Bullard Classifies Church Conflict Intensity

Bullard_review_03302015George W. Bullard, Jr.  2008.  Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict.  St Louis:  Chalice Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the last things that Jesus said to his disciples before being arrested was this: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 ESV)  In fact, one of my favorite songs growing up built on this theme:  “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love”[1]Sadly, the doctrine of original sin often plays out in broken churches and unresolved conflict.

In his book, Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict, George Bullard states his objectives in these words:

“The purpose of this book is to help congregational, denominational, and parachurch leadership empower congregations throughout various intensities of conflict, and to use conflict in a healthy manner to deal with the issues confronting congregations” (3).

Bullard sees conflict on 7-level scale ranging from simple disagreements in normal group decision making to physical conflict requiring law enforcement intervention (17).  Knowing how to respond at different levels of conflict intensity empowers church leaders to craft effective responses and, at the lower levels of intensity, actually help churches to grow in their ministry effectiveness (1).

Bullard’s classifies his 7 levels of conflict intensity according to about a half-dozen different criteria which he summarizes in a table (17).  The criteria (from low intensity to high intensity) include:

  1. Is the conflict healthy or unhealthy or in-between?
  2. What is the objective of conflict resolution (agreement, no disagreement, and no harm)[2]?
  3. Is the conflict over a task, relationship, multiple tasks, between groups, congregational competition, congregational combat with causalities, congregational questioning motivates, or congregational intentional harm?
  4. Can both parties win or does someone lose or leave?
  5. What style of intervention is required: conflict resolution, conflict mediation, or conflict management?
  6. Who intervenes? Chaplain or coach, team coach, mediator, arbitrator, attorney, or law enforcement.
  7. What technique of intervention is most appropriate? Collaborate, persuade, accommodate, avoid, support, negotiate, or compel.

Denomination conflict over questions of sexuality, for example, appear as a level 4 or greater conflict in this framework. Clearly, a lot of experience with these different aspects of intervention is required to both recognize them and deal with them pastorally.

Bullard describes himself as a ministry partner and strategic coach for congregational and denominational leaderships with the Columbia Partnership[3] of Hickory, NC and has written numerous books[4].  This book is written in 12 chapters introduced with a foreword and introduction and followed by an “afterword”. The 12 chapters are:

  1. The Necessity of Conflict in the Congregation;
  2. The First Intensity of Conflict: Typical Issues with Many Solutions;
  3. The Second Intensity of Conflict: Common Disagreements over Multiple Issues;
  4. The Third Intensity of Conflict: Competition that Develops Causes;
  5. The Fourth Intensity of Conflict: Now It’s Time to Vote or Else;
  6. The Fifth Intensity of Conflict: Dividing the Medes from the Persians;
  7. The Sixth Intensity of Conflict: Discrediting Our Enemies;
  8. The Seventh Intensity of Conflict: Destroying the Infidels;
  9. Leadership Styles for Engaging Conflict;
  10. Processes for Engaging Conflict;
  11. How to Never Experience Unhealthy Conflict in Your Congregation Again; and
  12. Implications for Denominational Service alongside Congregations (vii).

Each chapter is organized with an executive summary, main text, “coaching break”, “coaching insights”, and personal reflection (5).  Frequently, he illustrates his points through case studies of churches that have experienced particular types of conflict.

After his introduction, Bullard focuses the 7 chapters on describing his classification scheme for conflict.  Presuming that you have taken time to identify each of these levels of intensities, what can be done about it and who can do it?  These topics are the focus of the last 4 chapters.

In chapter 9, for example, Bullard identifies 7 conflict management leadership styles, including: support, avoid, accommodate, persuade, collaborate, negotiate, and compel (110).  He then proceeds to define them. In my 27 years in federal service, I witnessed most of these leadership styles in use, but not everyone is comfortable and practiced in using them.  This is why identifying the conflict intensity level is important—it helps one to know of when to ask for third-party help.

The adage goes—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In chapter 11, Bullard cites 20 things to do to prevent congregational conflict (138-141).  In follow up discussion, he cites 3 of these actions as most important:

  1. Develop a clear core ideology involving mission, purpose, and theological and cultural values, a magnetic God-given vision…
  2. Create a conflict-literate culture in your congregation by engaging in conflict ministry education… and
  3. Take intentional actions to insulate the congregation, but especially its clergy leaders, against legal, moral, and ethical failures…(138, 140, 142)

Number one is his top priority—a clear vision statement.  Hopefully, denomination staff are helping your congregation in proactively dealing with conflict by encouraging training in conflict awareness, resolution, and mediation (152).

George Bullard‘s Every Congregation Needs a Little Conflict covers a topic—conflict—that few people want to spend time on and yet many people have to.  This book is a resource that church leaders need to familiar with just in case…


[1] This song was written by a Catholic priest, Peter R. Scholtes, in 1968. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/They’ll_Know_We_Are_Christians).

[2] Bullard calls these criteria:  “getting to yes”, “getting past no”, and “getting to neutral” (17).

[3] www.TheColumbiaPartnership.org

[4]The book cited on the back cover is: Pursuing the Full Kingdom Potential from Your Congregation by Chalice Press.  Amazon.com lists many more.



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