Despite the importance of coral reef ecosystems to the social and economic welfare of coastal communities, the condition of these marine ecosystems have generally degraded over the past decades. With an increased knowledge of coral reef ecosystem processes and a rise in computer power, dynamic models are useful tools in assessing the synergistic effects of local and global stressors on ecosystem functions. We review representative approaches for dynamically modeling coral reef ecosystems and categorize them as minimal, intermediate and complex models. The categorization was based on the leading principle for model development and their level of realism and process detail. This review aims to improve the knowledge of concurrent approaches in coral reef ecosystem modeling and highlights the importance of choosing an appropriate approach based on the type of question(s) to be answered. We contend that minimal and intermediate models are generally valuable tools to assess the response of key states to main stressors and, hence, contribute to understanding ecological surprises. As has been shown in freshwater resources management, insight into these conceptual relations profoundly influences how natural resource managers perceive their systems and how they manage ecosystem recovery. We argue that adaptive resource management requires integrated thinking and decision support, which demands a diversity of modeling approaches. Integration can be achieved through complimentary use of models or through integrated models that systemically combine all relevant aspects in one model. Such whole-of-system models can be useful tools for quantitatively evaluating scenarios. These models allow an assessment of the interactive effects of multiple stressors on various, potentially conflicting, management objectives. All models simplify reality and, as such, have their weaknesses. While minimal models lack multidimensionality, system models are likely difficult to interpret as they require many efforts to decipher the numerous interactions and feedback loops. Given the breadth of questions to be tackled when dealing with coral reefs, the best practice approach uses multiple model types and thus benefits from the strength of different models types.