Don't Get Ambushed: Two Things You Can Do When Sparks Fly on Your Team

by Rick Love

Leaders disagree, sparks fly, and teams divide. Been there. Done that.

But take heart. Even great leaders clash. Two of my favorite leaders in the Bible, Paul and Barnabas, had a “sharp disagreement” that led to a team split. What can we learn from their pain?

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing." Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:36-40).

What went wrong? Paul and Barnabas knew WHAT they wanted to accomplish (the vision). But their conflict revolved around HOW they did things (the values). Paul was task-oriented, while Barnabus was relationally-oriented. Mark left the team on their first journey, so according to Paul he did not deserve a second chance. By contrast, Barnabas, known as “the son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) felt Mark deserved another opportunity.

This was not an issue of sin. It was a clash of values. They were “storming” over differing philosophies of ministry (however, these kinds of conflicts often have the potential to become sinful).

Personally I see the strengths of both men. I fully understand their different orientations to ministry. And I have seen too many conflicts like this to side with only one philosophy of ministry.

Here are two lessons I have gleaned from this conflict that can help you keep from being ambushed by conflict.

1. Paul and Barnabas needed a mediator to help them work out their differences.

A mediator is a trusted person who helps each side understand the other. The mediator does not provide the solution. Rather s/he helps those entangled in conflict come up with an agreed upon solution themselves. 

This mediator, or go-between, would probably not have persuaded Paul and Barnabas to change their perspectives. But s/he may have helped them discern a better way forward than splitting up. At the very least s/he could have helped them minimize the pain of separation.

At times, godly men and women, with differences in philosophy of ministry, need to agree to disagree. Rather than striving to maintain one team, it is sometimes wise to divide up into two. Though hugely important, mediation can’t solve everything.

But note: the wise leader proactively finds a mediator before conflict arises.

2. The second lesson learned from Paul and Barnabas: write up a “memo of commitment” (MOC).

Like Paul and Barnabas, many teams get ambushed by conflict because certain aspects of their vision and values have not been explicitly stated. Most teams do fairly well regarding the vision. But if other aspects of their philosophy of ministry - such as values, priorities and practices - are not explicit, disputes often arise.

A MOC is a covenant-like document that outlines the vision and values of the team. The writing of an MOC encourages the leader to clarify the vision and values of the team. It also helps the team member understand expectations. To facilitate unity of purpose on teams, each team member signs the MOC, indicating their commitment to the team’s vision and values.

An MOC will not end conflict, but it can help minimize conflict over differences in philosophy of ministry, and I have found it to be a valuable tool for teams – something I have used for over 25 years. So don’t get ambushed by conflict! Be proactive - find a mediator and write up an MOC.

I would love to hear your perspective on clashes over philosophy of ministry too. What have you learned?