Why Leadership Conflict Exists in the Church: The Structural Conflict Theory Perspective

Leadership serves as a rallying point and influential factor in any organization, making leadership positions enviable. However, leadership conflict abounds in every organization, just as it does in any environment, since human beings seek to put themselves at the forefront. The desires of many to lead often leads to conflict.

Miller (1978) observes that a church’s governmental system influences the type of conflict that may happen, as well as how such conflict could be managed. The three basic forms of church government are the Episcopal system, Congregational system, and Presbyterian system. In the Episcopal system, church government primarily resides in the office of the bishop. Such denominations include the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican churches. The Congregational system is more democratic; the congregation determines the policy, officers, and practices of the church. Among the adherents of this system are the Baptists, fundamentalists, and evangelical congregationalists. The Presbyterian system is more like a republican or representative democracy. In this system, each local church is represented at the Presbytery meetings. The ministers of the local churches and their lay elders are usually the representatives.

Miller (1978) adds that there are two major aspects of an organization that have considerable influence on the type of conflict that may occur in it: the governmental system and the structure of the organization. These attributes explain several means by which leadership conflicts can occur in the church.

Leadership conflict is one of the most destructive types of conflict that can occur within a church. This is because leadership in the church is revered, sometimes even deified, and there are often huge remunerations and allowances. Owing to these implicit and explicit factors, adherents fight for the post of leadership because of what is attached to the position. Leadership has become the bedrock for causes of conflict in the church because everything rises from and falls on leadership (Maxwell, 1993). Hence, there is a need to examine the cause of leadership conflict in the church from a structural conflict viewpoint.

Understanding Church Leadership Conflict

Leadership conflict is the clash of personal preferences among the church staff in planning, scheduling, and executing the work of the church. It also occurs when the congregation expresses dissatisfaction with the conduct or proposed programs of the church staff and, conversely, when the staff criticizes the membership (Adetunji, 2010). Leadership conflict can be understood as a vigorous struggle or disorderly fight to occupy a leadership position by any means possible, even going against the accepted norm or established rules, procedures, or standards. In other words, it is a desire to become a leader, “do or die,” regardless of the conditions. Such conflict is always against the will of the majority.

Leadership conflict could occur between two people who are vying for or claiming a particular position of leadership, or it could involve one person doing everything possible to usurp authority from a legitimate occupant of an office or position (Awojobi, 2001). It is important to note that most conflict in the church revolves around leadership. This is because church leadership is viewed as being ordained by God, leaders having been given the power to direct adherents in fulfilling the vision and mission of the church. However, when the leadership of the church is subjective in their approach in dealing with issues, lacks transparency or accountability, or misuses the power and authority bestowed on them, conflict is certain to erupt.

For example, succession disputes have been common regarding the tenures of principal officers in the Nigerian Christ Apostolic Church. When the church presidency is vacant, the general superintendent assumes the role of president. While this system has been practiced since the church was founded, it tends to run counter to both the practice of “the Lord says” and the consideration of merit. Often, a power tussle ensues concerning who has control over an assembly between the pastors and the evangelists. In fact, after the tenure of a former president and trustee of Christ Apostolic Church worldwide, there was lawsuit in the Federal High Court in Lagos regarding who was to be the successor. One faction was led by the president, while another was led by a pastor in the church (Alokan, 2010; Awojobi, 2001). In addition, the Kaduna State Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) went to court regarding a face-off between the president of CAN and the chairman of the Kaduna State chapter. The crisis between the two leaders became so deep that they had to seek redress in the court of law.

It is important to note that two major factors instigate leadership conflict in the church: misuse of power and authority. Power is the main issue that causes leadership conflict. It is a crucial element in any leadership or governance discourse. In the process of exercising power, conflict can occur between leaders and followers, establishing the basis for escalation of existing conflicts (Albert, 2003). Folger, Poole, and Stutman (1997) refer to power as the “architecture of conflict” (p. 85) as it has the capacity or potential to cause change or influence behavior and attitudes (Bass, 1985).

Four main types of power exist in the church: (a) spiritual power, (b) influential power, (c) financial power, and (d) intellectual power. Spiritual power is present in clergy and other adherents who have access to the spiritual realm. These other adherents are called afadura jagun (i.e., prayer warriors) in the southwestern part of Nigeria. Sometimes, they are the people who formed the prayer team and are seen as the “spiritual engine room” of the church. Those who possess this power dictate the direction of the church.

