These days congregational conflict is much on the minds of consultants, educators, judicatory and denominational executives, and other religious leaders. Most have come to view conflict in the congregation as less a disaster than an opportunity for growth, provided those involved approach it constructively and are trained in processing it. And therein lies the issue. Is enough training available? Where and when is it most appropriate? What is the role of seminaries in this regard? 

Previously no hard data existed to back up the widespread impression that conflict is indeed a major factor in congregational life. Now they do. The most comprehensive study to date of congregational life in all denominations and faith groups, the National Congregations Study was conducted in 1998 by University of Arizona professor of sociology Mark Chaves. He and colleagues worked with the National Opinion Research Center to include questions about various aspects of congregational life in NORC’s regularly conducted General Social Survey, which measures societal attitudes and behaviors. 

The study produced a wealth of data documenting congregational dispositions and practices that obtain across the religious spectrum. Among its findings was this dramatic statistic: nearly 27 percent of congregations from every denomination and faith community have experienced “a conflict within the last two years that led some people to leave the congregation.” While no previous parallel statistics exist for comparison purposes, most observers agree that the percentage accords with their own estimates and probably reflects an increase over the past twenty-five years. 

There is certainly acknowledgment that the church has always seen plenty of conflict, and we may now simply be more vocal about it, feeling free to be so in this increasingly impolite (and litigious) society. It is also more common for denominations to go public about conflict in their congregations. Nevertheless, those who deal with the issues regularly report a real increase in disputes, as well as an intensifying of dramatic, sometimes devastating, results. 

Who’s Who

Penny Edgell Becker is the Cornell University sociology professor who wrote, Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life.

Jackson W. Carroll is a professor at Duke University Divinity School (United Methodist) in Durham, North Carolina.

Mark Chaves, a University of Arizona professor of sociology, conducted the National Congregations Study.

Susan Cole is senior pastor of Arch Street United Methodist Church, a self-consciously diverse congregation in downtown Philadelphia.

Speed B. Leas, an expert on conflict, is a new faculty member at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

Robin Lovin is dean of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

William McKinney is president of the Pacific School of Religion.

G. Lloyd Rediger is a consultant and author of the popular, but controversial, Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations under Attack .

Gilbert R. Rendle is director of consulting and education for the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.

Bennett J. Sims, a retired Episcopal bishop, is the founder of the Institute for Servant Leadership in Asheville, North Carolina.

Loughlan Sofield, a Roman Catholic priest, is senior editor of the journal Human Development and a prominent consultant.

David Tiede is president of the ELCA’s Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Walter Wright is the new head of the De Pree Center for Leadership at evangelical Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California.

In addition, because clergy are no longer unquestioned authorities, parishioners feel freer to fight with the pastor, as well as with each other, notes Cornell University sociology professor Penny Edgell Becker. In her recent book Congregations in Conflict: Cultural Models of Local Religious Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999), she identifies four basic types of congregations: “houses of worship,” “family congregations,” “community congregations,” and “leader congregations.” All four, she observes, experience conflict to some degree, and each has distinctive ways of responding. 

Becker notes, however, that a likely underlying cause in every conflict is confusion about the congregation’s identity. As inevitable change occurs—perhaps the appointment of a new pastor or the arrival of new members from different religious backgrounds—longtime parishioners are understandably inclined to hold tenaciously to past ways of doing things. And newcomers may be understandably insensitive to the importance the church’s past has for many members.

Also present at an even deeper and more subconscious level, according to another expert, is frequent personal insecurity on the part of clergy as well as parishioners. Roman Catholic priest Loughlan Sofield, senior editor of the journal Human Development, is a consultant who works with Catholic groups. Most clergy, along with laity, he said, have “no structures to deal with” their own issues of anger, grief, loss, or other common conflict-generating emotions. Hence they are ill-prepared to handle the same kinds of issues in congregations.

A Case in Point
All these factors are present in the story of Arch Street United Methodist Church, a self-consciously diverse congregation in downtown Philadelphia. Senior pastor Susan Cole described the numerous difficulties—a mixture of unexpected changes and identity confusion—the congregation experienced in the 1990s. First (before Cole’s arrival), a longtime beloved pastor retired suddenly without explaining that he faced major illness. With no time to process the departure or work through grief, the congregation felt abandoned. 

The next pastor, a young African-American man fresh out of seminary, was the congregation’s first black pastor. Although his arrival offered a real opportunity, tensions and feelings of abandonment ran so high that the newcomer left after only a year. Another pastor also requested a transfer. Then Cole, Arch Street’s first female pastor, arrived along with a male co-pastor. She was warmly received, and the two pastors cooperated well. The congregation developed a strategic five-year plan, creating committees, holding meetings, and generating widespread member involvement. In April of that year, the congregation voted to approve the plan. Just as the congregation was going to vote on the plan, the co-pastor announced he was leaving—no problems, simply a more attractive offer. 

