It’s becoming a weekly conversation. I call it Church Conflict 101.
A minister calls and immediately I hear the despair in his voice. “I can’t say anything from the pulpit without someone accusing me of being ‘too political’. What am I supposed to preach about when Jesus seems to be the problem for some people?!”
A layperson writes and says: “Our pastor tells everyone how we mistreated him, but the truth is he was not a leader and failed to provide the pastoral care and vision we badly needed. Once he was off the scene, our church turned 180 degrees and is once again an exciting place, people are returning, and we are now confident that we can minister to the community and do God’s will in our life as a congregation.”
Young adults who at one time would have considered a career in ministry are telling us how reticent they are to enter vocational life in the local church. Many opt for secular work and seek to use their gifts and calling in alternative ways rather than subject themselves to the unhealthy culture they see on display in congregations.
As multiple studies have shown us, this is a season of heightened conflict for the American church. For many reasons, the anxiety in congregations and the lives of ministers is on such an upward trend that normally minor disagreements now blossom into full-blown conflict. More and more disputes are climbing up the well-known Conflict Pyramid Scale to the Level 4 and 5 categories. That sort of intense conflict nearly always leaves broken and defeated people and churches in its wake.
Across America, the polarization and discontent of our nation is contaminating the life of far too many congregations. We have adopted and adapted ourselves to a dysfunctional and disorderly approach to managing our inevitable differences.
Rather than practice the ethical commands of Jesus and Paul, we take our cues from media and cultural icons who operate in a way that betrays the biblical guide for dealing with conflict. As a result, many churches have been hijacked from their gospel vision by a secular and/or political vision that betrays our core commitments. Rather than serving as a leavening agent and transforming culture, we have become servants to the prevailing culture and are being conformed to a world fundamentally at odds with our founder.
By moving away from the model of biblical community (defined by unique gifts and a commitment to unity, not uniformity) we have simply become a mirror of the divisions and sorting that are increasingly the defining traits of our social order. In doing so, we are dis-incentivizing clergy, laity and those outside the church from looking to the church as an alternative to the dismal context in which most people live.
“We have simply become a mirror of the divisions and sorting that are increasingly the defining traits of our social order.”
How do we find our way forward?
The answer, as always, is Jesus. Reconnecting with a Jesus worldview is at the heart of the renewal that must emerge if our churches are going to not only survive but thrive in the coming decade. When we take an open-minded approach to the story of Jesus, we find one who prized serving others over being served. We see one who resisted the lure of power and turned instead to finding power in weakness, as Paul so famously suggested was his key to doing amazing things as a Christ-follower.
Congregations that want to transform their inevitable conflict must embrace humility as the trait that is the foundation upon which healthy relationships in the divine plan are built. “Regard others as more important than yourself” (Philippians 2:3) sounds like an affront to far too many ministers and leadership groups. Rather, it is the beginning point of moving through conflict toward transformation.
Without a profound sense of humility and an awareness that we do not have the right to judge others or discard those Christ would welcome, our efforts to move through conflict are doomed. Unless we reject the secular cultural models of using conflict to ostracize others and using power to get our way, then the Jesus of Scripture will not be among us.
“Unless we reject the secular cultural models of using conflict to ostracize others and using power to get our way, then the Jesus of Scripture will not be among us.”
I must confess that working with ministers and congregations wrestling with conflict is exhausting. There have been moments I have wondered how we have wandered so far from what Christ intended us to become. I wonder if it is perhaps too late for many of our churches to avoid implosion. What I do believe with great conviction is that if we are truly going to be known by our radical love for one another (John 13:35), we must start moving toward that very soon.
The remedy for Church Conflict 101 means we begin by redirecting our deepest loyalty toward Jesus and away from cultural icons. Until we allow Jesus to direct our behaviors and attitudes, we will continue to see conflict derail our churches and demoralize our ministers.
For the sake of the gospel, your ministry, your congregation and our witness, please turn your eyes away from your favorite media commentators and look to the one who gave flesh to the way God intends us to live our lives.
Bill Wilson serves as director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.
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Leaving church, part 3: ‘Opposition to leadership’ | Opinion by Carol McEntyre and Pam Durso