Many people come to churches or other faith communities believing the church is supposed to be a place where everyone gets along, showing unconditional love all the time, but this is not always true. Once a person joins with a church and becomes part of its mission of showing the love of Jesus Christ and building the kingdom of God, they become part of a team of others doing the same. This expectation of blissful participation in a loving community built on the unity of the love of Jesus Christ often causes members of this same community to flee in the face of conflict. However, the Bible paints a true picture of an imperfect church which strives to grow in love and unity, though not always successful on face value. Today’s church needs to reassess how conflict and church growth can work together.
The birth of the church after Pentecost as shown in the book of Acts, presents an imperfect community of faith which has conflict and disagreements. Acts chapter 6 verses 1-7 shows the creation of the first team of deacons to deal with issues of conflict amongst Christians of different ethnicities and relationships. Singfiel writes in Paul the Team Leader: Strategic Planning, Intragroup Conflict and Team Formation, about the team leadership used to produce successful teams that maintain its purpose and vision despite a changing membership as shown in Acts 15:32-41 (Singfiel 2018, 7). Planning for the mission and vision of the church involves creating teams which must work together from various backgrounds, under a variety of circumstances. Singfiel states that “Planning by itself is not enough to ensure good outcomes. A team also must be aligned both in purpose and in its internal relationships” (Singfiel 2018, 11).
Conflict in teams arises for a variety of reasons and can sometimes be even more pronounced when the team consists of a group of leaders. Both Paul and Barnabas were strong leaders before they joined together on their missionary journey. Singfiel states, “Paul had been converted from an ultra-orthodox Jewish zealot to a leader in the Christian community (Acts 9:1)”, and “Barnabas was from the island of Cyprus, a member of the Levitical class, and an early convert to the Christian sect (Acts 4:36)” (Singfiel 2018, 9).” Singfiel list three types of conflict, that may occur in teams; relationship conflict, developing from interpersonal incompatibilities, task conflict, revolving around how a task should be done, and process conflict, occurring when there are differences in how a task should be done, how resources should be allocated, and how much duty or responsibility different members of the of a group have (Singfiel 2018, 12-13). Singfiel believes the situation in Acts 15:32-41 may have been a result of a process conflict, where Paul disagreed on the resources, including people, that were necessary for the trip (Singfiel 2018, 13). Paul did not agree that John Mark should go on the journey, regardless of his family ties to Barnabas, since John Mark departed from them in Pamphylia (Singfiel 2018, 13).
Wageman and Hackman in What Makes Teams of Leaders Leadable, discuss several key functions that must be fulfilled to help leadership teams operate well, including, “creating a bounded entity that is defined by a clear, shared purpose” (Wageman and Hackman 2010, 496). Wageman and Hackman further state, “A real leadership team with a clear purpose arise when someone defines a circumscribed set of leadership functions to be fulfilled collaboratively and chooses specific team members whose capabilities will contribute to those purposes” (Wageman and Hackman 2010, 496). It is clear that Paul and Barnabas had a clear, shared purpose in visiting, instructing, and strengthening the planted churches with a capable team of leaders.
In today’s churches, it seems that we are missing the focus on a clear, shared purpose which keeps us bound to one another in completing the task of building the kingdom of God. We let the relationship, task, or process conflict get in the way of the mission of the church. Singfiel says, “Paul and Barnabas managed the conflict by allowing the group to metamorphose into two…The two teams departed into separate directions both ostensibly to carry out the mission of visiting the earlier churches” (Singfiel 2018, 13).
In the end, we see that conflict can actually lead to growth in churches if the church is aligned with the purpose and mission of building the kingdom of God. Like Paul, we need teams which maintain its vision and direction despite its shifting scope and membership (Singfiel 2018, 15).
Singfiel, Jeffrey J. “Paul the Team Leader: Strategic Planning Intragroup Conflict and Team Formation.” Theology of Leadership Journal, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2018: 6-21.
Wageman, Ruth, and J. Richard Hackman. “What Makes Teams of Leaders Leadable?” In Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, by Nitin Noria, & Rakesh Khurana, 475-505. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2010.