the best approach. Don't go alone if the conflict involves physical or sexual abuse.

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. —Matthew 18:15 (NIV)

Here are some guidelines for conversations like this:

• Don't have a hallway conversation;

• Make an appointment. "Jim, you and I had a conflict yesterday, and I would like to spend some time talking with you about it. When would be a good time for you?"

• Talk face-to-face. Do not talk via email or phone. Use the phone, if geography dictates, but don't use email—it almost never works. Email is like pouring gasoline on the fire!

• Keep the main issues on the table. Perhaps write down your thoughts.

5. Involve your supervisor: If the one-on-one talk doesn't work, then involve your supervisor. If the conflict is with your supervisor, then get the next person in the hierarchy. You want to follow the intent of Jesus' words:

But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' —Matthew 18:16 (NIV)

In the office, I rarely talk about lines of authority (meaning reporting relationships between bosses, managers, and supervisors, and employees, direct reports, and subordinates). When someone is hired or gets an annual review, we talk about lines of authority. We also talk about lines of authority when there is conflict in the office.

With an office conflict, it is vital to follow these lines. It ensures each party in the conflict gets treated fairly. It's also the legal way to handle conflict—only involve the necessary people.

Example: If Jim reports to Sally, then the person to help resolve the conflict is Sally's supervisor. If Jim and Sally report to different people, they you may want to bring the supervisors of both Jim and Sally.

Example of who not to bring in: Don't bring in the "big boss" to resolve the conflict, whoever he or she may be. Follow the authority lines of the organization—God wants us to honor those who we directly work for. When we "jump" around our supervisors, we don't treat them well and so we dishonor God. However, you may need to inform the "big boss" of the conflict.

Keep the conflict resolution confined until you need to bring in others. Don't bring in co-workers of Jim and Sally. Co-workers mean well, but generally don't have the authority or responsibility to solve work problems (notice I said "generally").

Excuses, Excuses

Most people think of excuses about why their conflict cannot be resolved. Unfortunately, most of the excuses are applied to the other person. Here are some common ones:

• "The other person won't change, so I'm not going to try."

• "The other person won't listen to me—they have already hurt me enough so more talking will only increase my pain."

• "The conflict isn't that big of a deal—I'm pretty much done with my crying."

• "You're too busy to help me, so let's not bother with it."

In an article, it is so easy to see these as white lies and excuses. But in the heat of conflict, these are used to avoid dealing with the other party.

We Aren't Alone

There is so much more to cover. The people at Peacemaker Ministries have great material on resolving conflict in a biblical manner (including Ken Sande's The Peacemaker).

These are some starting points on how to resolve conflict in the office. Remember, we don't journey through conflict alone. God gives us wisdom on how to resolve any conflict:

If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. —Galatians 6:1–2 (ESV)

And God tells us what happens when we help bring peace:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. —James 3:17–18 (ESV)

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations

Comments

Displaying 1–7 of 7 comments

Evelyn

September 09, 2011  11:37am

It's Evelyn again, about 18 months after my initial posts. Updates...the vestryperson has one more year on the vestry. The Rector has talked to her a couple of times per my complaints. She seems to be watching her p's and q's around me now but she's transferred her wrath to the music director (she's in the choir). Now he's at the end of his rope! The two of us have started soliciting the advice of a parishioner who is a psychologist, for some means to deal with this person. This vestryperson is docile as a lamb one minute and erutps like a volcano the next, probably when she feels her so-called authority is being threatened. Our psychologist friend knows who she is and has shed some very helpful light on the subject. So music dir and I are trying to deal in a professional manner with this troublemaker. And yes, we have both complained to the Rector along with several other people. It's just unfortunate that churches are not equipped to handle these types of individuals. We in particular are soooo worried about being welcoming to people at the front door that the church hierarchs don't really see what some parishioners are doing to others to be un-welcoming at the back door (so to speak). And staff and good volunteers shouldn't have to put up with this nonsense. Ahhh yes again, church!

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Evelyn

March 05, 2010  9:20am

Evelyn again, this time in response to Kim. That situation you are in is a recipe for disaster. I've been in offices 35 years. There are few situations, FEW, where married bosses work out in your favor. If something happens with one, don't count on the other! The econonmy in in the tank, yes. But start looking now. You seem to want to be fair and I suspect you are a good worker. You will find something better. Micromanaging just doesn't work for anyone. Good workers don't need and bad workers need to be booted out. Good luck!

