Conflict is a serious and pervasive issue for churches today. In the U.S., there are 50 major, scarring church conflicts daily and 19,000 annually!1 Because of the deep pain that occurs in such a setting that is supposedly characterized by love, church members drop out faster than new members join. Conflict may prompt pastors to become discouraged and quit or be forced to leave the ministry; in fact, 34 percent of pastors serve in congregations that forced their previous pastors to resign due to some form of conflict.2 Churches immersed in conflict repel people from coming in to receive the grace and hope of Jesus.

Conflict causes stress, depletes energy and creativity, and diverts the church from its mission. The presence of conflict can be completely overwhelming until you are able to clearly identify what you are dealing with. Only then can you work toward a constructive solution.

This article, the first of two, will help to identify the four types of conflict in the church. The second article will focus on how to handle church conflicts constructively.


Substantive conflict can be divided into four types: (1) facts, (2) means/methods, (3) goals/ends, and (4) values. Let’s look at these types more closely.

1. Facts. Conflict may develop over the facts of a situation. For example, one person may claim that the church budget offering has decreased during the last year, whereas another person may say that it is increasing. This conflict can be settled by checking the treasurer’s reports.

2. Means/methods. Conflict can also develop over the means or methods for achieving a solution to a problem. We may agree that giving to the church budget has dropped off during the past year, but we may disagree as to what should be done about it. One person believes that a strong preaching series on the subject of stewardship would correct the problem. Another feels that strong preaching has already alienated members and is part of the problem. Or there may be agreement that the church should evangelize the community but contention as to what program of evangelism (i.e., public evangelism, small groups, friendship evangelism, etc.) should be used. Other conflicts over means/methods may result from how to expand the church: a building project, church planting, or starting another worship service.

3. Goals/ends. A more difficult conflict to resolve is disagreement over goals or desired results. For example, what is the purpose of a church school? Is it an evangelistic agency that should reach out to community children or is it a sheltered community, a place away from the “world,” for “worthy” Adventist children?

Goals are philosophical in nature; means/methods are concrete. Questions such as the following indicate goals: What is the committee’s purpose? What direction do we need to take in this ministry? What is the mission of our church? What is our definition of success? What kind of adults do we want our children to become?

4. Values. Values differ from goals in that values form the foundation upon which goals are built. All social systems have a body of common values, beliefs, and sentiments. These are the criteria by which goals and means are selected.

A theological or doctrinal dispute (for example, the ordination of women as pastors or elders) is an obvious conflict over values. The tension between doctrinal values (moral purity, etc.) and relational values (love, acceptance, etc.) is often a source of conflict in the church.

Other conflicts involving values may not be so clear. For example, a conflict involving issues such as going out to eat on Sabbath, wearing jewelry, listening to rock or rap music, or theater attendance may seem to be a conflict over methods. However, the real issue usually involves one’s values and belief structure. Therefore, the approach one would use to deal with such conflict would necessarily be different than if the conflict dealt with means/methods.

Here is a list of the top values that divide churches:

Music: hymns vs. contemporary praise songs; drums vs. organ, etc.

Worship style: conservative church vs. contemporary church, value of drama, order or length of service, etc.

Food: Meat-eating, vegetarianism, veganism, etc.

Theological extremes: conservative vs. liberal, perfectionism, grace without expectations, etc.

Misplaced loyalties: feeling obligated to cater to a person of influence; family relationships that blur the ability to act with consistency; when talented people are held less accountable for hurtful behavior; when the person damaging the church is not confronted for fear of retribution; siding with the person who is right but goes about things in the wrong way, etc.3

Conflict will always exist. The more we pray and focus on what Christ has done for us, the less important our differences will become. No matter what the conflict is, when we can understand it, we will be able to deal with it in a healthier way.

1 Ken Sande, founder of Peacemaker Ministries, (accessed March 11, 2013).

2 Ibid.

3 Adapted from Tom Evans, Steps to Church Planting: From Inception to Launch (Berrien Springs: North American Division Evangelism Institute), 72-75.

S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of church growth and leadership at the Andrews University Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.