Conflict: Synonym for Congregation


FACTs on Fighting 
data from the Fact2000 study

Conflict: Synonym for Congregation
by Carl S. Dudley   

Here in the United States, conflict is a synonym for congregation. 

Despite widespread denial, conflict is common—and frequently appropriate. Rather than the topic for parking-lot gossip, conflict is to be expected—and kept visible. 

In FACT—the most comprehensive study of the America’s religious landscape—75 percent of congregations reported some level of conflict in the last five years (figure 1). Disagreements were reported in every aspect of church life: from theological beliefs to the way money was raised and spent, from worship practices to mission priorities, from lay decision-making to pastoral leadership styles. 

Figure 1Decision-making was the area where conflict was most frequently reported (60 percent), but careful analysis shows that disputes over personal issues and pastoral leadership are the most emotionally intense issues. Although some level of conflict was almost universal, only one in four congregations reported conflict serious enough to have a lasting impact on congregational life. 

Though some church fights left serious scars, most conflicts appear natural and far from fatal, perhaps even helpful in lively congregations. For example, the data gathered by Faith Communities Today show that it is important for congregations to adapt as living institutions reaching out to younger generations and to culturally changing populations in their communities.   

Figure 2The research shows that the degree of conflict is in direct proportion to the amount of change in worship over the last five years (see figure 2 at right). Without encouraging conflict over worship patterns, the FACT study offers a simple measure of resistance to innovation and commitment to the past, both useful when change is needed to reach new members. 

Much of the observed conflict might be avoided, reduced or redirected if congregational leaders learn how to deal openly with conflict. FACT demonstrates (figure 3) that 80 Figure 3 percent of congregations considering themselves to be “vital and spiritually alive,” were able to “deal openly with conflict.” By contrast, the congregations that are least able to manage their conflict are unlikely to be vital and alive. Like fire, conflict creates both heat and light. And, like fire, conflict is potentially dangerous. But, at the same time, conflict can be intentionally useful.

Carl S. Dudley is director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. With David A. Roozen, he directed the Faith Communities Today research.