Navigating Staff Relationships Gone Bad

October 9th, 2009


What happens when unanimity seems impossible—when seeing eye to eye turns into more of a pre-boxing-match stare down than a symbol of agreement? I spent three years working in and through just such a strained relationship with a coworker; and, though at times I let it get the best of me, God used my experience to teach me valuable lessons about how to handle a staff relationship turned dangerously volatile.

Without going into much detail I will say that my relationship with my coworker, we'll call him Bob, was strained from the beginning. I found Bob to be a less-than-honest person and saw his actions and words causing division among the body of our church, not bringing unity. Things got so bad that my passion for ministry was nearly extinguished, my desire to serve others was tainted, and my patience in every area of life was eroded. One of the most frustrating factors was that it took so long for others to see Bob's behavior as detrimental to the unity of our congregation. Eventually, after too many incidents, much prayer, and many second chances Bob was let go. It was a hard three years, filled with much doubt, frustration, anger, loneliness, and confrontation, but God in an incredible way used all of this to mature and grow our church, our leadership, and myself. The following are just a few of the lessons I learned from the mistakes that I made in dealing with a staff relationship gone bad.

Find someone who can be a sounding board who understands staff relations

If it weren't for Wednesday morning breakfasts with a local youth minister and good friend, my frustrations would have overtaken me. For some it may be the calm and solitude of taking a jog or putting puzzles together, but for me it was being able to speak honestly to another youth minister about my frustrations with Bob that eased my burden. My confidant never let me go too far with my rants, but he understood that I needed to get some pressure off the valves in a safe environment instead of blowing up at the wrong time in the wrong place. One of the most refreshing aspects of our time together was that at times both of us were able to look at each other and say, “you too?”

Don't make your spouse your ally and their enemy

I made a huge mistake early on in my dealings with Bob by sharing some of my frustrations with my wife. I told myself that I was innocently filling her in on my day at the office, when in reality I was drawing battle lines between her, Bob, and worse, Bob's wife. Needless to say those lines were not easily erased, and to this day they've only slightly diminished. Your spouse is your biggest cheerleader and defender. Your enemies are his or her enemies. My wife quickly got to the point where she didn't want to participate in services that Bob took part in leading because she saw him as the enemy. I'm embarrassed that I, in my selfishness and insecurity, drew lines between my wife and Bob, and deprived my wife of worship, fellowship, and discipleship opportunities. Remember, your spouse is also one of the sheep of your congregation, and it's your responsibility to work toward unity not division.

Avoid chat rooms

No not the cyber kind; I'm talking about the seemingly innocent gatherings of folks from the church who casually drop lines like “you know what I heard…” or “let me tell you what I think….” If you want to divide your congregation between staff members you can do it in one single chat room conversation, but if you're working to bring unity to the body of Christ then you need to get out of the chat rooms. It's all too easy to suddenly seem aligned with one side or another when folks are looking for allies to their opinions.

Being the youth minister, I had three particular chat rooms that I had to work to avoid. The first was the students' chat room. Kids see through phony people in a heartbeat, and kids like to talk about those people—double whammy. I had to work hard to set an example in situations where the kids were Bob-bashing and not appear to be in agreement with them—even when I felt they were the only ones who saw the real Bob.

I also had to avoid the volunteer chat room. During meeting lulls or on trips and retreats, I had to work to not participate in Bob-bashing and hold my volunteers accountable to the same. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but they needed to know that I wasn't going to participate in a conversation that led to division rather than unity.

The third chat room was what I call the Benedict Arnold room. We were all taught in grade school how Benedict Arnold was a double-spy, a traitor. In the BA chat room folks wanted to know how I felt about a particular incident or what my take was. Their questions seemed innocent enough, but when I was honest with myself I knew exactly what they were after. Here again was a case of drawing lines and siding up. If I'm working to bring unity to the body of Christ, then there's no place for me or any other believer in such conversations.

What do you do when you find yourself in a chat room? Get out! And tell those doing the chatting why you're getting out. Remind them of the unity that Christ desires for the body and then walk away. Let's face it, we know who the talkers are, and it really doesn't take much to avoid them…amen?

Keep the office environment neutral

I worked very hard at not letting my frustrations show to our secretary and office volunteers. Only now, some time after Bob's departure, has our secretary understood the frustrations that many of us felt. There were times I felt that Bob was pleading his case to our secretary to gain emotional support or an ally, and during those times I had to restrain myself from doing the same and further dividing our staff. In the end, doing the right thing (one of those rare cases when I actually did) has turned out to bring our staff closer together because we feel we can trust each other. By not siding up in our dealings with Bob we all said to one another, “you can trust me, I'm not going behind your back. I didn't do it with Bob and I won't do it to you”.

Know your limits

I'll admit that it was difficult simply to be friendly to Bob. I resolved to do the best I could to keep the office environment congenial. Bob and I were never going to go golfing together, have family outings together, or even eat lunch together for that matter; but by knowing our limits, I could keep our relationship peaceful enough not to disrupt the office environment.

At one particularly tense point in the relationship, he requested that we go golfing together to work out some of our issues. Initially I agreed to the idea and headed back to my office. I began to think about the past few times that I'd gone golfing and the past few run-ins that I'd had with Bob. I slowly began to realize that combining the competitive frustration of golf with the overall stress of the relationship with Bob was probably not the best environment for us to work our issues out. I began to imagine the newspaper headlines: “local church staff arrested in golf course brawl!” I went back to him and stated that I didn't think that us going golfing was the best idea, so we scrapped the plans. I knew that my limit had just about been reached already, and by the end of the first hole I would've been ready to snap. I needed a different environment to work out our conflict, something with boundaries.

Communicate with leadership

Thankfully our leadership structure is such that I have an elder directly assigned to me. I was able to share my concerns and frustrations with my overseeing elder and at the same time be reassured that the situation was something of which the leadership was aware. By communicating with the leadership I was able to do two things. First, I was able to let them know that I perceived a problem and what that problem was. Second, I was able to express my desire for unity, not division—something that our leadership desperately needed to hear in this case. I will admit that it was a fine line to walk between being a snitch and being a shepherd. I had to constantly keep my motives in check. I worked hard to simply make the leadership aware of my concerns and was open and honest with them as to where my heart was in the whole situation.

Pray for the one who's frustrating you

It took me a long time to get to this point. I'd let anger and frustration define my relationship with Bob, and when I felt God telling me to pray for him, I wanted to say, “Are you sure we're talking about the same Bob? God, have you seen the way he's been acting?” God worked to soften my heart and I began to see through Bob's games to his heart. As I began to pray for Bob, things changed. No, we didn't become best friends overnight—there was no grand reconciliation—but I was able to see Bob in a different light. Instead of focusing on Bob's behavior I began to see and understand more the motives behind his behavior. Bob's behavior didn't change, but my attitude toward him began to. I wish I could tell you that we completely reconciled, and our families went to Disney World together last summer; but that didn't happen, and it's not going to happen. But through prayer God worked to help me understand both Bob and myself a little better.

Learn from it

There are a hundred more things that could be said about how to handle staff relations when they go awry, but this is the last and most important to me: learn from it. If you're struggling through a similar situation right now, ask yourself why. What's behind the conflict? And pray that God will use you and this situation to grow everyone involved and strengthen the body instead of weakening it. Keep your motives in check, and don't get into a battle for the confidence of the congregation. If you've already been through something similar, look back on it and glean what you can from your experiences. It wasn't wasted time, but a very teachable moment. If you have yet to experience such conflict, I hope that you never have to; but if that time ever comes, I pray that you can find encouragement and a small scrap of wisdom in these words. God bless.


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