Church Conflict Can Be Healthy

David Brubaker, Associate Professor of Organizational Studies. Photo by Jon Styer.

Professor David R. Brubaker has made it his life’s work to understand organizations and to teach them how to negotiate conflict in a healthy way. His 2009 book Promise and Peril – Understanding and Managing Change and Conflict in Congregations is based on his doctoral dissertation, for which he analyzed information on 100 Presbyterian and Episcopalian congregations in Arizona. Insights from the book include:

  • Congregations that succeed at change develop a culture that tolerates, if not encourages, disagreement. (p. 120)
  • Some disagreement, and some conflict, provides energy and generates ideas, but too much becomes destructive. (p. 106)
  • Leaders who learn to move towards conflict discover that they have opportunities to resolve issues when those issues are small, rather than attempting to fight fires when they are nearly out of control. (p. 108)
  • Anxious systems need non-anxious leaders. (p. 114)
  • Like people, congregations will generally only change when the pain of not changing (i.e. threat of extinction through dwindling membership) exceeds the pain and inconvenience of changing. (p. 100)
  • Organizations tend not to make major changes unless and until their leaders change. (p. 11)
  • Pastors beginning a new position would be well advised to study the congregation and build relationships before initiating major changes. Leaders have to earn the right to make changes. (p. 94)
  • Leaders who want to change their societies (or congregations) start by building a diverse group of change agents who must first learn how to cooperate with each other. (p. 126)
  • Leaders desiring to avoid destructive conflict will make structural changes slowly and deliberately, and they will introduce cultural changes gently and with substantial communication. (p. 120)
  • During any significant change process, things usually get worse before they get better. (p.96)