Conflict Management

Manages Conflict: Conflicted situations are managed with practices/processes that foster and reflect a theology of reconciliation.

A lot has been written about conflict – how to recognize it, how to avoid it, and what to do if you are in the midst of it. The topic of conflict is a fixture in clergy Fresh Start groups and many church training and workshops. No doubt most of us have experienced conflict in the Church. We only need to read Acts or Paul’s Epistles to know conflict has been with the Church since its beginnings.

Managing conflict is such a big topic that I am not going to do it justice on this page. My goal is to offer an overview of managing conflict and point toward some of the best resources available on the topic. I should also mention that there are situations of serious conflict (what we would call toxic) that require leadership trained and experienced in dealing with such conflict. This can require bringing in consultants trained in conflict management and/or conflict mediation.


Some Thoughts on Conflict in the Body of Christ

Conflict at its most basic level is difference between two or more points of view or ways things should be done. In my experience I have found addressing conflict from the perspective of our common mission as the church where we are first, and foremost, the Body of Christ. In that we recognize we need one another, every one of us together, even when we disagree. Through this we establish a culture of listening, caring, and covenants/norms of how we interact with one another as members of the Body of Christ.

We strive to speak and listen in love, engage in transparent and respectful conversations, and seek how God might be trying to expand our understanding when someone offers a view different from our own. In every conversation, as we speak and listen in love, the goal is to arrive at how it serves our common mission as a community of faith. Taking time to pray together, and to learn with and from each other, opens a community to engage in honest conversation with love and respect. So when there is conflict, we can be patient, understanding, and loving as we engage in respectful conversation of differing views and not lose sight of our common mission. Managing conflict in such a way is grounded in our Baptismal Covenant to to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘ strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.’

In vital congregations conflict is managed with clear practices/processes. By having practices/processes in place, congregational leaders can respond effectively. As the Church, it is important that our management of conflict expresses our values and teachings as a community of followers of Jesus who are living into God’s mission of reconciliation.


Insights into Congregational Conflict

Insights into Congregational Conflict is a report produced by Faith Communities Today (FACT) on the widespread nature of conflict in congregations, and outcomes from conflict management. The report begins with some startling, though not entirely surprising, statistics when they write: “In the FACT 2000 national survey of 14,301 American congregations, 75 percent of congregations reported some level of conflict in the five years prior to the survey (Figure 1). At any given time it appears that about one fifth of congregations have active conflict.”

Conflict is widespread in congregations across the United States. A congregation is more likely than not to experience conflict at one time or another. There are even some common sources of conflict:

“Money, its use and abuse (42%), was a close second to the most frequently reported area of conflict; agreeing upon and enforcing accepted norms of behavior among members (44%). The style of worship, designed to bring members together in the unity of faith, was an area of conflict for more than two of every five congregations (41%), while the organizational questions of leadership style (40%) and decision making (39%) appeared almost equally troubling.”

A 2004 Christianity Today survey of clergy, mentioned in the FACT Insights report, used a different set of categories for sources of conflict which offer further insight on the nature of congregational conflict. In it we see that “control issues” are by far the greatest source of conflict according to clergy surveyed. Conflict over the Vision/ Direction of the congregation was reported by over 60% of clergy in the survey.

Negative Impact of Congregational Conflict

The FACT Insight report explored the negative impact of conflict on congregations based on a series of outcomes. Nearly 7 out of 10 congregations lost members as a result of conflict. Nearly 4 out of 10 experienced financial loss due to withheld giving. A quarter of congregations experienced their clergy leaving as a result of conflict.

The 2004 Christianity Today survey of clergy focused on the human impact of congregational conflict. Nearly 70% of clergy reported damaged relationships as a result of conflict. Over half reported resulting sadness. A decline in attendance, loss of leaders, and loss of trust were reported by nearly a third of clergy.


Using Conflict Constructively

It should also be noted that not all conflict is the same, and conflict is not necessarily bad. There can be positive, even transforming growth, resulting from healthy engagement with conflict. The difference is in how conflict is addressed. The FACT Insight report suggests congregations can manage conflict in a healthy way. What is particularly important to note is that congregations which consider themselves “vital and spiritually alive” do much better at addressing and managing conflict in a healthy manner. The vast majority of those congregations (80%) are very open to dealing openly with conflict and more than half (56%) are at least somewhat open to dealing openly with conflict.