They are often given preferential treatment, as they are seen as the spokespeople of God. Thus, they are held in the highest regard.

Influential power develops when someone builds strong interpersonal relationship ties with other adherents so that they are respected and can exercise control over members of the church. Such power is freely bestowed as a result of the respect that church members have for the person. Such a person is seen as a role model. People with this type of power include church founders, general overseers, and elders.

Financial power resides in those who are financially buoyant and contribute substantially to church projects. They are respected because the church cannot do without their resources. They sometimes dictate the direction of the church or prioritize specific church projects. Such people assume positions such as chairman of the fundraising committee, chairman of church projects, and patrons of church societies. Sometimes they are given church titles such as deacon/deaconess or baba ijo (i.e., father of the church).

Intellectual power has to do with knowledge. In a church setting, it can be either cerebral knowledge, biblical knowledge, or both. In fact, when someone possesses the two, they are respected when it comes to decision-making in the church. Such people often quote extensively from logical and biblical perspectives to support their argument in any church meeting. They handle strategic positions within the church such as leader of discipleship training, coordinator of a Bible study program, chairman of church planning committee, or patron of youth fellowship.

In contrast to power, authority is the ability to persuade, command, or exact obedience (Avis, 1992; Rausch, 1989). In some churches, the misconception of authority has led to conflict. Some leaders even use authority to establish themselves as dictators, lording their opinions over the congregation (Maxwell, 1993). Alawode (1989) quotes Osagie O. Imasogie in his book Managing Crises Within the Church, arguing that “many people in positions of leadership in our local churches think that their role is to make everybody dance around them as mindless robots whenever they pull the strings” (p. 13). Such misconceptions of a church leader’s authority have led some churches into chaos and discord. Hence, power and authority in leadership can help suppress or promote conflict (Avis, 1992).

The misuse of power and authority creates leadership conflicts because those who possess them occupy different leadership positions in the church. For instance, in the Four Square Gospel Church in Nigeria there was a serious legal battle for succession to the top position after the expiration of the tenure of the general overseer. There were litigations in courts over the issue. Also, the Church of God Mission experienced leadership conflict after the demise of Archbishop Benson Idahosa. Despite many protests, his wife was ordained as his successor (Awojobi, 2001).

Leadership conflict also occurs in churches owing to attitudinal expressions. The attitudinal expressions of church leaders sometimes create conflict—especially overbearing attitudes such as arrogance, stubbornness, and becoming domineering, pompous, or heady. Also, when the leadership of the church agrees with the opinion of one particular section of a church over another, conflict often arises based on negative qualities of leadership. One study carried out on local Baptist churches in Nigeria revealed that some leadership conflicts were based on attitudinal expressions (Afolabi, 2017).

Intolerance of other people’s views also leads to leadership conflict. In any organization, people are bound to have different views on certain matters. However, when a group of people in the church or the leadership begin to think that they are, as Alawode (1989) puts it, “the repository of correct views on any matter, and anyone who disagrees with them forfeits the right to exist” (p. 13), conflict will ensue from a leadership standpoint. For example, in a particular local Baptist church in Nigeria, one pastor failed to tolerate the views of the elders about changing the name of the church from an indigenous name to a modern name. After several disagreements, the pastor manipulatively changed the name of the church to a modern one. This action resulted in litigation in the Federal High Court in Ibadan. Later, a faction of the elders left the church and formed another church, bearing the original indigenous name of the church.

In some churches, influential members derive their authority from being the founding members of the church or major financial contributors of the church. Such roles often cause them to view themselves as the sole decision-maker in the church. Alawode (1989) cites Osagie O. Imasogie, saying, “Intolerance always leads to crises that stifle growth and progress because of the bad blood which it generates in the corporate body. It also dehumanizes the one whose opinion is treated as trash and thus aggravates crises” (p. 14). Thus, a church where people cannot think, decide, and work together is prone to leadership conflict.

When it comes to understanding leadership conflict in the church, understanding leadership style is also very important. There are many styles of leadership, including authoritarian leadership, laissez-faire leadership, bureaucratic leadership, charismatic leadership, democratic leadership, and transformational leadership. No style of leadership is devoid of conflict. The most important thing is to understand the composition of the church and its environment, as well as using discretion in dealing with every church issue. The composition of a church includes the learned, the illiterate, the spiritual, new believers, the rich, the poor, aboriginal adherents (i.e., the first set of people that formed the church), and newcomers. The environment—that is, the location of the church—can be either in an indigenous area or a modernized area. Hence, leadership conflict will ensue if the church leaders cannot manage a diverse set of people and its environment.

