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.

Core Competencies

I have been spending a lot of time lately working on core competencies. We have them in seminary life. They are the end goals of a curriculum that hopefully lead the institution to fulfill its mission. They are the skillsets, the character traits and the base of knowledge we want each graduate to possess when we are done with them. We assess and evaluate to try to ascertain how well we are doing based on how well our graduates are doing. Since I often help our educational partners around the world as well as our own campus with curriculum development, I spend time on such things.

Recently, however, I have been working on core competencies in the context of several local churches I am consulting. It has been very enlightening. So, I ask: What are the basic skills, character traits, and what is the knowledge base a church member should possess in order to be an obedient, fruit-producing disciple? What is the church teaching and/or doing to help the members to obtain these competencies within their local context? How intentional is the church in identifying and conducting this process? Does the average church member have an awareness of where they are, where they need to be and how to get there?

I have watched some really good leaders working through this in the local church. They have connected God’s mission to a biblical vision with these personal competencies. They have developed clear statements of expectation for the individual that will lead them to fulfill vision and mission. From spiritual disciplines to ministry responsibilities, this intentionality has helped to connect the dots between the personal and the corporate. They understand the need to focus on the biblical objective rather than simply upon the personal subjective. They recognize that the program activity of the church should be designed to develop these core competencies and not compete with them. This understanding defines what the curriculum of the church must be in their small groups and discipleship ministries. There is a common core in the best and most biblical sense.

How about you church leader? Do your people know how well they are progressing in their discipleship? Do they have specific, personal goals and spiritual markers in terms of fulfilling biblical vision? Can they define and assess what is needed next? Are you developing and conducting the proper training and offering the right ministry opportunities for your members to obtain these understood core competencies?

Take the time to prayerfully write out biblical goals for knowing, doing, and being. Work through what it means and looks like for a disciple to fulfill the biblical vision for your church. If you need help figuring out mission and vision go back and review some of my previous posts. Teach these competencies and the pathways to them to your people and develop a curricular process to help them become competent in each one. We can only have expectations for our members as high as the quality of discipleship development we are offering them.

Core training, now that will make you truly “cross”-fit!

The Phases of Church Leadership: Implementation

In this final posting of my series on five phases through which a church must move in order to experience and maintain strong health, I want to share the fifth and final phase. As a reminder, please read back through the first four. I have shared about Assessment, Identification, Vision Development and Adjustment. Now, the capstone to the process: Implementation.

Once the church assesses the past, the present, and the possibilities of the future, it can create a new profile of identity for both itself and the surrounding community. Then leaders are better equipped to develop the contextual vision plan by which the church will fulfill God’s mission. Before that plan can kick in specific adjustments must be made based upon this research and planning. These adjustments can be made with much more intelligence and biblical support because of the good work done in this process. Then it is time to implement the adjusted plan.

Leadership training and education will be a must in this phase. As the new vision is put into action, everyone needs to be on the same page and using the same vocabulary. The discipline of not only asking why some aspect of the vision is present but knowing the answers to the why will be significant. People in the church will need examples as well as exposition as they watch leaders moving forward in new ways with confidence and conviction. Lay people will also need additional equipping as the message and method of the new plan are enacted. They will also need excitement and enthusiasm as they are inspired by the leadership.

Also, be prepared to deal with any significant opposition to the new vision. It is one thing to discuss adjustment and its impact and quite another when the reality of it begins to sink in. Leaders may have to decide whether moving forward in a right and biblical way is worth losing some who may refuse to get on board. This is why it is so important that each phase of the process is explained and communicated well. The way implementation takes place should not be a surprise to the church if the foundational work has been carried out effectively.

As the train begins to move down the track in synergy remember it takes a while for that train to reach full speed. Reinforcement of the vision with clear messages full of relevant and redundant language will prove helpful. Explain, explain, and explain again.

And almost immediately the phase loop must be formed. As soon as implementation occurs, it is time to reintroduce assessment again and begin to weave through the phases as tweaking constantly takes place. If regular assessment and adjustment take place along the way there should hopefully not need to be radical change again for a while.

Remember the church is more than an institution. It is a living organism. Life is intended to be dynamic not static. Keep moving forward. Keep working this loop. God blesses intentionality. Let’s grow intentional churches.