• Pastor Rob is a gifted communicator. People love him. Unfortunately he has a habit of misrepresenting the truth. He routinely agrees to do things and then never follows through. He also exaggerates and embellishes facts. Those close to him have learned to tolerate it as part of the “visionary communicator” package.
  • Nora’s ministry is flourishing, but she shows up late to staff meetings and one-on-one meetings—a lot. She apologizes and offers reasonable excuses, but the late arrivals persist. Others complain about her lateness, but no one holds her accountable for it.
  • Mia is young, immature, and sometimes brash. Volunteers rarely stay on her team for long. (She alleges this is due to their lack of commitment.) She does amazing work with the website and social media, so other church leaders hope this counterbalances her abrasive manner.
  • Owen is a great guy and a faithful small group leader, but he avoids conflict. In meetings, only his body language and tone give clues as to whether something is bothering him. He won’t admit he has any issues, even when he’s asked outright.
  • Patrick, the administrative assistant, has been on staff for 10 years, but he is highly critical of others, especially the new staff members who don’t have the history he has with the church. The church is changing and growing, but Patrick is not. His supervisor doesn’t know how to talk to him about it or what to do about all the complaints from those Patrick is supposed to be supporting.

Many expect church teams to experience less conflict than teams in secular workplaces. To a casual observer, this may seem to be the case, but that’s because Christians tend to spiritualize, rationalize, cover up, or avoid dealing with the issues that lead to conflict. We sweep potential conflicts under the rug. As a result, we leave those issues unresolved, and they linger in the room, threatening to disturb our carefully protected “peace.” While we may not have as many outright conflicts, we ignore—and sometimes feed—elephants in the room like the ones described above.

But elephants rarely leave the room on their own. In fact, they feed on silence and grow into bigger, crisis-laden elephants over time. Moreover, elephants tend to arise from unresolved issues in leaders’ inner lives. Immaturity rooted in unresolved issues from a team member’s family of origin, trauma, issues with authority, or faulty thinking will manifest sooner or later. As much as we wish leaders would arrive on our doorsteps as mature, peak performers, this rarely happens.When I suggest that part of leadership is to expose and explore these elephants, leaders often look at me in disbelief: “Pete, you have to be kidding. Do you know what would happen if I confronted every elephant in the room? I might lose half my team. And I wouldn’t have time for anything else!”

There is good news, however. Dealing with elephants in the room transforms immature behaviors into critical discipleship moments for your team—opportunities to build a healthy culture. Here are a few tips for dealing with unresolved conflict on your team. They may look deceptively simple, but they are powerful and effective when applied in love.

1. Be puzzled

Develop a new vocabulary to deal with elephants. For example, instead of saying, “Why did you leave such a mess in the office kitchen?” we can say, “I’m puzzled about why you didn’t clean up after yourself.” Instead of saying, “You should have returned my e-mail sooner,” we can say, “I’m puzzled about why you didn’t respond to my e-mail sooner.” “I’m puzzled” statements force us to acknowledge that we don’t always know why people do what they do. They help us pause and catch our hearts before they jump to judgment and form unfavorable “you did” or “you should” statements.

2. Make a healthy complaint

On our team and in our church we encourage people to use the phrase “I noticed ... and I prefer …” as the formula for making complaints. For example, when a supervisor sends a PowerPoint presentation to the tech volunteer at the last minute, instead of bottling up frustration and annoyance, he might say, “I noticed that you sent me your PowerPoint two hours before your presentation, and I would prefer that you send it one day ahead of time so I have time to upload it into our computer system.” Instead of saying, “You were late for our meeting—if you don’t show up on time, I can’t work with you in the future,” someone might say, “I noticed you arrived 20 minutes late for our leadership team meeting, and I prefer that you call when you are running late so I can adjust my schedule.”

It’s a simple phrase, but saying “I noticed ... and I prefer …” gives people training wheels to relate differently. It helps them become aware of and take responsibility for the small irritations and annoyances that arise every day.

3. Stop trying to read minds

My wife, Geri, and I were meeting with Steve, one of our small group leaders, in our home. He recounted how, after he made a great presentation at work, his boss sent out an e-mail thanking everyone but him. “I know he has it out for me,” remarked Steve in anger. “He never liked me.” Geri and I glanced at each other, recognizing this was a teachable moment.

“Do you know that for sure?” Geri asked. “Has he told you that? Or might there be other ways to interpret what happened?” I roleplayed how Steve might have wrongly interpreted what happened. I acted as if I were Steve walking into his boss’s office, and Steve roleplayed his boss. “Mr. Simmons,” I began, “I’m confused about why you sent a thank-you e-mail to everyone on our team but me, especially when you seemed so pleased with my presentation in the meeting. Did I miss something?”

By taking the opportunity to clarify things through verbal communication, we can keep a small problem from developing into an elephant.

4. Be honest

A pastor friend recently told me about his interaction with Andy, a musician on the church’s worship team. Andy had complained to my friend that worship team practice went 30 minutes over time because of all the joking around the music director had permitted. A few days later, the music director, sensing Andy’s annoyance, asked, “Hey Andy, were you upset during rehearsal the other night? You left so quickly.” Andy replied, “No, I just hurt my back and wanted to get home right away.” In truth, Andy didn’t have back pain. He had played basketball with the church team the previous night!

My friend chose to approach Andy a few days later, being careful not to shame or judge him. “Hey, Andy, I’m curious,” he said. “I overheard you tell the music director you went home early from rehearsal because of a bad back. What made you say that?” The conversation that followed was powerful. Andy talked about how his family ignored conflict when he was young, and as a result, he tended to lie to avoid awkward situations. Andy and his pastor identified some of his faulty assumptions about “niceness” in church culture, and how he might own his feelings and express them truthfully and constructively. They even considered how he might go back and redo his conversation with the music director.

Like spokes on a wheel, the Roman Empire’s elaborate road system led travelers directly to the city of Rome (hence the ancient axiom “All roads lead to Rome”). In the same way, all surface issues in our lives eventually lead back to the unhealthy root issues ingrained within us, which influence how we relate to ourselves and others. When we work with someone to unpack such issues—like the incident between Andy and the music director—we can expect that work to lead to the roots that inform similar behaviors. Address one issue thoroughly and light will be shed on the rest.

If we lead within the church, we may not be able to pay marketplace salaries. Many of the teams we lead might be comprised of volunteers. But we can offer something much more valuable than financial compensation: spiritual and emotional discipleship to help those we lead become more like Jesus. That means addressing simmering conflict before it boils over and using those moments as discipleship opportunities.

Pete Scazzero is the founder of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City, a large, multiracial church with more than seventy-three countries represented. Pete is also the author of The Emotionally Healthy Discipleship Courses, a discipleship model transforming churches around the world. Follow him @petescazzero.