The Role of Personality in Church Conflicts

Larry Purcell, Associate Professor of Leadership and Discipleship at Southeastern, writes about the role of personality in pastoral leadership, especially in the midst of church conflicts. 

In over thirty years, I am yet to pastor a church that experiences any measure of conflict and does not wish to stop it immediately. The congregation and its leadership both feel it is bad and must be stopped. Yet, conflict is a natural part of life. We must learn that conflict is not necessarily bad, but rather the manner in which we seek to handle the conflict can be bad. Congregations are not immune from conflict, whether a new church plant or a traditional congregation.

And yet, conflict can be an avenue to growth. An athlete must experience some level of discomfort or conflict to grow stronger and more resilient. Likewise a soldier must endure conflict to learn to be resilient and stronger when facing the challenges of fighting a war. Paul uses this metaphor to challenge Timothy, saying a soldier must endure “hardship” (2 Tim 2:3). In order for a church to maintain spiritual health in a rapidly changing world, conflict will be a natural phase of growth. The presence of conflict will cause a congregation to become more dependent upon the Lord for guidance, responsive to a changing context, and more resilient.

An article in SBCLife, Oct 2012, lists the top five reasons pastors are terminated by congregations: Control issues (e.g., “Who’s going to run the church”); Poor people skills on the part of the pastor; the Pastor’s leadership style is too strong; the church is already in conflict before the pastor arrived; and the Pastor’s leadership style is too weak.

As you can see, the personality of the pastor influences or directly relates to conflict. In the many years I have been a pastor, I have learned that I cannot control the thoughts and actions of others, but I have found my own personality can influence others. I have found that my personality could be both a strength and weakness. I had to make significant adjustments switching from a military environment of leadership to a church environment. I had to better understand how God designed me to respond in various and changing environments. Some define leadership as influence: Christian leadership is more than influence but it is never less than influence. The personality of the pastor necessarily influences those he shepherds.

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 about three different personalities we may encounter in a congregation. The first person knows the law, refuses to obey and he is to be confronted. The second person is discouraged and needs to be comforted. The third person is weak and is to be helped. Still, we are to be patient with all men. This challenges all pastoral leaders to not accept “one size fits all” expectations of people.

I think each of us can relate to one of these responses to someone’s behavior. Which one best fits you: confront, comfort, or help? I am comfortable at confronting behaviors, but I am taught in the passage that not all persons are to be confronted. So, a key to understanding these verses is seeing the leader’s response to various personalities.

Speed Leas has identified a variety of responses to conflicts.[1] Each of the responses can be appropriate, depending upon both the persons involved and the issues being faced. Can you identify which best describes you?

  1. Persuasion: Attempts to change another’s point of view. He thinks, “I am going to win.” This is a style very comfortable to a pastor or staff minister because we are in the task of persuading persons to know Christ and follow Him.
  2. Compelling: The use of physical or emotional force, authority, or pressure to constrain another to do something. This is seen when a crisis exists such as a fire, medical emergency, or even as a parent prevents her child from running into a street.
  3. Avoiding, Ignoring, Accommodating, or Fleeing.
  4. Collaborative: to work together with the people with whom you disagree. Too often seen as the best method, but only best when all are willing to play be collaborative rules.
  5. Bargaining and negotiating: assumes that those negotiating will get as much as possible, but will not get everything. It is a sorta-win-sorta-lose strategy.
  6. Support: often called communication skills and active listening. The major assumption of this strategy is that the other person is the one with the problem.

We see that a variety of personalities lead to different responses to managing conflict. These differences require pastors to shepherd their people with God-given wisdom and not only according to their own or preferred personality type.


[1] Leas, Speed. Discover your conflict management style. 1997. The Alban Institute.

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  1. Larry Purcell   •  

    I’d enjoy hearing your comment or questions!

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