Leadership Conflict in the Church:
The Structural Conflict Theory Perspective

Structural conflict theory has two main sub-orientations. The first is the radical structural theory represented by the Marxist dialectical school, with advocates such as Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The second is the liberal structuralism represented by Ross (1993), Scarborough (1998), and the famous work of Johan Galtung (1990) on structural violence. The main argument of the structural conflict theory is that conflict is built into the way societies are structured and organized; that is, conflict among groups emerges from the authority structure of an organization. The theorists of structural conflict built their theories on their observations of societies. The theorists saw conflict, observed that conflict occurred among groups, and noted that groups have structures that define the groups.

According to Scarborough (1998), in a situation where existing structures are tilted in favor of one group while putting the other(s) at a disadvantage, the chances are that conflict will emerge and escalate if nothing is done to correct the anomalies. Making corrections that will lead to positive relationships requires a change of tactics, but change is often resisted. This is not because people do not see the positive value of change; rather, it is because they are not so keen to admit their blunders, which may be induced from within or by factors outside the immediate control of the organization.

Brown (1996) admits that structural theory is remarkably strong on the immediate and underlying factors that lead to conflict. He presents a large number of such factors that make the emergence and escalation of internal conflicts possible. In a nutshell, the existence of leadership conflict is due to the organizational or structural setting of the church.

It is important to note that the church is a subunit in society. Any conflict that occurs in the church is a form of social conflict. Moreover, the church is structured and organized in such a way that leadership conflict is inevitable. As noted earlier, the basic form of church government is not devoid of leadership conflict. For instance, in the Episcopal system, the bishop can be authoritarian because no one can check the power of the bishop; this can lead to the breakdown of law and order in the diocese. In the Congregational and Presbyterian systems of government, where power lies with the congregation, central leadership can become weak when the leadership of some units may arrogate power to themselves (e.g., the chairman board of diaconate, the elders, the youth, the church founders, etc.), and as a result, use that platform to cause conflict and disintegration in the church organization.

In essence, leadership conflict in the church evolves from the leaders of the statutory body who are empowered by the church constitution to perform certain duties. In the performance of their duties, influential and expert powers keep increasing, and the tendency to misuse such powers is possible, leading to leadership conflict. For example, the chairman of the diaconate’s board is constitutionally empowered to carry out some duties and, at the same time, wield both influential and expert powers among members of the church. However, leadership conflict can arise between the pastorate and the leader of the diaconate’s board if the pastorate fails to give due recognition to the latter.

It is important to note that in the church setting, there are two types of leadership: leadership by position and leadership by imposition. Typically, founding members and the head of the diaconate’s board are perceived as having leadership by position because they emerge from the existing structure of the church. Moreover, the church pastor is a leader by imposition. When the church pastor assumes the leadership of the church, he is officially imposed on the existing leadership structure of the church. Thus, if the church pastor fails to do the bidding of those in leadership by position, conflict can ensue in the leadership architecture of the church, which sometimes leads to schism. In a nutshell, leadership conflict exists in the church because of the underlying powers attached to the position, whereby people abuse it to the detriment of the goal, vision, and mission of the church.


It is important to note that leadership conflict is one form of church conflict. However, leadership conflict serves as a focal point for all forms/types of conflict in the church. Therefore, church leaders and members should understand the problems emanating from the church so as to know the key factors in play around the conflict. They should know the personalities involved, as well as their interests and background (i.e., historical, personal hurt, accidental, spiritual, or vendetta), and then take the necessary steps for the sake of equity. There should also be training for church pastors and members on church conflict management and resolution. Additionally, there must be an in-depth investigation and fair hearing from conflicting parties.

In a nutshell, though conflict is inevitable in any human organization, leadership conflict destroys the essence of the organization—most especially the church. This is because the church is perceived as the spiritual umbrella of the society, and its leaders are held in high esteem, sometimes over the political leadership. Hence, the morale of the adherents will become low and the respect given to the church will diminish in the society when the leadership of the church conflicts. Additionally, church leadership conflict has led to litigation, schism, and secession from the mother church. Therefore, the structural arrangement of the church, coupled with the egoistic desire of church office holders, breeds leadership conflict.

Oluwaseun O. Afolabi, PhD, is a lecturer and coordinator for religious and inter-cultural studies, Lead City University, Ibadan, Nigeria.


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