Loving Your Way Through Conflict by The Reverend Mark Fenstermacher

Early in my ministry I found myself sitting in pastoral staff meetings where inter-personal conflict, within–and between–members of the music ministry teams was the subject of conversation. Like thunderstorms building up on hot summer afternoons, conflicts between musicians would fester and "let go." One well-known consultant, in the area of congregational life, is fond of referring to the music ministry of the local church as "the war department."

More than once, the churches I’ve served have had some of their most powerful spiritual moments followed by the eruption of sharp conflict between members of the music team. Members of the worshiping congregation have been profoundly touched by a service on the theme of peace-making, for example, and as I head out the door I hear that members of the music team were seething at one another even as they led the congregation in "Let There Be Peace on Earth" or "Shout to the Lord."

The effectiveness of a worship team is not judged solely on the basis of the team’s ability to produce great music, properly hit the light cues or deliver great messages. The other key criterion has to do with the relational "music" that the team makes as it works together. Can the congregation see its worship leaders living out Paul’s insight (I Cor. 12:4, RSV) that "love is patient and kind?" As the team leads the people of God, is it evident that they practice "love does not insist on its own way?"

I write as a Christian pastor who loves music (from Bach to Charles Wesley to Natalie Sleeth to Delirious), who cannot read a note of music, and who realizes spiritual grounding and relational health in a group is more important than technical ability. In other words, it is absolutely essential that drama personnel, music team members, lighting staff, and others realize that they–when they are involved in Christian ministry–are being asked to provide Christ-focused leadership. It is not enough to get the technical aspects of the work done just right and then exhibit an intolerant, inflexible attitude.

Paul, writing to the Philippians (1:27), says, "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel." If conflict can be a devastating blow to a Christian ministry, in terms of the relational health of the team, what can we say about it?

First, conflict is a fact of life. To pretend that a church, a ministry team, or any relationship is conflict-free is to deny reality. In Acts 15 missionaries Paul and Barnabas have a squabble over whether to bring the young believer, Mark, along on their trip to Syria. Two women in the Philippian congregation (4:2), Euodia and Syntyche, are embroiled in such a serious dispute that word about it has reached the ears of the apostle Paul! Remember, conflict is a fact of life for believers and non-believers alike. Put people together on a team, in a room, or on a soccer field, and conflict will develop.

Second, you can reduce the likelihood of damaging conflict if you are clear about the purpose and mission of your ministry team. Many of us, in our work lives, may have labored to develop a mission statement. These can be an exercise in futility, but need not be. A clear sense of where you are going can save enormous amounts of wasted energy as conflict arises because the mission wasn’t clear to all.

Someone singing in a choir may have the mistaken notion that the church’s music ministry is all about teaching the classics and culture to a generation that doesn’t have a clue. They will be disappointed when the minister of music introduces material that doesn’t fit the classical mode. Likewise, a player may assume the church’s praise team is building up its repertoire so it can tour and carry the Gospel to unchurched, pre-Christians. They may feel betrayed when they discover the primary mission of the praise team is to support the worship life of the congregation at weekly services. Be clear and up front about your mission. Moses knew he was going into Egypt to lead the Hebrews out; he wasn’t going there to reform the judicial system or improve their brick-making technology.

Third, be clear about the values which will guide your work and life together. My brother, Edwin, is a church consultant and he calls these your group’s "core operating values." How will you carry out your mission? What behaviors are expected of ministry team members? One group adopted core values saying every decision-making moment would be preceded by prayer. Another said that no one could vote against something Jesus might do. Another group adopted the value that if someone had a problem with another member of the team, they would first go directly to that person rather than carrying the issue to uninvolved third parties. One music team agreed that members who were absent at the week’s rehearsal would not lead worship during the following weekend’s services. What do you need from one another, as a team of Christians, to work effectively and faithfully? Build the list together.

Fourth, don’t avoid dealing with conflict by assuming it will just "blow over." I was raised in a wonderful, loving Christian home where conflict was a sign of failure. It was to be avoided at all costs! So, in my ministry I have had to work to learn the art of recognizing conflict, naming it, and moving into a situation to see if God can help us understand what is happening and what needs to be done.

Some people will insist that "nothing is wrong." Or, they will say that it isn’t a "big enough deal to bother with." That may be true, or they may have a personality that accumulates frustrations until something explodes. Little things can become big things if we don’t deal with them. Paul, in Ephesians 4:26, says, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." When the little resentments are not dealt with, the Evil One goes to work in our hearts.

Team members should be encouraged to take a proactive stance in addressing painful issues. If they look to the team leader to solve every problem, untie every relational "knot," the leader will be worn out and begin to feel like a babysitter to adults! Jesus, in Matthew 5:23-24, gives us good advice when he says, "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." The sacred ritual of making an offering in the temple is no excuse, Jesus says, for postponing working on what has gone wrong in the relationship!

A helpful model of addressing the person who has wronged us can be found in Matthew 18:15-20. In that section of Scripture, Jesus reminds us of the healing power of the fellowship of Christians. There will be times when the ministry team, as a whole, may be asked to bring their prayers, their love, and their minds to bear on a particular problem.

Fifth, be careful not to make mountains out of molehills. The phrase is not scriptural but it is good advice for ministry team leaders and members. Some moments of tension are going to be a part of a rehearsal, a Sunday service, or concert. Don’t jump into every situation and try to "solve it."

Those with experience flying airplanes or sailing boats know that some times trouble results from over-correction. The plane rises and dips. Often, with just a light touch on the controls, the aircraft recovers. It is the same in a sailboat. The boat heels over and then recovers with little help from the person at the helm.

Sixth, cultivate a spirit of tolerance in your ministry team. Remind the members of your group that compromise is part of life. First Corinthians 13:5-6 reminds us that "love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right." The apostle Paul, who had seen what happens when people demand that things be done their way, writes in Ephesians 4:1-3, "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

As much as I used to fear conflict, I have to come to see how such moments–when approached with prayer, faith, patience, honesty, and love–can bring a team together in a whole new way. In a disposable world, where people act as if relationships can be tossed aside at the first sign of trouble, members of a team who work through a conflicted moment without running away, often find renewed joy in their work together.

Remember, the work of your ministry team is not just about hitting the right notes, planning a great worship experience, or getting all the lighting cues perfect. Who you are, as God’s people, and how you are together can be the most powerful witness you offer.

Rev. Dr. Mark Fenstermacher is Senior Pastor at Trinity

United Methodist in Elkhart, IN. His e-mail address is: Docfenster@aol.com