The situation began to deteriorate seriously. With no co-pastor, Cole not only had all the responsibilities, she was the focal point for frustration and renewed feelings of abandonment. 

Reasoning that part-timers might smooth the transition process, the church made several local hires, including a young African-American clergy couple from a non-Methodist background who brought their own ideas about how to do things. While the congregation was anxious to pursue its diversity goals, the differences in denominational understandings of congregational life introduced real confusion in the church’s sense of identity. Factions began to form, racial tensions came into the open, and near-chaos erupted.

The church sought the aid of jurisdictional officials, who were supportive but limited in their ability to provide hands-on help. Cole then invited several outside consultants to lead congregational discussions on how to respect others’ opinions without necessarily agreeing. The process began with a look at the congregation’s history and led to major positive changes. The first crucial one was an awareness of what was actually happening and the underlying reasons. This realization helped members identify the real source of their anxieties. Most Arch Street parishioners became unwilling to stay embroiled with the few members who remained bent on perpetuating unrest.

The Aftermath

Today, the church is functioning well; Cole is the senior pastor alongside a full-time African-American associate pastor, Robert S. Booker. Expectations and concerns are expressed openly and faced head on. No one has illusions that conflict will never arise, but most members, having developed new understanding and skills, are prepared to cope productively.

Arch Street was fortunate. It had the support of its judicatory and help from outside consultants. Most churches would not be so lucky, lacking money to hire a consultant or knowledge of how to go about it. 

One Arch Street consultant was Gilbert R. Rendle, director of consulting and education for the Alban Institute, an organization that provides supportive services to congregations. According to him, Arch Street, in addition to its clergy losses, was a victim of its own success. “They worked hard to be diverse, and then wondered why they didn’t agree,” he said. Obviously this type of diversity challenge occurred much less frequently twenty-five years ago. 

Susan Cole stuck it out and survived the crises, but she is not necessarily typical. Stories of clergy leaving their pastorates are increasing. Indeed, the Chaves study indicates that the average tenure for pastors seems to be decreasing: the median clergy person has been in his or her congregation four years, and the median worshiper attends where the senior clergy person has been in place only six years. These are startling figures, especially considering the long pastorates that used to characterize many congregations. And among the clergy who don’t leave, the numbers experiencing major stress-related illness, psychological problems, or just plain “burnout” are climbing.

The Seminary Role
Susan Cole believes early training in group dynamics and handling conflict would have helped her significantly. Seminary “didn’t prepare me” for what happened, she said, although she acknowledged that the actual experience and emotions would still have been very difficult. Only experience can fully reveal the profound impact of congregational conflict on all concerned.

Many pastors share Cole’s feelings, and most specialists who help clergy and congregations deal with conflict agree that the place to start training is in seminary. That training should not be in “conflict avoidance” but, rather, in handling conflict creatively. Many are also convinced that schools should teach conflict resolution in a broader theological context—in leadership training or discussions of ecclesiology, for example. Simply memorizing prescribed and mechanistic “steps” or “techniques” to use when conflict arises—without a wider and deeper framework in which to understand the situation—can often muddy the waters further. 

According to Sofield, part of seminary preparation also needs to be personal, while still set in the larger theological framework. Many priests are “not in touch with their own feelings and needs,” especially regarding anger or conflict. The church at large perpetuates a tradition of “niceness,” he said, encouraging avoidance of one’s own unpleasant feelings. To achieve the “collaborative ministry” among clergy and laity that Sofield teaches requires that clergy understand more about themselves before entering a parish. They can later pass along their understanding and skills to lay people.

Sofield’s “collaborative ministry” has parallels in the work of evangelical and mainline innovators. One is retired Episcopal bishop Bennett J. Sims, founder of the Institute for Servant Leadership in Asheville, North Carolina. The organization’s seminars teach that “real power is the exchange of power,” a concept based on earlier work by social theorist Robert K. Greenleaf. Sims expresses his views in Servanthood: Leadership for the Third Millennium (Cowley, 1997). He believes firmly that leadership training should start in seminary. 

So does consultant and writer G. Lloyd Rediger. His popular and controversial book, Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations under Attack (Westminster John Knox, 1997), focuses on the worst congregational conflicts, in which certain members knowingly foment major discord, especially with a pastor. Now, several years after the book’s publication, Rediger is even more strongly convinced of his arguments also, he noted that seminaries may be reluctant to teach about conflict for the same reason others in the church want to suppress it—to avoid evoking too much discomfort.

In the Schools
Seminaries are addressing these issues in a variety of ways. At evangelical Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, the new head of the De Pree Leadership Center is Walter Wright, former president of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and earlier a Fuller faculty member. De Pree programs seek to “encourage a value-centered approach to leadership,” Wright said. For more than fifteen years, Fuller itself has also offered its seminarians leadership courses; Wright taught many when he was a faculty member. He often based “classroom discussions on specific biblical situations of conflict, in which students would assume each of the different roles in turn and participate in exercises for dealing with the dispute.” 

