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.

The Church Needs More Deborahs

Here’s an excerpt of the latest J. D. Greear installment, a call for more Deborahs in the church:

At the risk of stating the obvious, let me be clear: the whole book of Ephesians is for women. And so is the entire Bible. If women want to know God’s will for their lives, if they want to be shown what God desires for them, they had better not limit themselves to Ephesians 5 and Proverbs 31. Every chapter of every book of the entire Bible is for women. And they need to know it all.

Read the full post here.

Five Things?

Five things? That was the question. What are the top five things you need to work on right now and how are you going to pursue them?

Because of my position at the seminary, I have the privilege of overseeing several offices and a great team of people. We have a weekly time together we call our STATUS meeting. That stands for “Strategic Team And Tactic Update” (Yes, I am full of them!). This is our staff meeting and strategy discussion time. We discuss everything from upcoming projects to ongoing programs to calendars, etc. but we also try to hit on our mission and vision. Why are we here doing what we do? How can we do it better to His glory?

So a week or two ago I asked each leader to submit the answer to the above question. I wanted to know what their current priorities were and how I could best help them succeed at accomplishing them. I mean, I have my own five things (or 500!) but as their leader I need to know what they think is most important and I also need to know what they need from me to best help them. I asked them specifically about their department roles here at the seminary.

Since they submitted their lists, I have been reading through their top fives. These folks have a lot going on. I am impressed with them and what they are seeking to do. It has already helped me to think through my own professional priorities and my top five. How can I mentor, lead, disciple and walk alongside of these great leaders as they work through their issues?

Five things. Makes you think for a moment if you will stop long enough and allow it to. What are the five most important things you should be working on right now? Are you working on them? Will you? When will you? Why not? What are the distractions, the time leeches, the empty busyness, and the obstacles that keep you from the top five things? What are your personal five? Your family five? Your ministry five? Your overall five? What about the people with whom you serve? What are their five? How could you help them accomplish those five things?

I recognize we must, as Aubrey Malphurs once said, “Hold your plans before the sovereign God of the universe in an open hand.” And that, in and of myself, my decisions about my top five things will be flawed. Proverbs 19:21 states, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” But if prayerfully and biblically I begin to ask God to help me to truly understand the most important things on which to spend my best time and energy, I do believe He will help me to understand them. Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.” And v. 9 adds, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.”

It seems wise, then, to conclude with a prayer: Lord, help me to know the most important things I should be doing to bring you glory. Help me to prioritize them and focus my best energy upon them. You tell me in Proverbs 14:15, “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps.” Please help me to be prudent about my top five things.