Last year, I planned to present some seminars on church conflict. I decided to visit some area churches and drop off some promotional literature about the seminars.
Someone I respected had spoken highly of a particular church, so I stopped there first. Walking into the church office, I introduced myself and mentioned that I would be offering some seminars on conflict.
The office manager blurted out, “We’ve hired Such-and-Such an organization for a year to work on the conflict we’re having with our leaders.”
She didn’t know anything about me, and yet she readily confessed that her church was enduring major conflict!
And nearly every major conflict revolves around the pastor in some fashion … and many times, the solution to the conflict seems obvious:
“Let’s get rid of the pastor.”
The latest figure that I’ve seen is that 28% of all pastors have endured a forced exit at some time in their ministry … and the numbers seem to be increasing because most denominations and churches are doing absolutely nothing about the problem. Call it the Christian version of Survival of the Fittest.
Why do pastoral terminations continue to increase? Let me offer five possible reasons:
First, pastors and churches are in denial about this issue.
When they’re called to a church, few pastors think to themselves, “I could face termination here.”
When church leaders initially call a pastor, almost nobody says, “If things don’t work out, let’s can him.”
And yet several years later, a faction may very well coalesce to force the pastor to quit … and nearly everybody in the congregation is shocked.
Pastors and Christian leaders need to say to themselves: “Because forced exits are a reality in today’s Christian community, we need to work hard at staying current with our relationships because an involuntary dismissal could happen here.”
But for some reason, that’s not how we think.
Second, pastors have received little formal training in conflict resolution.
I remember the first big conflict I experienced as a rookie pastor. The board chairman asked for my help in dealing with a specific issue. I brought it to the board. We studied it for three hours and then developed an action plan.
When I began to carry out the plan, the entire board caved on me, and then demanded that I apologize for carrying out the plan. I refused because we had agreed on it together.
I was a PK … had been in church ministry for nearly ten years … had taken a class on conflict management in seminary … and yet I didn’t know how to handle or interpret the behavior of those board members.
During that time, a friend came to visit me, and I had developed a case of hives because I was afraid the board was going to dismiss me as they had the previous pastor.
I believe that every student in seminary who is studying for church ministry should be required to take a class in conflict management … and maintain at least two mentors who understand church conflict while they’re in ministry.
Because when pastors are skilled in handling conflict, they sleep better … lengthen their careers … and preserve their congregations.
Third, pastors rarely speak on biblical conflict management.
Last year, I gave a sermon on conflict resolution based on Matthew 18:15-18, and when I was done, a veteran Christian in her mid-80s said to me, “In all my years of going to church, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a sermon on that subject.”
For years, this woman attended a church where her pastor was internationally known.
Maybe he did address conflict at times during his sermons, and maybe she just forgot or wasn’t present on those occasions … but maybe she was telling the truth, too.
When I was a pastor, I did a brief series on unity/conflict management at the same time every year. The one year I didn’t do it … thinking, “We’re okay right now” … conflict broke out soon afterward.
When Paul wrote his letters to the churches at Rome and Corinth and Ephesus and Thessalonica, those letters weren’t intended for church leaders alone, but were intended to be read to entire congregations. Paul wanted everyone in those churches to work through their differences with love and understanding.
In the same way, pastors both need to teach on church conflict from Scripture and arrange for specialized training for their staff and leaders.
Because if and when the pastor is under attack, some people will resort to the law of the jungle.
Fourth, churchgoers need a mental picture of what a church looks like after a termination.
When I was in fourth grade, I saw newsreels of Hitler speaking … Nazi torchlight parades … and the remains of Jewish victims in concentration camps.
Those images had a profound impact on me. They caused me to read more about Hitler’s rise to power and to become aware of the devastation that results when evil is tolerated rather than defeated.
My book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict is an attempt at letting believers know how quickly a conflict can erupt in a church … and how destructive such conflicts are for everyone involved.
My prayer is that believers will say, “I don’t want my pastor’s career and reputation destroyed. I don’t want precious believers to leave this church wounded. I don’t want to compromise my church’s witness in this community for years. With God’s help, I will do everything in my power to prevent and resolve any conflicts in a truthful and loving manner.”
Sometimes I toy with the idea of making a film about pastoral termination that starts with congregational devastation … and then works backward to see how it all began.
(Anybody want to work on this with me … or finance it?)
Finally, Christians seem ignorant of the fact that Satan wants to destroy pastors so he can destroy churches.
After Jesus was arrested, all of His disciples fled. When the shepherd was struck, the sheep scattered.
Satan thought he had won a victory … but he was wrong. But the disciples didn’t regather on their own.
When did they regather? Only after Jesus was resurrected and reassumed His rightful place as their leader.
I believe in spiritual warfare. I have not only experienced it … I have felt it.
When I made mistakes … as every pastor does … I should have been lovingly confronted and given the opportunity to explain and/or be restored.
Instead, there was open abuse … defamation … and slander.
That’s not how God operates, is it?
Remember: the devil specializes in deception and destruction. Those are the telltale signs that he is at work either in our lives or inside the life of our congregation.
I could add many other reasons why the forced termination of pastors is on the increase, but these are the five that readily came to mind.
What are some of the reasons why you believe pastoral exits are increasing?