Dealing with church conflict

“You know what your problem is? You’re just power hungry!” a church board member shouted.

“Yah, well you just aren’t spiritual!” Rev. Wilson [not his real name], the pastor of the Iowa church, countered with equal volume. “And if you don’t get your life in line with the membership requirements of this church, then you’re off the board.”

“And I’m gonna have you out of this church because you’re not in line with membership requirements either!” the board member shouted louder as he rose to his feet.

Before the board meeting was over the board member had questioned Pastor Wilson’s legitimacy and had told him where he could spend eternity before taking a literal swing at the pastor. News of the “fist fight” spread at the speed of sound over the phone lines of the one hundred attendees and community as well.

Just how does conflict bubble up in the seemingly smooth seas of church life?

Pastor Raymond [not his real name], the current pastor of the church, believes that both the former pastor and a few church members were in part to blame.

“As I pieced various laypeople’s stories together, it seemed the previous pastor had wielded authority improperly. Yes, the board member showed a complete lack of subordination to the pastor’s leadership, but the pastor used the incident as an excuse to publicly humiliate someone who disagreed with him. The pastor brought the board member before a public church trial and stripped him of all his leadership positions.

“But the way the situation was handled only made matters worse. A phone campaign by laypeople began through the church and community with the church fragmenting into two armed camps—and that certainly wasn’t a constructive way to deal with the conflict. Eventually, the pastor resigned.

“When I arrived for my first Sunday there,” Pastor Raymond recalls “attendance had dropped from around one hundred to fifteen. Twenty-four people showed up for my first service, but most of those had already decided they were going to leave too. There were just hanging around to see ‘the new kid’.”

Growing pains

There were new conflicts in store for the young pastor. After seven years of his leadership—and emphasis on evangelism and discipleship—the church was once again averaging about one hundred in Sunday morning services. But the “growing pains” threatened to divide the church once more.

“Half the church had a vision of growth for the church, and the other half were uncomfortable with not knowing everyone in morning worship. The board—half of which was still in office from the fist-fight-church-trial incident—reflected that division. There were comments like ‘the church is already big enough’ and ‘a church should never be larger than seventy-five people.’ For a year the board was in constant conflict; half saying ‘We’ve got to go forward’ and the other half saying ‘No! No!'”

“I knew from Rev. Wilson’s experience that wielding authority like a club wasn’t the solution. And I had to admit that my attitudes had not always been right and I had gotten a little testy with the lack of vision on some people’s part. So I decided that my attitude had to stay right. For instance, a board member’s husband refused to talk to me for a year. Every Sunday when I got up to preach, he would turn in the pew and stare out the window. And, frankly, there were some things I did to make matters worse. One day he did speak and said, ‘Next spring I’m going to be helping you pack a moving van’ and I answered, ‘I didn’t know you were moving.’ He was offended and looking back, I shouldn’t have handled it that way.

“But for one year I either hugged him or patted him on the shoulder because he wouldn’t let me shake hands with him. And every Sunday for a year I said, ‘Gary, I love you. I’m glad you’re here’ with absolutely no response. Finally, one Sunday—completely unexpected—he said, ‘I love you too, Pastor.’

“I found that as long as I keep my attitude straight and try to out-love people, then conflict is easier to handle. Well, it’s never really easy, but it must be handled.”

Fault lines

While handling conflict is dangerous, ignoring a volatile situation is equally risky as an Indiana church discovered. Prayer meetings at the growing, dynamic fellowship of three hundred attendees had degenerated into weekly debates.

“We need to really pray for Pastor Blanchard [not his real name]. The devil is using some people in this church—and you know who you are—to undermine the pastor’s ministry,” a “pro-Pastor Blanchard” spokesperson argued in the form of a prayer request.

“Well, I think we ought to pray for God’s wisdom. There’s been nothing but discord since—you know when—and we need to really pray that people’s eyes will be opened to what’s really going on,” an “anti-Pastor Blanchard” crusader replied.

One of the members of the pastoral search committee, who had tried to remain neutral, slid lower in his pew. How could a growing church degenerate to this is just a few months? Norman thought.

He explains, “I don’t claim to have the gift of discernment, but I just knew that Blanchard wasn’t the right person for this church. I seemed to sense things that others on the board didn’t. I had a really bad feeling when we discussed Rev. Blanchard’s resume. Everyone else voted to schedule an interview, but I expressed my reservations that the resume’ seemed too good and that I wouldn’t vote ‘no,’ but I couldn’t in good conscience vote ‘yes’ either.”

