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For Anglicans Online

On conflicts in church

Judy Winegar Goans

January 2016

Not long ago, a friend described a nasty and escalating church conflict that involved bullying, with demeaning remarks, triangulation, and threats. Having seen too much of this misbehavior, I offered some thoughts and suggestions that the AO staff has invited me to share here.

Disagreements are inevitable, but normal people avoid conflict. We prefer to be in love and charity with one another. If we think we have offended, we are quick to mend relationships. Our instinct is to stay out of other people’s disputes and let the parties work things out on their own.

This will not work if bullying is involved, because bullies do not behave like normal people. Where we find conflict draining, bullies are energized by it and will continue until they destroy their target – or are stopped by the group. It takes time to distinguish between an ordinary disagreement and a toxic conflict. Once we recognize that bullying is involved, nobody wants to risk becoming the bully’s next target.

Staying out of the fray leaves the floor to the bullies, creating the (mis)impression that the bullies have the support of the group. This impression is shared by bully’s target; visitors, who have no other context for judging the mood of the group; and virtually everyone who witnesses the bully’s outbursts.

Toxic conflicts are not a tempest in a teapot that we can safely ignore. They have real consequences, particularly for the target, but also for the entire church. Taking abuse is isolating and demoralizing. Nobody can put up with abuse indefinitely. Faced with unremitting condemnation, even Richard Nixon eventually resigned. So will a choir director, organist, church secretary, Sunday school teacher, rector, vestry member, or other volunteer, and unlike our former President, they most likely won’t hang on for two years. Moreover, allowing one instance of bad behavior encourages others to think it is acceptable until eventually, people feel uncomfortable in their own church.

Uncivil behavior needs to be recognized early and nipped in the bud. That means we need to know how to distinguish between ordinary differences of opinion and the kind of toxic behavior that will destroy a congregation, and we need to know what to do about it when it happens.

Toxic conflicts are different from ordinary disagreements. They are characterized by triangulation – criticizing or complaining to a third person but not taking up the issue with the individual involved; a lack of civil discourse – shouting, accusations, attributing bad motives to ordinary acts, and other ad hominem arguments; unwillingness to accept a decision; and a general meanness. Another characteristic of toxic conflicts is that the response is vastly out of proportion to the real or imagined problem. If the thought, mountain out of mole hill comes to mind, the conflict may be turning toxic.

When we observe toxic behavior, we need to name it and stop it. Here are some ideas:

  • It is low-risk, and requires no permission, for an individual to go to the person who has been bullied or demeaned and express support. Let that person know that others also support them, and that a criticism was off base or out of line. Repeat as often as needed. This will not solve the problem, but it may buy time to pursue other strategies, and the person to whom you say these things will appreciate them.
  • If you are lucky enough to catch an attack in progress, it is appropriate to join the conversation and express this thought in real time: (Bully), I know you like to complain about [sermons, hymns, kids with sparkly shoes, etc.], but Freddie Mac here did a great job. Saying it with a lilt can defuse a situation. Sometimes.
  • An individual can also talk to other members of the group and get them to do the same.

Corporate action is also needed:

  • It is reasonable to remind a congregation that we owe each other a duty of civility/support/charity; that words have the ability to demoralize people; and that sniping and harsh criticisms are not loving behavior. This could give people the language we need for speaking up.
  • It may be helpful to adopt a policy on acceptable and unacceptable behavior and a plan for implementing it. The policy might name specific objectionable behaviors – ad hominem attacks, triangulating, shouting, etc. Implementation might include presenting the plan to the congregation and developing an agreed statement to use when someone violates the policy. If there is a history of demeaning remarks, the vestry might create a fixed and exclusive route for raising concerns. (For example, “We appreciate our acolytes and if anyone has any suggestions or concerns, please mention them to the acolyte-master – and please do not express any criticism directly to the acolyte because that is hurtful and demoralizing.”)
  • A group might put together an event (potluck? recognition during a service?) to show appreciation and support for those who have been targets of bad behavior.
  • Someone, some time, needs to speak or preach on the subject of what it means to love your neighbor.

I offer these ideas for you to consider, with the profound wish that you never need them.


Judy Winegar Goans is an Episcopal laywoman, an aspirant for holy orders in the Diocese of East Tennessee, and a student at the Episcopal Divinity School. She is an attorney who works in intellectual property and international development. The opinions expressed in this article are solely her own.