A prominent aspect of such role playing, according to Wright, is to help potential clergy “learn how to manage their own conflict.” One of Fuller’s goals, Wright said, is to ameliorate a situation in which seminaries send out “people who can preach, but who can’t lead a group.” Most seminarians have “no idea” what constitutes real leadership, he said, they think it is “muddling through.” In his view, leadership training needs to be not just theological but practical.

Some Fuller continuing education seminars focus on how to build a congregational leadership team. Wright stresses the importance of pastors bringing the lay leadership to share in the training. Pastors who “think they have all the answers,” will surely get into trouble.

Various seminaries incorporate conflict training into normal curriculum. The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America school, teaches about conflict in at least three settings: a course called “Pastor as Theologian,” a seminar series on practical theology, and a parish administration course. The School of Theology at the University of the South, an Episcopal school in Sewanee, Tennessee, offers a course using Sims’s Servanthood as a text. 

At the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas, students discuss conflict in courses on leadership and pastoral care. According to Dean Robin Lovin, all approaches to conflict are based on “understanding what the pastor’s role is.” Perkins also illustrates another popular approach. “We try to build [conflict training] into the internship experience,” said Lovin. “The student is mentored by a pastor and learns how the pastor handles conflict.” 

The Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, has enhanced its offerings dealing with conflict to include courses taught by new faculty member Speed B. Leas, an expert on conflict and an Alban Institute senior consultant. “We want to prepare people not just for conflict, but to be entrepreneurial leaders in an increasingly tough religious environment,” said PSR’s president William McKinney.

Another way to understand conflict is through a congregational studies approach. At Duke University Divinity School (United Methodist) in Durham, North Carolina, Professor Jackson W. Carroll offers a course called “Understanding Congregations and their Communities.” The course requires students to do participant observation in a congregation.

The interdenominational Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., combines a number of these approaches. According to its dean, Clarence G. Newsome, “the notion of developing skills to resolve conflict is woven throughout the entire fabric” of seminary life. 

Despite these creative examples, experts feel more needs to be done. Sims still believes that too few seminaries teach leadership skills. Sofield noted that most Catholic priests’ learning about conflict occurs after seminary—in continuing education, at workshops, or during sabbaticals. Rediger recommends that seminaries employ trained and experienced pastors as teachers so they can share their experiences with a whole group of students at once. 

Bring in the Board
However schools approach the issues of congregational conflict and leadership, there is broad consensus that governing boards should be involved. Sims asserts that boards can be especially effective in modeling how to balance academic and experiential models, arguing that, because board members are often leaders in business or their communities, they should have a special interest in encouraging a broad and deep understanding of leadership.

Wright at Fuller’s De Pree Center thinks that board members should “encourage faculty and students into their world,” offering a wider arena in which teachers can see the importance of leadership skills. He said that various forums are needed to bring boards, faculty, administration, and students together, and all parties need to take more initiative.

Leas suggests that boards start with examinations of their own interaction, claiming that “they often don’t know how to design meetings” for maximum effectiveness. After self-study and analysis, they could create a process to share with faculty and others and include specific models for handling conflict. To the objection that many board members don’t have time for this sort of exercise, Leas simply recommends “plowing on ahead with those who can give the time.”

An interesting instance of board involvement occurred recently at the ELCA’s Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, in a situation based on the same types of conflict that can roil congregations. In the past several years, a discussion about proposed agreements with the Episcopal Church has swirled, often bitterly, within the ELCA. This was especially true at Luther, where opposition to the agreements was fierce and arguments became increasingly heated. Later, coming to realize the destructiveness of the turmoil, Luther and its board “decided to use this situation as an opportunity and an experiment,” according to seminary president David Tiede.

The entire seminary community agreed that Luther should be a place where this discussion could happen safely. The board itself had “been going at it” in arguments about the proposed agreements, said Tiede. When they became painfully aware of what was happening, they were determined to “play by new rules”—first among them to stop personal attacks or intimidation of those with different opinions. The faculty then adopted the board’s practices, as did administration and students. In all future discussions, the community intends to “try to follow a pattern of deliberation” leading not necessarily to agreement on any given issue, but to mutual respect and acknowledgment of others’ views.

The possibilities for board-seminary interaction are many. So are opportunities for partnerships among all the various parties concerned with educating pastors for encountering congregational conflict: seminaries and their boards, continuing education teachers, consultants, judicatories, denominations, students, parish practitioners, and others. Having only one opportunity for training is most certainly not enough. Likewise, say many of those involved, having an opportunity only later is most certainly too late.


For further information about the National Congregations Study, contact Dennis Powell at the Alban Institute, 7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814; 301/718/4407, ext. 239

De Pree Leadership Center
135 N. Los Robles St.
Suite 620
Pasadena, CA 91101

The Institute for Servant Leadership
15 Macon Avenue
Asheville, NC 28801

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