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Evelyn

March 05, 2010  9:15am

This Evelyn again. Thanks everyone for the advice. Yes, the "terminal kindness" is something we definitely suffer from here. In fact, we have a "resident klepto..." who everyone in the church knows about, and somehow she ended up on the Altar Guild, the members having the combination to the silver safe. I asked the priest if anyone besides me was having a problem with this! The office person has calmed down a bit. She just might be going into a recession for a while so I don't totally let down my guard. But the church does let people exist like this. And other staff have complained as well and at least one Vestrymember, and the Rector does know about this...at one point two of us asked the Sr. Warden to talk to this lady which I think he did...he is very kind in his dealings with people which is why we asked him. So, it's NOT an unknown problem. I do try to set boundaries in a kind way so as not to make people think they aren't welcome. But some people think they are ALWAYS welcome no matter what! You know the saying about family and friends that "stay too long." I'm trying to make this work and yes, the Rector is on board. Ahhh, Church!

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Matt

March 04, 2010  11:06am

Evelyn, We posed your situation to some other church administrators, and here's what a couple of them offered: "This is a matter for you and the Rector to sort through. That is really the only appropriate way. Wish I had more sage advice than that – but if you take matters into your own hands bypassing the Rector, you are really setting yourself up for trouble from two sides." –John "It seems there are a couple issues going on here. One is organizational – there needs to be someone to help this church worker and let people know "they do not own the church" unless they really do and then everyone needs to understand it and agree to work under those conditions. Second – there is a heart issue with this lady. She is definitely not acting in a Christ like manner. If we had something like this happen here and I could not stop the problem (I think I could in my situation) I would go to the elders and let them know the problem and they would handle it as described in Matthew. It seems this lady is involved in sin and needs to be approached about it. The issue may be that no one feels they are empowered to do it which takes us to the first problem – organization system. I would not work under such a situation unless there was some kind of process put in place to improve it. As I was leaving I would make sure others knew of the reason. I heard John Ortberg speak several years ago and he said churches suffer from terminal kindness. We let people do things they shouldn't and would not be tolerated anywhere else because we think it is the Christian way to act but the Christian way to act is to make people responsible for their actions in the church. This is me not him – we need to sometimes do as Jesus did and choose to lose some people who need their hearts to change." –Craig

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Kim

March 03, 2010  1:52pm

I need advise. I work for more than one church. Two of the churches' pastors are married to one another. One of the churches decided to reduce my hours because of finances. The pastor of that church told her spouse, the pastor of the other congregation. He told the Church Board that they need to micromanage me because I waste time. I don't. I think the first pastor should not have told her husband. I think the husband should not have told the board of the second church. I feel betrayed and unvalued. In the state of the US economy, jobs are not easily acquired. I always believed and lived by the verse that says whatever thy hand findeth to do, doeth it with all thy might as unto the Lord. I don't even enjoy being around these people who are backstabbing and jeopardizing my jobs. But I NEED my jobs.

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Beth Hoffmanns

March 02, 2010  1:18pm

Hi, First, I am very sorry you have to work in a situation like you describe. That can be very uncomfortable. My recommendations are to remain calm and then I would start setting some very clear boundaries with this individual. If she is in your office and you need to work, politly let her know that it is time for her to leave so you can get your work done. This will probably need to be done several times and do not back down if she begins bullying you. It is very important for you to recognize that this is what she is doing. Second I am unfamiliar with the role of a vestry member but if it does not concern taking care of the facility I would talk to the person in charge and let them know she is in everyones offices after hours and she is very inquisitive of the financial information of members. You also need to make sure the senior pastor is aware of all that is happening and the more staff members that stand up to confront the issue the more likely that it will be listened too. But no ganging up on her, as that is very unprofessional. The most important thing you can do is to ALWAYS be polite and friendly toward this person. Remember, Jesus taught us that we should love our enemies. She obviously has some unmet needs in her life and in some way needs to feel important. That does not mean that she has the right to make everyone else miserable. Conflict is not easy, it can be nerve racking but when dealt with, can lead to wonderful results. Remember that this all needs to be done with the complete knowledge of the Senior Pastor so he can work this issue with you to come to a good resolution. Please know that you are in my prayers as you deal with this issue. Good Luck.

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Evelyn

February 26, 2010  11:53am

I need some emergency advice. One of the new Vestry members, MY liaison unfortunately, struts her stuff around here like she's the queen and the boss. She has a superior attitude, thinks the staff members are HER servants, and talks down to us. She unfortunately has keys and spends time in everybody's offices except the Rector. She has bullied the previous music director who left 2 years ago. She pays NO attention to me and talks down to me, is quite nosy about parishioners records, listens to everything I say on the phone but is very secretive if you ask her anything, which makes me NOT trust her...you get the picture? Now...how do I get this monster out of my office without screaming at her? Sorry but this is a serious issue we don't seem to have anyone monitoring at this church...what to do about parishioners who assume authority...and treat staff like THEIR servants...and everyone else for that matter. It makes it very tense coming to work lately...never know when she'll show up! Help!!!!

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