Church Conflict Can Take On A Life Of Its Own
July 23, 2018—Chris Hedges states that after a period of time, war begins to develop its own life. The former theology student turned journalist wrote in his book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, that those involved are able to perform superhuman acts because they are energized by the war. A veteran war journalist, Hedges studied the nature and dynamics of war, especially the wars of the 1980s and 1990s, concluding that war provides a purpose for living. He argued that war bonds people together from diverse backgrounds into a common cause, sometimes bringing together strange “bedfellows.” This cycle can be contagious.
Church conflict, sometimes like war, can take on a life of its own. It does so for the same reasons. Swords are drawn among the factious groups, gossip follows, and the myths take on a life of their own to fuel the conflict—war. In this war both sides share a cause that unites them because they have something or someone to oppose or support. Each side convinces themselves that they are participating in a “noble cause.”
A communal march against the common “enemy” generates among people who otherwise have so little in common. It can disintegrate into a feeding frenzy. Perspectives are blurred as people engage in gossip that destroys the enemy without considering what it does to the Body of Christ. Pack thinking replaces reason and investigation of the facts. The end justifies the means no matter who is wounded or killed. The cause demands full attention and “follow-ship.” Sometimes the major issue(s) is no longer the focus. The conflict is now the focus. Lines are drawn in the sand creating divides that are seldom bridged.
Disregarding the Spirit of Christ and the mission of the church, however, is never right or productive. The prophet Isaiah admonished, “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:8). The Apostle Paul said, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (I Corinthians 12:31b), whereupon he launches into his discourse on love (I Corinthians 13).
Conflicted congregations dissipate their time and energies warring, thus they have little time or energy for ministry to others. Research by the Hartford Institute, a part of Hartford Theological Seminary, confirmed something that we already knew or at least suspected: churches with major conflict experience less church growth. Conflicted congregations also produce fewer members going into vocational ministry as well as forfeit their ability to have a positive influence in their community. The reasons are self-evident. When congregations lose their way they lose their spiritual effectiveness.
Seldom do healthy congregations emerge accidentally. They are the result of healthy clergy and healthy lay church leaders who embody spiritual commitment, a high level of trust, shared leadership, genuine concern for the Body of Christ, and personal investment in ministry to others. This is intentional, not accidental. Ministers and lay leaders pray for one another and are more concerned about being faithful to the opportunities for ministry around them than they are in “statistical success” or who gets the credit. Healthy church leaders mentor the younger brothers and sisters and are not obsessed over who gets the credit or blame. These kinds of healthy relationships can go a long way in developing their own distinct contagious healthy dynamic. A good starting place is to embody the words of Micah, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
These characteristics can transform individuals and congregations. This kind of transformation enables discipleship to take on a life of its own.
But not all relationships embody this kind of maturity, nor do all churches experience a loving fellowship that permeates the core of their being. I am often asked if there are signs that can help identify deteriorating minister-congregation relationships before a deep and sometimes irreparable polarization has reached the point of no return.
If effective ministry is taking place there will always be evidence of some conflict. In fact, some conflict can be a sign of health. When congregations recognize and affirm that different people have different gifts that complement one another, such people can work together and a healthy atmosphere will begin to permeate the congregation. When factions reveal intolerance for differing people and gifts, dis-ease will set in and, if left unchecked, will render the church’s ministry ineffective.
Often the conflict is not between pastor and congregation, but between warring factions within the congregation with each trying to align the pastor on their side. Many pastors allow themselves to be triangulated in unhealthy ways before they realize what is happening. Though ministers may not be able to solve the church’s problem, they can work on their own emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental health. Roberta Gilbert, MD, in her book, Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference, points out that learning to be the best that one can be in his or her relationship system is extraordinary leadership. If the pastor can remain healthy in the relationship system by self-defining, self-regulating, staying in contact, watching for sabotage, and not taking self too seriously, there’s a good possibility there will be enough wisdom and strength in the congregation to help reach healthy conclusions when there is a conflict. A wise pastor will give close attention to his or her own health during periods of conflict.
Though I have concluded that ministers have a tendency to “jump and run” too fast at the sight of conflict, there is a point at which the minister must assess the situation and determine if the effects on him or her and the family is worth the cost. The leadership provided by a healthy pastor can make a significant difference. Sometimes, though, the most effective thing a pastor can do is expose the problem, point to the resources that may make a difference, and then begin making plans to transition to another pastorate or another type of ministry. However, “sneaking away” or becoming a “guardian of the secrets” will neither help the minister nor the church.
What are some of the signs that may indicate the minister may want to consider a transition? There is no one sign that is conclusive but a combination of signs may yield valuable insight.
When Support Wanes:
- Church leaders begin to withdraw from the minister and his or her family
- Church leaders begin to pit staff ministers against the pastor or against one another
- A spirit of apathy or compliance develops among a significant segment of the congregation
When Cut off Begins:
- The minister is not included in major social events of church families
- The minister is not contacted when church family crises occur
- Though the demographics have not changed, there is a noticeable decline in attendance
- The giving declines without major economic downturns or major job layoffs
- There is a distancing from the minister on the part of influential church families
When Respect for the Minister Degenerates:
- The minister allows bullies to treat him or her disrespectfully
- The congregation allows bullies to treat the minister disrespectfully
- The minister allows himself or herself to be triangulated repeatedly
- The lack of salary increase becomes a pattern
When the Minister’s Input is not Valued:
- Major decisions are made without the minister’s input
- The church’s informal power structure begins to veto decisions by the formal power structure without consulting the minister
When Vocal Criticism Increases:
- The minister becomes the focus of discussions in the parking lot and coffee shops
- The minister is frequently compared unfavorably to the former minister
When the Minister’s Leadership Becomes Ineffective:
- The congregation reacts to the minister’s leadership with indifference
- There is lack of support for new church ministries and programs
- The minister no longer enjoys his or her work
- Attending church leadership meetings becomes a constant source of anxiety for the minister
- The minister regularly over-functions or under-functions
- The minister realizes his or her vision for the church is not compatible with the vision for the church held by a majority of the church membership
Learning to recognize and accept one’s limitations is a mark of mature leadership. Sometimes the minister can “coach the congregation’s immune system” and over time the congregation can emerge healthier. At other times the minister will realize that the minister–congregation relationship is not a good match and will transition out of the leadership role in as healthy a way as possible.
Though the relationship may not have continued as long as anticipated, this does not mean the minister’s leadership was a failure. The leadership provided may have a positive and significant impact on the congregation’s future health. There is always hope that out of the rumble, new life can emerge for the minister and the congregation.
Charles H. Chandler was the founding director of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation.
Transitioning Into Wellness Retreat is part of the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning. If you have experienced a forced termination, or are in the midst of conflict that may lead to a decision to leave your church, this event is for you and your spouse. If you know of a ministry colleague who may benefit from this experience, please recommend the retreat. Registration for this event is open. Space is limited, please register early.