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Maintaining Unity: Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Conflict-Resolution


Purpose: To "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3) despite the differences and tensions that emerge in a period of transformation and challenge.

Why: In order to have an effective witness outside the church, you must demonstrate Christian unity and love within the church (John 17:21). It is inevitable that as you assess your church, evaluate current ministries and propose changes to its mission, you will encounter disagreements, misunderstandings and even some ruffled feathers. As followers of Christ, we are charged to resolve these disputes in a way that honors God, and not to let them derail God's plan for the church.


  • The goal is not to dodge conflict but to manage it in a life-giving manner. Conflict generates energy which can be directed toward shaking up the paradigms which support an unsatisfactory status quo. Conflict can open the door to dialogue, which can give clarity to a new holistic understanding of the church's mission. Conflict accompanies the questioning of old ideas and habits, and can be rephrased as an invitation to "be renewed in the spirit of your minds" (Eph. 4:23).

  • The Ministry Vision Team, or whichever church body will lead the ministry planning process, should explicitly agree on the procedures for decision-making. Either a consensus model or a democratic model is possible. Decision by consensus is best, but not always possible.

  • When you reach a crossroads or a challenge, use these problem-solving tactics:
    • Pray, corporately and individually.
    • Gather information and input from others inside and outside the church.
    • Brainstorm potential options, including "out of the box" possibilities.
    • Discuss options in terms of theological soundness, spiritual leading, pros and cons, timeliness, potential impact, available resources, and interest levels.
    • Take time for personal reflection, not pushing for a resolution prematurely.

  • If - or rather, when - the team encounters conflict, first clarify the type of conflict, so you can focus your discussion and draw on appropriate resources:
    • Theological: What is mission? What is the relationship between evangelism and social ministry? What is the priority of outreach versus discipleship?
    • Practical: Are sufficient resources available? Should the program be set up as a separately incorporated nonprofit? How should the pastor be involved?
    • Ideological: Should we focus on ministries of relief or political advocacy? Is it proper for the church to seek funding from secular sources?
    • Directional: Do we focus on children or seniors? Build on existing outreach programs or start fresh? Enter into a partnership with another church?
    • Personal: Be aware that debates over ideas can sometimes mask personality conflicts or power struggles.

  • Acknowledge and accept conflict, without trying to deny it or smooth things over. A certain amount of tension among team members is healthy. If you all start thinking exactly alike, you will lose your creative edge.

  • Here are suggestions for managing conflict in a life-giving manner:
    • Listen and talk in love. Listen before you talk; don't talk until you can rephrase what you have heard. Show respect for one another by seeking to understand the issue from someone else's point of view. Assume the best motives on the part of those who disagree with you (1 Cor. 13:7). How to Mobilize Church Volunteers by Marlene Wilson offers good ground rules for listening.
    • Focus on fundamentals. Re-affirm your commitment to shared core values: the desire to please God and share Christ's love with others; compassion for the least and the lost; a hunger for peace and justice in your neighborhood; the commitment "to equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph 4:12).
    • Foster unity. Keep differences of opinion in perspective by emphasizing your oneness in the Spirit (Eph. 4:1B3). Spend time in worship, placing Christ at the center of the team. Meditate on Scriptural passages on unity like John 17 and 1 Corinthians 12. Encourage people who have hurt one another to be reconciled, even if they still don't agree.
    • Pray with humility. Ask God for unity, and for willingness to submit to the transforming, life-giving counsel of the Holy Spirit: "Not my will but Thine be done" (Luke 22:42). If the prayer is, "O God, change that other person's mind," then prayer is being used as a weapon and is not helpful at all.
    • Think win-win. Look for creative solutions where everyone gets what is most important to them. If the team can't decide whether to focus on children or on seniors, for example, come up with a ministry that connects children in the community with adopted "grandparents" at a senior center.
    • Think long-term. Instead of asking, "Which ministry should we do?", put the question this way: "Which ministry is best to do first?" This assures team members who feel strongly about a particular ministry that their idea may be postponed, but not scrapped.
    • Consider your commitment. If people disagree about a course of action, ask who is actually willing to dedicate their time and energy to following through on their position. That often changes the course of the argument.
    • Tell stories. It's easy to get ensnared in arguments about principles or doctrines in the abstract. Instead, tell stories about how you have arrived at your point of view - the experiences and people that have shaped you.
    • Maintain modesty. Remind one another that no one has a monopoly on truth, and that you need one another to see the big picture.
    • Keep a healthy personal perspective. Each team member must resolve not to take offense when their ideas are rejected, and not to allow their egos to become invested in a position. Resist the temptation of tit-for-tat retaliation. Don't allow conflicts over ideas and beliefs to become personal battles.
    • Go home. Keep meetings to 1-2 hours. Beyond that people tend to lose their concentration, get tired and stubborn, and become entrenched in circular arguments. The conflict may look different when you take a fresh approach at your next meeting.

  • Don't panic if you cannot resolve every dispute immediately - or ever. There are some theological positions and issues on which you can simply and safely agree to disagree, without threatening the whole vision discernment process.

  • No one should be expelled from the Ministry Vision Team - but as a last resort, if irreconcilable differences persist, an individual may choose to leave the team. Let them go. Make every effort to maintain a healthy relationship with this person, so that their departure does not plant a "root of bitterness" in the congregation (Heb. 12:15).

  • If it becomes necessary, appoint someone to serve as a facilitator from within the group to moderate a discussion of the conflict. The facilitator should ensure that everyone gets a chance to be fairly heard, and that the group practices respectful "active listening."

  • If the process gets really mired in conflict, you may need to pause the project and get outside help before disputes do lasting damage.

  • Deep, divisive conflict may be a sign that the church is not ready to launch an active program of holistic ministry. Put the project on the back burner, and work on the congregation's spiritual and relational health before turning again to focus on outreach.