Faith Community Conflicts and the
Unexplored Territory of Leadership Transitions
I am a Peacemaker. I have worked in interpersonal
and organizational conflict for more than 40 years as
an analyst, interventionist, negotiator, and mediator.
While my practice has taken me into a wide variety
of public and private organizations and their internal
conflicts, my passion is for conflicted churches and
faith communities, which I have served across the
United States for the last twenty years. I am a Peacemaker, which is not so much a profession as it is a
calling. We need more Peacemakers.
Consistent statistical data show that between
80,000 and 100,000 churches and faith communities, which is approximately 20% of the whole
in the United States and Canada, are experiencing
destructive internal conflict as you read this, a number that has not changed significantly in the last 15
years. Further, there is a 75% chance that any given
church or faith community will be among those
trying to mitigate corrosive conflict in the next five
years. No church, or faith community in the broader
sense, is immune.
Not all faith community conflicts rise to severe
destructiveness but the results for those that do
are not encouraging: lost members, broken relationships, split congregations, lost revenue, forced
resignations of clergy, and even total destruction.
In my practice, faith communities that experience
serious internal conflicts are broken emotionally
and spiritually, and either limp along for several
years before full recovery, remain in a state of stagnation for several years, or gradually die.
For the sake of clarity, I will use the terms church
and faith community interchangeably. Also for
clarity’s sake, I will use the term ministers as an
encompassing title for all clergy.
While church conflicts follow the same escalation
sequence as those in secular settings, in my experience the damage to the institution and the people is
more devastating, and their leaders wait much longer
than secular organizations in securing outside help.
The problem is compounded by the fact that
very few seminaries or ministerial training centers
offer any form of conflict management training,
Everyone who has worked in any size secular
organization has encountered the intrigues, power
plays and office politics that are constantly oper-
ating. In fact, we expect them. Faith community
conflicts, though in many ways the same as their
secular counterparts are also markedly different.
They cause damage that is more difficult to repair
and wounds that are slower to heal than do work-
place fights. Whether naïve or not, congregational
members do not expect to find the same levels of
intrigue, politics, manipulation, unforgiveness and
verbal violence in our churches as we do at work
and in the larger community when disagreements
become heated and intransigent.
We come to our faith communities with firmly held
expectations of peace, love, benevolence, transparency and forgiveness. The image is one of an
idealized family where tensions are easily resolved.
They tend to ignore tension when finding it, perhaps
writing it off as a misinterpretation of better intentions. In other words, we expect our churches to be
sanctuaries (from Latin sanctus = holy) of peace and
acceptance safe and away from the outside world.
They often are when all is well, but, faith communities being comprised of normal people, they tend to
shed the mantle of the sacred when conflicts escalate beyond a certain point; they then replace it with
a cloak of distrust, anger, and retribution. This clash
About the Author
has worked in
since 1976 and
specializes in large-
ventions. He current-
ly serves as Dean
of Academic Affairs
at Gather 4 Him
is the author of
The Road Home:
A Guided Journey
to Forgiveness and
co-author of Let Us
Prey: The Plague of
and What We Can
Do About It.
CONFLICT RESOLUTION FOR EVERYONE