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Managing Levels of Parish Conflict

“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” (James 1:19)

“But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong.” (Galatians 2:11) As witnessed in this verse when St. Paul confronted St. Peter, from the very beginning there was conflict within the church. Of course, occasional conflict remains with us to this very day. Thankfully, deeper than conflict, is the unifying, peace-giving presence of the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Yet at times conflict can be intense indeed. People are fighting for what they feel is correct protocol or what they believe to be most important or over loyalty or disloyalty to the priest. Many issues propagate conflict in the church. Not all of these are peacefully resolved.

The graph above gives some insight into the trajectory of conflict as it affects parishioners or those involved. There does exist an institution composed of Christian men and women of good will who have developed expertise in managing parish conflict. Some parishes may wish to avail themselves of professional assistance in this delicate matter. The document below is a brief outline by Speed B. Leas of the Alban Institute that specializes in this work and in parish development in general. They strongly recommend that a professionally trained and experienced consultant be utilized.

Levels of Conflict

This condensed diagnostic instrument, based on the work of Speed B. Leas of the Alban Institute, contains a Conflict Intensity Chart which:

  • gives a quick overview of the levels of conflict

  • assists in making a determination of the state of a given conflict

  • suggests the skills that would be needed at each level

  • provides relevant resources to further skills in conflict management

The objective in managing conflict is to lower each level (above the first) to a more manageable level, if possible. Please note the following features of this chart:

A. Levels are not discrete

Recognize that overlaps of characteristics often occur. While the chart organizes then distinguishes characteristics of each level, the intensity levels will vary from individual to individual and group to group. This requires a careful examination of a broad data base before deciding the conflict level.

B. Characteristics are broadly indicative

The diagnosis of a particular level of conflict ought to be derived from looking at all characteristics, rather than one or two that seem to dominate. Conflict may emerge at all levels of intensity and may move through the levels at varying rates of speed.

C. Caring approach is essential

A caring, sensitive concern for the people affected by the conflict is assumed to be uppermost. The personal support of pastors, spouses, church leaders and church members, as well as those persons involved in the conflict intervention, should receive primary consideration at all conflict levels.

D. Team approach should be considered

The suggested leadership strategies acknowledge that no one person may have all the skills needed to manage a higher level of conflict. Other team members are needed to share insight and (especially at higher levels of intensity) to share the emotional stress of conflict intervention.

E. Training is required

This chart helps only to identify levels of conflict and to briefly sketch the strategies usually required to manage each level. It is recommended that anyone wanting to provide effective intervention at even a level one conflict situation receive some basic conflict management training. Some persons will want to go on to receive additional training so that they are equipped to handle levels two and three. Levels four and five usually require the objectivity and skill of outside, professional consultants in conflict management.

LEVEL ONE: Problem to Solve


1) Issue: Real disagreement; conflicting goals, values and needs, etc. 2) Emotions: Short-lived anger, quickly controlled; parties begin to be uncomfortable in the presence of other(s). 3) Orientation: Tends to be problem-oriented rather than person-oriented. 4) Information: Open sharing of information. 5) Language: Clear and specific. 6) Objective: Solving the problem. Move toward unanimous agreement. Utilize collaborative style. 7) Outcome: Collaborative agreement if possible. Win/win final resolution with acceptable, mutually agreed-upon solution.

Skills Needed:

1) Trust/rapport building skills. 2) Ability to think logically. 3) Good listening skills. 4) Working knowledge of church structure, polity, and organization(varies per denomination). 5) Problem-solving and decision-making skills. 6) Consulting skills. 7) Knowledge of available resources.

LEVEL TWO: Disagreement


1) Issue: Real disagreement; mixing of personalities and issues; problem cannot be clearly defined. 2) Emotions: Distrust in the beginning. Caution in association; less mixing with “the other side”. 3) Orientation: Begin personalizing the problem; shrewdness and calculation begin. 4) Information: Selective hold-back of information on both sides. 5) Language: More vague and general; “Some people…” “They…”hostile humor, barbed comments and put-downs. 6) Objective: Face-saving; come out looking good. Tend to move toward consensus. Not yet win/lose conflict. 7) Outcome: Attempt a collaborative solution; or negotiate an acceptable agreement; win/win, but with a real effort.

Skills Needed:

1) All skills required for level one, plus… 2) Analytical skills. 3) Understanding of power dynamics issues. 4) Mediation skills. 5) Self-awareness skills.



1) Issue: Begin the dynamics of win/lose. Resistance to peace overtures. Focus on persons representing the enemy. 2) Emotions: Not able to operate in presence of “enemy”; however, admire worthy opponent. Not willing to share emotions/feelings constructively. 3) Orientation: Personal attacks. Formation of factions/sides. Threat of members leaving. Need a third-party consultant. 4) Information: Distortion is a major problem. Information shared only within factions. 5) Language: Over generalizations: “You always…” “We never…” Attribute diabolical motives to others. 6) Objective: Shifts from self-protection to winning. Objectives are more complex and diffuse; clustering of issues. 7) Outcome: Decision-making — mediation, compromising, voting. Possible that some will leave the church.

Skills Needed:

1) All skills required for levels one and two, plus… 2) Designing and negotiating contracts. 3) Clear recognition of one’s own limits. 4) Understanding interaction of personality types. 5) Facilitator in group process. 6) Skilled in developing a clear process of decision-making.

LEVEL FOUR: Fight / Flight


1) Issue: Shifts from winning to getting rid of person(s). No longer believe others can change, or want them to change. 2) Emotions: Cold self-righteousness. Will not speak to the other side. 3) Orientation: Factions are solidified. Clear lines of demarcation. Last place for constructive intervention by a third-party consultant. 4) Information: Limited only to the cause being advocated; will not accept/listen to contrary information. 5) Language: Talk now of “principles” not “issues”. Language solidifies into ideology. 6) Objective: No longer winning; now eliminate others from the environment. Hurt the other person/group. 7) Outcome: High probability of split within the church with a significant number of persons leaving the church.

Skills Needed:

1) All skills required for levels one, two, and three, plus… 2) Ability to assess need for additional skill building. 3) Proven experience (track record). 4) Knowledge of broader, more specialized resources. 5) Ability to find and make use of professional organizations and resources. 6) Careful adherence to church structure and polity guidelines (legal and authority issues).

LEVEL FIVE: Intractable


1) Issue: No longer clear understanding of the issue; personalities have become the issue. Conflict is now unmanageable. 2) Emotions: Relentless obsession in accomplishing the objective at all costs. Vindictiveness. No objectivity or control of emotion. 3) Orientation: Sees person(s) as harmful to society, not just to the offended group or person. 4) Information: Information skewed to accomplish the objective at any cost. 5) Language: Focuses on words that imply the destruction and/or elimination of the other. 6) Objective: To destroy the offending party/persons; i.e., to see that the fired pastor does not get a job elsewhere. 7) Outcome: Highly destructive. Use of compulsion to maintain peace. May be necessary to remove one or more parties from the situation. Higher authorities may need to intervene.

Skills Needed:

1) All skills required for all other levels plus… 2) Adequate personal support system and strong inner resources. Able to practice personal stress management. 3) Careful adherence to institutional rules, boundaries, legal restriction, and authority structures, etc.


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