When Conflict Hits Your Ministry

Dealing with toxic relationships is never easy—especially in church.
When Conflict Hits Your Ministry
Image: MAREKULIASZ / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Church has always been a necessary mystery for me—necessary because Jesus made it so clear that being the church is key to being a Christ-follower. It’s an essential part of the restoration we each need and long for. For me, “church” is a commandment I may not fully understand but yet choose to obey. Something happens when I worship, listen to a sermon, study the Bible, and pray in the presence of others: I feel a profound centering at my core. I am not alone. I can journey on in the company of brothers and sisters who “get” it.

But it’s also been at church that I’ve learned how cruel, ignorant, and political Christ-followers can be. Growing up with a high-profile grandfather, aunt, and uncles who planted churches and pastored pastors meant that I saw both the positive and negative sides of ministry from an early age. So I learned, early on, to only volunteer for under-the-radar jobs where I wouldn’t have to exercise my spiritual gifts of leadership or discernment. Why? Because I wanted to worship, not be at war.

However, I couldn’t fly under the radar for the years I served as an administrative pastor at my downtown Toronto church. My church needed a particular kind of leader, and I thought I was ready for the challenge. Eighteen years of dealing with insecure bosses and ego-driven clients in an advertising agency career had honed my leadership gifts (while also sharpening my distaste for politics and game playing). I longed for a workplace whose culture honored and respected all staff and where leadership knew how to lead. I hoped to find that in the church.

But as I launched into full-time ministry, my distaste for office politics soon turned into a keen sense of grief when I realized that some members of the church’s leadership team behaved the same way my ad agency bosses and peers had. Despite what I’d observed as a child, I still hadn’t expected to confront ad agency behavior behind the old oak doors of my church. We all knew better—didn’t we?

No, we didn’t. Over a period of six years, our team’s struggles reached the point where I knew a key volunteer leader didn’t believe that I belonged on the leadership team. (Frankly, the feeling was mutual.) I also knew that our interim senior pastor didn’t fully support me.

Yet, somehow—despite all this—we all still belonged. Paul’s teaching was still true: “Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other” (Romans 12:4–5, emphasis added).

In that critical season—despite years of toxic buildup between members of the leadership team—I felt convicted by God that “belonging” meant it was not an option for me to quit my role as administrative pastor.

But as I limped home after church meetings wanting nothing more than to never return to work, I frequently wondered, Am I patient enough—strong enough—to take Romans 12:5 seriously? Church ministry felt too hard, too lonely, and too “crazy.” What did it actually mean that I was a member of this church and that I therefore belonged to each person who called that church home—just as they belonged to me?

I knew that until I truly understood what Paul’s words about belonging meant, I would not learn the lessons the Spirit wanted to teach me: lessons on why I needed to go to work every day (no matter how crazy those days became) and lessons on how I needed to work. So even though the situation was profoundly dysfunctional, I stuck it out.

Sticking It Out

I began to learn that conflict in ministry could be a catalyst for spiritual transformation. Having toxic ministry team members didn’t let me off the spiritual-growth hook! I couldn’t hope to minister with passion and integrity if I avoided conflict or, worse, if I settled for a resolution that barely satisfied my wounded sense of justice. Did I dare trust that the Spirit would help me walk through this toxic sludge in such a way that I’d emerge on the other side with a bit more of Jesus in my soul?

I also grew to understand that belonging to members of a body meant I needed to own and celebrate my gifts and my calling. I had to believe that my church needed those gifts. Even more important, I had to choose who and what defined me. I am the Lord’s. He bought me at a price, and that meant I didn’t need to succumb to the norms and spiritualized expectations—none of them biblical—that swirled around the leadership team and defined much of how staff, volunteers, and the congregation treated one another.

So how did I resist those norms and expectations, and how can you avoid the same traps that may be surrounding you?

Start your resolution with prayer. One day as I picked up the phone to finally lodge an official complaint with the chair of the deacons’ board, God spoke to me: Speak the truth in love. Truth was on my side. I had the emails to prove it. But love? Not so much. So I hung up the phone and began to pray.

For months, I’d wake up crying on Saturday mornings, not wanting to lead worship at church the next day. It just wasn’t okay that adults whose behavior would result in employment termination at any other organization could stand cheek by jowl on a Sunday morning, sing worship songs, pray, recite Scripture, and wish each other well! Rather than let conflict and dysfunction tear me up inside, I began to take my feelings of frustration, hurt, and betrayal straight to God. I committed to pray with brutal honesty: Lord, why do you let these people continue on? Don’t you care that they’ve hurt others and me? Doesn’t this reek of hypocrisy to you? Do something! I’m tired.

Acknowledge your role in the conflict. I realized I had to take responsibility for my leadership. I couldn’t, in good conscience, begin the hard conversations that needed to happen unless I could speak the truth in love. I began to pray for myself, asking God to help me with the baggage I’d lugged with me from my ad agency career into my ministry role. Those prayers were even harder than my initial prayers about others’ toxic behavior. After all, this conflict wasn’t about me . . . was it? Despite the dysfunctional actions of others, I knew that conflict is always a two-way street.

Give me your baggage, God said to me one day. You’ve traveled around this mountain long enough. So I prayed out my insecurity (Lord, I don’t even look like a Baptist pastor.), my fear (Lord, what if I’m misunderstood, or not even heard?), and my longing for a workplace that felt like home (Lord, I didn’t expect ministry to be this lonely. Don’t be silent. Help me.).

After 16 weeks of hard prayers and harder tears, I woke up one day, ready to sincerely pray for God’s best for those team members. That day I called the chair of the deacons’ board and our new pastoral team leader. The hard conversations could now begin.

Be sensitive to the Lord’s direction. As I worked though the difficult relationships, I knew that God would let me know, quite clearly, if I needed to quit. I wanted to rely on his leading, not my own feelings.

During months of difficult conversations, something became clear to me: God had led me to this position, and he would lead me to the next. I could count on him to speak to me plainly through Scripture and during my prayer times. Through all the difficulties, at no point did I feel “released” from the hold of Romans 12:5. Far from it. The more I sank into the work of praying truth and seeking love, the more I recognized my need to remain in my position.

The work that Jesus wanted to do in me couldn’t be done any other way. And perhaps there’s an experience that you too must go through in order to be refined as well.

My decision to stick to out despite the years of toxic relationships made little sense to some. “You can just leave,” my husband said one day.

“I know. But why?” I replied. Peace has always been my barometer, and I felt at peace, even as I documented, parsed, analyzed, sat through many painful meetings, transitioned team members out, and interviewed prospective replacements.

Resolution to the toxic problems our ministry team faced eventually came after some team members chose to leave the church. Today, though I now work for a different ministry organization, I still challenge myself to remember those difficult days—years—at my church, and now I challenge you to remember the days you’ve suffered and prayed through as well. When you do, breathe deeply and lean in, even when you don't have all the words or answers for your current boss; even when you’re scared that you will be misunderstood by your colleagues; even when you remember how that conflict drained you of energy and focus. I’d almost shut down for good back then, ready to step away from God’s call into ministry. No more. We all must press on.

You belong to the community you lead and in which you work and worship, just as its members belong to you. That's a divine promise that's not easily lived out, but it's yours.

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