The Positive Affects of Conflict

While conflict is most often viewed negatively there can be positive outcomes, particularly if handled in a healthy (open) way. The 2004 Christianity Today survey reported that 94% of clergy experienced some positive result from the congregational conflict they experienced. Over 70% reported being wiser and 60% felt stronger.

So What Does This Mean for Congregations?

From the FACT Insight report: “As the data indicate, the question is not whether conflict is acceptable or not but rather what to do when conflict arises.A careful study of the conflict management literature shows that conflict, when handled well, can and will produce important and powerful results.”

As suggested earlier not all conflict is the same, and not all conflict is bad. The results from the FACT Insight report and Christianity Today survey support this assertion. What’s critical is handling conflict well. To do that, congregational leaders need to recognize conflict, the ways in which people deal with conflict, and how to manage conflict when it occurs. Being open to managing conflict in a healthy way is crucial to congregational vitality.


Levels of Conflict

In Moving Your Church Through Conflict Speed B. Leas introduced the five levels of conflict. These are extremely helpful for congregational leaders to recognize in managing conflict.

  • Level 0: Depression (Conflict Avoidance)
  • Level 1: Problem to Solve
  • Level 2: Disagreement
  • Level 3: Contest
  • Level 4: Fight or Flight
  • Level 5: Intractable Situation

At first glance it would seem we would all want to be at Level 0 — which would seem like no conflict. However, this is a place of denial. Leas refers to it as “Depression”. Another way to think about it is Conflict Avoidance. We deny there is conflict brewing, we ignore issues, we ‘sweep things under the rug’. It is better to recognize something is going on and lean into conflict at Level 1 to solve the problem.

Successfully managing Level 1 conflict results in a win-win situation where there emerges consensus about what needs to be done. Healthy management of the conflict arises from deep and active listening, and a culture of respect, trust, and goodwill — even a sense of Christian love within the Body of Christ. Vital congregations do very well at Level 1 and tend to thrive in the course of decision-making in keeping with purpose and vision. If a decision cannot be reached at Level 1, conflict moves to Level 2.

Level 2 conflict is disagreement as to the solution to the problem. If the congregation is healthy, has good leadership, and general goodwill, then all voices are heard, respected, and the leadership can work toward a solution. This is not automatically bad conflict, but it requires deep and active listening — to God and one another. Congregations that thrive at change do well at this level as they can ask questions like “what is God calling us to do or be in this situation?” “How might we need to change to be faithful to God’s mission as articulated in our purpose and vision?”

Level 3 conflict is seen as a contest where there will be winners and losers. There are at least two different views of possible solution and “camps” form. This is where phone calls are made, emails are sent, texts back and forth, and “parking lot conversation” are happening. This is not automatically a danger to the Body of Christ as thriving change can still happen, provided there is enough trust among participants and deep and active listening can happen.

Level 4 is when individuals and groups begin to act in more aggressive, instinctual ways and the situation can quickly deteriorate. It is a fight or flight situation. Those who are conflict avoidant leave and those who remain are typically more committed than ever to winning. This level of conflict requires special skills of listening and trust-building. A neutral third party, often from outside the system, is needed to help mediate the situation. Thriving change can’t happen until trust is restored and participants in the conflict can listen to each other with respect. The conflict needs to be dialed back to Level 3 in order to manage the conflict toward resolution and reconciliation.

Level 5 is where the two, or more, sides are no longer communicating with each other, even with outside help. There is no opportunity for thriving change to happen between those in conflict. This can be extremely damaging to the Body of Christ. This is often when we reach a “legal” stage. The bishop may need to pronounce a judgment on the situation. Lawyers may actually be involved. This tends to result in members leaving, possibly clergy leaving. There are fractures within the congregation that may never be resolved. The hope is that with time all involved with find forgiveness for others and everyone learns and grows from the experience to find health and wholeness again.


First Steps in Dealing with Conflict

The goal is to manage conflict in a healthy way at the lowest possible level of conflict (above 0 — which is denial and avoidance). Recognizing conflict and taking the necessary steps to address it is crucial. The Episcopal Church Foundation has produced a helpful presentation on recognizing and addressing conflict for a path toward transformation and reconciliation.