While Norman was out of town on business, the board interviewed the prospective pastor, and at the next monthly board meeting voted on extending an invitation to come as pastor. Again, Norman expressed his concerns and asked if anyone had checked with church leaders in previous pastorates. The concerns were met with icy stares, so he backed off and made the vote unanimous to call Pastor Blanchard.

In less than three months, the church secretary and treasurer had discovered that Pastor Blanchard had had affairs at two previous churches, had misappropriated funds at this church by buying himself a computer with church monies and had loaned the church-owned car to his son at college.

“The conflict over this situation was on many levels, and I seemed to get stuck in the middle of it all. Several on the board felt I was a trouble maker because I hadn’t been ‘supportive’ of the pastor since his resume’ arrived. The vice-chairman of the board would call me asking for advice. I suggested we concentrate on being redemptive toward Pastor Blanchard—’let’s try to salvage his ministry’—and yet hold him accountable by investigating the charges. The vice-chairman refused to act on the accusations for the sake of ‘church unity.’ I begged the district church officials to intervene by saying ‘You can get involved now when the situation might be redeemed, or you can get involved after this thing blows up and splits the church,’ but they also refused to get involved. Meanwhile the church office staff would come to me with additional ‘evidence’ and expect me to act on it as a board member. At the same time I felt the need to affirm the pastor, and yet Pastor Blanchard and especially his wife were none too subtle in expressing their dislike for me.”

Within six months, church attendance had dropped by one half, church services turned into heated debates between the “pro-Blanchard” and “anti-Blanchard” sides, the entire pastoral staff had resigned, and Pastor Blanchard finally resigned when the church treasurer threatened to hire a private investigator.

Norman, who moved out of town due to a promotion in his company, still grieves at how the situation was handled. “I’m beginning to see that the conflict over the choice of pastor was only the catalyst for the split. For a church to become alienated and divided so quickly, there must have been a hidden fault line from the past. The pressure of the pastoral choice, perhaps, caused the church to split at the weak point. Every Sunday the church foyer would literally be divided with groups of people clustered by their ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ pastor beliefs. Looking back, I believe the real problem was that the church had never learned how to handle conflict. One group believed in unquestioning support of a pastor and keeping ‘unity’ at all cost—which meant ignoring conflict—and the other group believed in tackling conflict head on.

“I think the church learned that, yes, we need to deal with conflict, but we must handle in a loving, redemptive way. And that it’s okay to ask tough questions. If we had taken the time to do a thorough background check, we would have never extended an invitation to that pastor. And if the vice-chairman, the board, or the district leaders would have taken the staff’s concerns seriously early on, perhaps Pastor Blanchard’s ministry could have been redeemed. As it was, he merely resigned and went on to be involved in questionable activities at another church in another state and denomination.

“And I’m not really sure if I acted in exactly the right way. There was as much conflict within me as to what was the right—and loving—way, as there was conflict in the church. But I am convinced that dealing with conflict—even if we don’t do it perfectly—is better than not dealing with conflict at all.”

Conflict resolutions

Pastor Raymond, who is in his twenty-first year of pastoring the Iowa parish, reports that the church has continued to grow and is now averaging four hundred and fifty.

“The new members soon out-numbered the opponents of growth. We still loved the opponents and tolerated their anti-growth comments, but their numbers became more and more insignificant as the church grew. It wasn’t easy, but we stayed on purpose—evangelism and discipleship—and made sure our attitudes were right and won the day.”

Meanwhile at the church in Indiana Pastor McDonald [not his real name], one of the candidates who was passed over, is now pastoring the church and growth is once again occurring.

“The church was pretty bloodied and battered and so for the first year, I just tried to love them and encourage them as their pastor.” Pastor McDonald also agrees with Norman’s assessment of a hidden “fault line.” “We’ve also tried to foster a sense of love, forgiveness and unity—but not uniformity. And several of the original board members and ‘partisan’ people have gone to other churches. That’s always sad when that happens but it’s been good to have people on the board and in the pews who weren’t associated with the ‘Blanchard blow-up’ as it’s referred to.”

“I’ve sensed a lot of healing in the church as well,” Norman adds. “I’ve been back a few times when I’m in town, and my most vocal opponents on the board seem genuinely glad to see me and always make me feel welcomed. There does seem to be a new unity.”

Copyright © 1993 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

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Do you really want a “biblical” church?
“Cyber church” has bats in belfry
The Watkins New World Church Dictionary
Top ten signs your church may be prejudiced
Finding still water in the storm: The Book of Joe
A case for women in ministry
Top ten list: When you’re voted out
Wounded shepherd: When is it time to leave the flock?
Considering a post-pastorate career

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