Conflict Styles of New Clergy

One of the commonly cited reasons for unhappiness in congregations and religious communities is conflict, and how those communities handle conflict. Pastors and priests find themselves in the midst of conflict—and often find themselves unintentionally or intentionally stirring up conflict. How do these clergy handle conflict? How do more recently ordained clergy compare with more senior clergy, and with the general population and other professionals, in their approaches to conflict?

We asked recently ordained clergy (TiM alumni as well as other clergy) to complete the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). The TKI is a human resources tool that for decades has been widely used to help people in organizations understand their own patterns of engagement in conflict.1

This scientific tool allows people to look at their typical choices and behaviors during conflict, based on two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness. People choose among response options according to five ways of responding to conflict:

  • Avoid (disengage—neither assertive nor cooperative)
  • Accommodate (totally focus on the other’s interests—cooperative, not assertive)
  • Compete (convince and win—assertive, not cooperative)
  • Compromise (“split the difference”—partial assertive, partial cooperative)
  • Collaborate (make a complete “win-win” effort—highly assertive and cooperative)


Each of these strategies has a time and place to be used wisely and effectively—and each can become a pitfall if it is overused. But people tend to have “favorite” default strategies, and they tend to have strategies that they really don’t like to use. So, what are the more and less favored ways that pastors and priests engage conflict?

Let’s begin by looking at TiM clergy—those recently ordained pastors and priests who benefitted from post-seminary programs for continuing development. The chart below shows how TiM pastors and priests tend to approach conflict, using percentile scores based on a large sample of the American population of workers employed full-time.

Chart - TiM clergy scores on TKI

Click image for larger view


TiM pastors and priests remain more on the cautious end of the continuum when it comes to conflict. Compared to the general working population, they show a marked discomfort with asserting themselves and their own interests strongly, unless they are also vigorously engaged in eliciting others’ interests as well and seeking ways to collaborate and compromise. They are closer to “the top of the class,” however, in their preference for affirming and giving way to other people’s interests and goals.

How do these newer clergy compare to more seasoned clergy, and to employees at different levels of leadership in the working population?

The following chart puts TiM clergy percentile scores side by side with scores of other employed groups, including seasoned Episcopal priests, and non-supervisory workers, managers, and executives from the American working population.

Chart - Compared scores on TKI 2

Click image for larger view


TiM pastors and priests are most like more seasoned Episcopal priests—they favor accommodation as a first and best approach to conflict, seeking to affirm and pursue other people’s interests and to sacrifice or ignore their own interests in favor of others; they withdraw from a more competitive approach in which they would assert their own interests over others’ interests. They are somewhat more strongly inclined to compromise than more seasoned clergy, but are similar in their high likelihood to seek collaborative solutions or to avoid and withdraw entirely from situations of conflict.

Overall, clergy seem to be more like entry-level or non-supervisory employees in their approaches to conflict, and less like managers and executives. Non-supervisory workers are less likely to be competitive or collaborative, and most likely to avoid or accommodate—and this pattern is most similar to clergy. TiM pastors and priests are even less likely than non-supervisory workers to choose competitive or purely assertive approaches to engaging conflict, and even more likely to choose accommodating postures.

While Christian faith communities clearly differ from typical employment environments, it may still be worth pondering what this pattern of clergy non-assertiveness means and where it comes from. As human beings, we don’t learn our ways of dealing with conflict in a vacuum. The contexts in which we live and work and play also shape how we think about conflict and what ways of interacting we find acceptable.


For Your Consideration

  • What drives clergy non-assertiveness?
    • Do clergy start out as less assertive people, or do they become less assertive in the process of formation, ordination, and early ministry?
    • How do church committees and governing leaders encourage or discourage assertiveness in individuals considering ordained ministry?
    • Do seminary training and post-seminary development programs encourage healthy assertiveness?
  • What is a healthy amount of assertiveness in religious leadership?


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1 Speed Leas, an Alban Institute author and consultant, developed a conflict instrument modeled on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and adapted and expanded for use in religious congregations; it makes a particularly helpful distinction between enforcing and convincing approaches to assertiveness. The inventory is included in his book Discover Your Management Style. Leas’s instrument has not been as widely used as the TKI and therefore comparative data for different professions is not available. Dr. Ron Kraybill has also constructed an increasingly used inventory, called the Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory, that assess personal conflict style and distinguishes between approaches to conflict during “storm” and during “calm.”

2 Percentile scores calculated from Nancy A. Schaubhut, Technical Brief for the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument: Description of the Updated Normative Sample and Implications for Use (Mountain View, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 2007), p. 3. Accessed online May 2014 at

3 Comparative data for American employees from Nancy A. Schaubhut, Technical Brief for the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument: Description of the Updated Normative Sample and Implications for Use (Mountain View, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 2007), p. 5. Accessed online May 2014 at