First Steps in Dealing with Conflict (ECF): As Christians we are people of reconciliation. When we forget this, we are in danger. When we remember, the opportunity to love opens the way to reconciliation and peace building. This one-hour webinar will introduce a theological and biblical context for seeing and understanding that conflict is essentially relational. It will address three elements common to all kinds of conflict:
· People
· Process
· Problems

And will offer some practical tools for addressing conflict so that “a path, a holy path, toward revelation and reconciliation” is opened for you and your community. View the presentation…


Avoiding Common Areas of Dysfunction

Nothing can trip us up in ministry quite like a dysfunctional system. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni is a great resource on the five self-defeating patterns of behavior to avoid for a healthy leadership team. They are:

  1. An absence of trust, particularly as it relates to being open and transparent about mistakes and weaknesses.
  2. A fear of conflict, that makes it next to impossible for a team to vigorously debate ideas and hold different perspectives and points of view in creative tension.
  3. A lack of commitment that comes from little or no buy in and ownership so even when a group makes a decision, team members are at best, minimally committed to do whatever it takes to execute the decision.
  4. Avoidance of accountability is the next ‘extension’ of the self-defeating patterns because everyone involved is hesitant to call other team members on issues and concerns when individuals are aware that they themselves are not giving their all.
  5. Inattention to results is the fifth component and is the result of a concern on the part of the individuals in a team to protect themselves and their individual needs at the expense of the goals of a team.
(From The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick M. Lencioni, April 2002, Jossey-Bass.)

The book includes a self-assessment tool teams can use and valuable activities and exercises that can help develop new patterns of behavior. By working on these five areas at the outset leaders are less likely to fall into dysfunction.


Avoiding & Dealing with Triangulation

In human interactive terms, a triangle occurs when each of two opposing parties seeks to join with a third party against the other, with the third party finding it necessary to cooperate now with one and now with another of these opposing parties. Triangulation works like this:

  • A has a grievance against C (whether valid or invalid), but instead of going directly to C, A instead talks to B about it.
  • A wants B to confront C but without telling C that it is A who has the grievance. In this scenario, A wields power over C (unidentified discontent) and B (manipulation). B wields power over C because for C to get to a resolution with A, C must go through B.

How to handle triangulation:

  • B should encourage A to talk to C and state her concerns personally
  • Alternatively, B should lovingly tell A that he will go with her to C, or that B will be happy to convey A’s concerns to C but that B will need to reveal A’s identity to C because he is sure that C will want to discuss these concerns with A. In any event, B should not carry A’s message anonymously.
  • Lay the ground rules, starting that we don’t communicate anonymous messages. Period. If A wishes to remain anonymous, the complaint goes unreported. Healthy leaders never play the triangulation game.

Reprinted from Beyond Business as Usual by Neal O. Michell, with permission from Church Publishing.


Overcoming Being Conflict Averse

As we have discussed, being conflict averse is probably not the best posture to manage conflict in a healthy way. In the article Overcoming Being Conflict Averse, Richard Simpson provides some helpful insight on changing aversion to conflict so we can manage it in a healthy and productive way.


Developing a Process to Mange Conflict

The best way for congregational leaders to manage conflict is to know as much as they can about conflict and get training on dealing with conflict. Congregational vitality depends on clergy and lay leaders to understand and manage conflict in healthy ways. Congregations can even be transformed and thrive with proper conflict management. Having a solid and clear process in place is, I believe, the best way to prepare for and manage conflict which leads to reconciliation and a thriving, vital congregation. I provide an example of one such process from Trinity Episcopal Church in Houston, TX.

I’d like to return to the FACT Insight report on conflict to provide some points for consideration as you think about what you might need to include as part of your procedures/process for conflict management in your congregation.

