What are the consequences of clergy turnover? (Part 2)

Sometimes pastors leave a congregation because of conflict. What is the conflict about? One out of three pastors whose church had experienced conflict in the past two years reported leadership style as a source of conflict. But other disagreements erupt into conflict around church finances, changes in worship services, or renovating or building new facilities. Our national study of congregations included churches and parishes that participated in 2001 and again in 2008, giving us the perfect opportunity to look at conflict and clergy turnover.[i]

One in four congregations reported church conflict that led to a pastor’s departure. None of the congregations with the same key pastoral leader in 2008 as in 2001 reported a leader departure related to conflict. However, 26% of churches with different pastors in 2008 said the church had experienced a conflict that led a pastor or minister to leave in the past five years. (We did not ask additional questions about the nature of the conflict.[ii])

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One in ten pastoral leaders serving their congregation since 2001 report conflict that led to a church split. We also asked church leaders if the congregation had experienced a major conflict that led to a church split. In churches with the same pastor in 2008 as in 2001, 11% reported a church split in the past five years because of conflict. None of the churches with a new pastor reported a similar event.

Congregations with a different pastor in 2008 experience minor conflict more often than churches that retained the same pastor. Conflict is much rarer in congregations with the same pastor in 2008 as in 2001. Two out of three pastors who arrived in their congregation sometime since 2001 reported some minor conflict. New leadership always means change and some adjustment for members. However, we also discovered that fewer pastors who were new in 2008 reported some form of major conflict (only 24% did) compared to pastors who had been in the same congregation since 2001 (35% reported major conflict).1

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Conflict is part of church life. People of faith will always disagree. The question is: How can we prevent those disagreements from growing into major fights. These results confirm that when conflict is not resolved there is the potential for members or the pastor to leave. Departures rarely solve the underlying issues. Departures also rob people of faith of the opportunity to practice peacemaking skills.


[i] Based on responses to the Leader Survey, completed by a sample of 108 pastoral leaders whose congregations participated in the 2001 and 2008 U.S. Congregational Life Survey. The survey question about conflict asked about conflict in the past two years.

[ii] Based on responses to a Congregational Profile, completed by a key informant in each congregation. The survey question asked about conflict in the past five years.