Navigating conflict with Biblical wisdom



  • Church & pastoral health

pulling-rope-900x500Conflict is an inevitable reality of leadership. Is conflict good? Bad? Productive? Destructive? And how do you lead through conflict in your church biblically? 

In this article adapted from Converge’s Church Board Development training series, Nate Wagner, senior pastor of Sparta (Michigan) Baptist Church, a Converge MidAmerica/Southeast/Caribbean congregation, shares his insights on navigating conflict in the church with biblical wisdom.

The inevitability of conflict

Many of us are conflict-averse, avoiding conflict as much as we can. But others seem to gravitate toward it.

The reality is that conflict is one of those things that we have to learn how to manage as leaders. There will be conflict between leaders, between congregants and even between leaders and congregants within a local church. 

Distinguishing marks of productive conflict

How do we manage conflict well, and how do we make sure that conflict is indeed a productive part of a redemptive community? Here are some distinguishing marks of productive conflict and how they contribute to successful teamwork and problem-solving.

Competitive conflict vs. redemptive conflict

Competitive conflict is engaging in a conflict to win an argument or be proven right. Tactics like intimidation, persuasion, manipulation, and even guilt or shame are used — all to make our point or win the argument. 

In redemptive conflict, we intentionally engage in conflict while collaborating to bring reconciliation, restoration, healing and, ultimately, to discover together the best path forward. 

Unity vs. agreement

Many of us get very nervous when there's disagreement. While there are disagreeable people (a different category), disagreement is a natural, necessary and healthy part of a winning team. 

We shouldn’t be uniform in our perspectives. It’s essential that we come from different vantage points and have different priorities and ways of operating. And so we come together, disagreeing to discern the pros and cons and figure out the best path forward. 

That's different from unity. Unity is contending for what the Holy Spirit has given us, according to Ephesians 4. We hold on to that unity that we keep together, the way we treat each other in the gracious, deferential spirit we have with one another while allowing for disagreement as a necessary part of the process. 


Disagreement is a natural, necessary and healthy part of a winning team.

A sidenote about conflict that could affect your congregation: Deciding whether to deal with conflict in a public versus a private space can be challenging. Most conflicts should be handled privately. But, when a conflict has the potential to undermine the unity of a body, when it's a divisive issue, it often needs to become part of the public discussion so a broader perspective can be offered. You may need to come forward as a leader to present the issue to the body so it doesn't undermine the congregation's unity. 

Collaboration vs. cooperation

Cooperation, we understand. You have an agenda, and I have an agenda. We come together to help each other achieve specific goals and to maximize our ability to accomplish those agendas. 

Collaboration is much different. Collaboration is when I set aside my agenda, and you set aside your agenda. We come together for a greater purpose and to achieve a greater set of goals that we could not do apart from one another. It requires a deferential spirit, a gracious spirit in how we come together, setting aside individual priorities for greater purposes. 

Vulnerability-based trust vs. predictive trust

Another distinguishing marker is the difference between what author Patrick Lencioni identifies as vulnerability-based trust versus predictability-based trust. Predictability-based trust occurs when we expect each other to perform a certain way — I know that I can trust that you will do your job and perform in these arenas. That's good and necessary. 

Vulnerability-based trust goes even further. It’s the ability to disagree and know how you will respond when we do, to admit a limitation or a mistake and to have confidence that you're going to be gracious to me and that you're going to work with me as we discover how it is that we need to move forward together in light of whatever has been brought to light. 

Believing the best vs. assuming the worst

How do we fill the gap between expectations and reality? Most of us are prone to assume the worst: the person doesn't care, they're not invested, they’re deceptive, there's a character flaw. We assume the worst about why they're not meeting our expectations. 

But believing the best is also an option. As we give the benefit of the doubt, we believe that the person wants the same thing that we do and that they're working toward the same goals we have collaborated on together to achieve. And yet there's a misstep; there's a reason why they're underperforming and a reason why they're not meeting expectations. So, we come alongside them to discover how to maximize their potential.



Building blocks to engage in healthy, productive conflict 

Engaging in healthy, productive conflict is important for effective communication and problem-solving within a team or relationship. This involves understanding the following building blocks necessary to promote growth and learning rather than destruction and tension.

Clearly defined and shared mission 

What are we collaborating on to achieve together? What is our mission, whether for the entire church or individual teams within the church? What are we trying to achieve together? Is it clearly defined? Are we all committed to it?

Collective commitment

The collective commitment is toward one another, but it’s also toward the shared mission that we're on together. We see this in marriage. It's not just about being committed to one another for a lifetime; it's about being committed to what God has called us and having a shared mission that gets us through the highs, the lows and the inevitable disconnects within any relationship. When we are collectively committed to a shared mission, we can navigate the challenges that will come. 

Vulnerability-based trust 

When there are missteps, when we get off kilter, when we don't agree or you're wondering why in the world I did what I did, vulnerability-based trust shows an ability to come together and have a healthy interaction. 

Honest & healthy communication

When trust is in place, we can have honest and healthy communication. Often, we don't communicate about things because we're afraid of conflict. But that’s not because we're all in agreement but because there's not enough trust to allow for healthy, assertive communication. And so people just go along with things rather than be honest about their perspective — and something is lost as a result. 

Redemptive conflict

When honest and healthy communication is in place, we can have redemptive conflict to move us toward a preferred future, reconciliation and restoration. Together, we can discern the best path forward. Patrick Lencioni says that when there's enough trust in a relationship, conflict simply becomes a means of discerning the truth or moving along the best possible path. (There are some ground rules here. You may need to set the table for what those ground rules should be before engaging in redemptive conflict together, such as not attacking or criticizing but bringing an honest perspective to the table in a generous, gracious way.) 

Refined unity

Once redemptive conflict is in place, then we can have refined unity. This is the unity we've been given that has been tested through conflict, and there's a greater level of emotional intimacy and connectivity. We can move forward with a greater commitment to our shared mission because our unity has been refined over time. 

“That the world may know…”

As we move forward together in unity, we have what I believe to be the greatest possible thing, which is what Jesus prays for in John 17. In that high priestly prayer, he says that he wants us to be unified so that the world may know that the mission of the church is to be able to allow the world to see, hear and understand the message, the life and the work of Jesus; that we bring that into the arenas that we step into; and that the world would know who Jesus is and what he offers. 

Today, I pray that you would engage in redemptive conflict and that conflict would not be avoided but embraced as a necessary part of a healing, redemptive community to ultimately accomplish the mission God has called us to as fellow believers within a local church. 

This post is based on a video message from Nate Wagner, senior pastor of Sparta Baptist Church in Sparta, Michigan. As of February 2024 (when this article was published), the message is one of 36 video discussions included in Church Board Development training, which is free to all Converge churches and available to churches outside of Converge for a small fee. More than 200 churches are actively using Church Board Development training in their board meetings. Learn more about investing in your board and strengthening your church through Church Board Development.

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Converge is a movement of churches working together to help people meet, know and follow Jesus. We do this by starting and strengthening churches together worldwide.

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