Preparing for Conflict
  • Study conflict-management resources. Do you have the tools, knowledge, and experience to deal with conflict? Who needs training?
  • Who are the experts (within or beyond the congregation) to call upon if needed?
  • Develop a community with trust for each other that is open to discussing difficult issues. What is the history of the congregation in regards to conflict? Are there any “skeletons in the closet” that have not been dealt with?
  • Since conflict often occurs over issues of control and decision-making, be aware of possible issues. Examine if there are ways to change the perception of, or head off, potential problems, such as more lay input in decision-making and more openness in congregational planning and decision-making. Is it possible to more widely disseminate information? Might responsibility be more widely spread?
  • What does your faith tradition say about conflict and how to handle it? How will this impact action when conflict arises?
  • What do the early stages of conflict and hidden conflict look like? Listen and observe.
  • Identify situations that might lead to conflict, such as major changes in worship, leadership or membership. How might changes be implemented so as to minimize conflict?
During a Conflict
  • What are the actual sources of conflict, the root causes, issues or areas of concern? What is the actual issue/problem?
  • Are there hidden assumptions or agendas?
  • Who are the parties to the conflict?
  • What expert help is available? Who else might you confide in?
  • Who needs to be involved in the conflict management?
  • How might the goals and desires of the different parties be brought into the open?
Resolving the Conflict
  •  Bring in scripture, prayer, or spiritual conflict-resolution techniques.
  • Pray about the situation and wait for the right opportunity to address it.
  • Given that it is generally good to deal with conflict openly, is that true in this case and, if so, how open do you want to be in terms of the number of people who know and how much they know?
  • Have the conflicting parties discuss the issue with a mediator present, such as a congregational leader or a trained, neutral third-party.
  • Advocate for constructive conflict and seek a win/win situation if possible.
  • If the conflicting parties need assistance in having a civil discussion, have a covenant about how this will be done (see sample of what to include below).
Learning from the Conflict
  • What did you do well? What would you do differently next time?
  • Was the conflict resolved to the satisfaction of all parties? If not, what is the reason for this dissatisfaction?
  • What affect did the conflict have on other members of the congregation? On the overall congregation?
  • What were the positive affects? The negative?
  • How could this conflict become a learning experience for the congregation?
  • What institutional changes could be made to make future conflict less likely?


Sample Conflict Resolution Process

Sample Conflict Resolution Process (Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston)


A Rite of Reconciliation After Conflict

A Ritual of Reconciliation after Conflict (Diocese of Kentucky)


Caring for Clergy and Congregations

From Episcopal Church Foundation: Congregations will sometimes call a clergy person and realize, for a wide variety of reasons, that it is not a good fit. Oftentimes, such calls end in silence and shame for both the clergy person and congregation alike. In this webinar, we will explore the call for greater training around conflict for church leaders, ways to care for clergy and congregations who go through these experiences, and the opportunity for clergy and the congregations to give back to the wider Church through this experience. Caring for Clergy and Congregations (ECF webinar)


Antagonists and Attacks Against Clergy

Sometimes conflict results from attacks against clergy. Even if the clergy person has done nothing to warrant such attacks. Even in situations where the canons are on the clergy’s side it may not be enough to avoid conflict — even serious conflict. In fact, if the situation gets to a point where we are needing to refer to canons then serious conflict is likely already present. Much of this type of conflict stems from underlying dysfunction (even toxic dysfunction) in the system. It is impossible for congregations to thrive when there is this level of dysfunction. They may give the appearance that things are okay, but it doesn’t mean they are healthy and thriving. This is conflict at Level 0, but in these environments conflict tends to quickly escalate to higher levels of conflict — seemingly out of nowhere. Conflict resulting from attacks against clergy are not as widely discussed in the Church, for a host of different reasons, but we need to be mindful they happen, know why they happen, and, most importantly, learn how to prevent them.

Here are some excellent resources to begin this conversation:

Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C. Haugk.

Sheep Attack Series by Dennis Maynard:

When Sheep Attack by Dennis Maynard

After Sheep Attack by Dennis Maynard

Preventing a Sheep Attack by Dennis Maynard


Conflict Management Resources

Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Edwin H. Friedman

Church Conflict: The Hidden Systems Behind the Fights by Charles H. Cosgrove, Dennis D. Hatfield

The Issue is Not the Issue: The Real Causes of Congregational Conflict, Thomas F. Fischer

Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation by Susan M. Lang

From Stuck to Unstuck: Overcoming Congregational Impasse by Kenneth A. Halstead

Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life by Penny Edgell Becker

Angry People in the Pews: Managing Anger in the Church by Leroy Howe

Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C. Haugk.

Behavioral Covenants in Congregations: A Handbook for Honoring Differences by Gil Rendle.

Church Conflict: From Contention to Collaboration by Norma C. Everist.

Church Research Report: Managing Church Conflict, the Source, Pastors Reactions, and its Effects, Christianity Today International.

Conflict Management in Congregations edited by David B. Lott.

Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? by Daniel Goleman.

Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Moral Courage: Motives and Designs for Ministry in a Troubled World by Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed.

Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach by Peter L. Steinke

Levels of Conflict: An Overview of Conflict Management, the Alban Institute.

Managing Church Conflict by Hugh F. Halverstadt.

Moving Your Church through Conflict by Speed B. Leas.

Resolving Church Conflicts: A Case Study Approach for Local Congregations by G. Douglass Lewis

Vestry Papers issue on Conflict (March 2016)