By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

Presumed Causes Of Conflict

Often pastors and members will identify the cause of the pastor-focused conflict as being one or more of the following issues relating to the pastor.

  1. Preaching: “Inadequate” preparation, delivery and content
  2. Personal Preferences: “Unsatisfactory” grooming, attire, home, car, vacations, spending, hobbies, friends, and politics.
  3. Personal Qualities: “Lack” of warmth, enthusiasm, listening skills, accessibility; poor relations with both sexes, youth, people all ages, families, singles.
  4. Family Members: “Unacceptable manners” by which…
    s the spouse dresses, drinks, drives, acts, looks, dances, prays, sings, and cooks,
    s the children behave in school, church, home, community
    s other miscellaneous, non-church related items.
  5. Congregational Administration: Lacking can be related to any item of the church including the budget, the time pastor spends in office, visitations, committees, community involvement.
  6. Pastoral Availability: “Neglect” of Pastoral duties, adult education, sick visitations, choir, fund raising, retreats, Sunday School curriculum, teacher training, officiating at ceremonies, recruiting new members.
  7. Theological Attitudes: “Dislike” expressed for the prayers chosen, the order of prayers, texts selected, music chosen, rites administered, traditions observed, etc..

* From Friedman, E. From Generation to Generation. New York: Guilford Press, 1985, p. 206.

However, these are just “surface” or what researchers call “content” issues. They are not the real issues. Rather, they are simply indications of greater anxiety beneath the surface of what is expressed in the “content” of their concerns.

The Real Causes of Conflict

Rabbi Edwin Friedman in his landmark, must-read book on church conflict entitled, Generation to Generations, researched the real reasons for conflict. Below are some of what he considered to be the real or essential causes of congregational conflict. (cf. Friedman, pp. 202 ff)

1. Lay Over-Commitment

“The intensity with which some lay people become invested in their religious institutions makes the church…a prime arena for the displacement of important, unresolved family issues” (Friedman, p. 198).

2. Change in Homeostasis (i.e. “status quo“): Examples include changes in the…

Pastor’s* Personal Life

Pastor’s Professional Life


Church’s Professional Leader

Birth, death, illness, hospitalization, Professional Advancement: New ideas with a power shift from the few to a new group Hiring, firing key professional staff (especially the administrative secretary)
Extended Family: Aging parents, extended family crisis New academic degree, Introduction of racial diversity Rise or elimination of interpersonal conflict between two key leaders
Divorce, affair, sexual misconduct New responsibilities in extended faith system, Change in average age of congregation’s constituency Changes in the church hierarchy or extended church system
Changes in the family of the spiritual leader. Granting of Tenure (prolonged stay) Change in organizational philosophy Death or retirement of a founder, builder or charismatic organizer
New, renewed, or prolonged community involvement Extension of Contract Restructuring of the hierarchy, re-centralizing, creating more or fewer sub-groupings

…Or any other recent change which may trigger individual responses

* May include other professional staff or significant lay leaders

3. Life Cycle Events (Friedman, p. 214): There is great stress before/during/after various rites of passage including marriage, divorces, funerals.

4. Pastoral Over-functioning and Burnout (Friedman, pp. 210ff): Pastors who try to do it all and become responsible when others do not carry out their responsibilities are prone to burn out (cf. Checklist For Self-Differentiation). The most dangerous thing about over-functioning, asserts Friedman, is that…

“If over-functioning is a manifestation of anxiety, it will serve to promote it as well” (Friedman, p. 211)

5. Triangulation: In its most basic form, triangulation refers to the proliferation of in-direct communication between two principle parties by involving an additional third party to carry the messages between the two principle parties.

Then What’s The Issue?

When looking at causes for conflict, one must look beyond the presented or “content” issues. As Friedman wrote,

It is almost never the issue per se that is destructive but, rather, the overall homeostatic conditions that give to any issue its destructive potential” (Friedman, p. 204).

Before any intervention, be sure to remember this axiom. “The Issue Is Not The Issue.” Look, listen, observe, listen, learn, listen, inquire, listen, investigate, listen, and then listen before defining and addressing the issue or problem.

Remember, “The Issue Is Not The Issue!

Thomas F. Fischer

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