Posts Tagged ‘causes of church conflict’

Over the years, I’ve witnessed some pretty volatile moments in the churches I’ve served.

*During my first pastorate, I was teaching on the resurrection of Christ at a midweek study.  When I mentioned that Christ’s resurrection couldn’t be scientifically proven, a board member stood up, barked, “Then we’re all wasting our time here,” walked out of the room, and slammed the door hard.

*In my next ministry, I threw some hymnbooks into the dumpster.  They were so old that even the Rescue Mission wouldn’t take them.  The greatest antagonist I’ve ever had in any church found them (I should have thrown them out at home) and told anyone who would listen that I was throwing out the old hymns and therefore should be tossed on the trash heap myself!

*Years later, in another church, a board member became visibly angry during three separate meetings.  He kept promising to accomplish certain tasks, but didn’t get anything done, and when another board member called him on it, he went ballistic.

In addition, I’ve seen a board member stand up and lash out at a woman during a congregational meeting … had staff members adamantly refuse what I asked them to do … been fiercely challenged about my theology seconds after preaching … and on and on and on.

And from what I’ve heard from other pastors, most of the churches I served were mild in the volatility department compared to theirs.

Let’s be honest: Christians don’t handle anger very well.

We know that anger is often sinful and is one of the more overt misbehaviors in Christ’s church … so much so that Paul devoted 8 key verses to anger in Ephesians 4:25-32 … among the greatest words ever written on the subject.

I’m particularly interested in verses 26 and 27:

“In your anger do not sin.  Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”

Let me share four thoughts about anger in the church from these verses:

First, every Christian, being human, feels angry at times.  We may not like admitting this, and may even try to hide our feelings, but there are times when each of us becomes very upset … even at church … and even with the best of God’s people.

In fact, Paul implies that this is normal behavior.

Just feeling angry isn’t sinful by itself.  If we can control how we feel, and express it constructively, our anger can do much good.

But unfortunately, many Christians don’t express their anger very well.  They suppress it until it explodes.  (I heard one pastor say that there was a psychologist in his congregation who claimed that the pastor had more suppressed anger than anyone he had ever known.)  Or they unleash it at the most inopportune times.

Second, it is possible to become angry without sinning.  Just because I feel angry doesn’t mean that I have to express that anger verbally.  I can choose to distract myself … pause before speaking … walk away … or deal with the source of my anger.

Put another way, I can control my anger rather than letting my anger control me.

Every time God issues a command in Scripture, He is saying to His people, “Not only do I want you to do this, I expect that you will do this.  You have the power to choose.”

For years, I became angry every time I was driving and another car came up behind me and tried to force me to change lanes.  If he kept pushing me, I’d finally get over, but then I’d yell at him and sometimes even chase him … both stupid, dumb, counterproductive actions.

I told myself, “This happens so often that I have to come up with a plan for dealing with my feelings.”  So with God’s help, I did.  Here’s what I do now:

If another car demonstrates road rage in my rear view mirror, I get in the next lane … let off the gas … and verbally say to the Lord, “May You send a Highway Patrol officer to arrest that driver.”

Works for me.

If someone at church keeps getting on your nerves, come up with a plan in advance on how you’re going to respond … and if possible, ask a friend or family member if you can be accountable to them for your behavior.  Sometimes that plan involves using several different phrases that you can pull out of a hat to defuse the situation … or better yet, just ask the other person a question, such as, “What do you mean by that?”

Worked for Jesus.

Third, resolve any lingering anger that very day.  If Christians took to heart Paul’s phrase, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” we’d have far fewer divorces among Christian married couples … and almost no destructive conflicts in churches.

Paul encourages God’s people to resolve that day’s conflicts before sunset … or, in the case of family members, before bedtime.

This summer, my wife and I will be celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary.  Since we both have strong personalities … even though our temperaments are exact opposites … we sometimes cross verbal swords with each other.

It’s okay for us to disagree with each other … to express how we really feel at the time … and even to show a little anger.  (I once heard evangelist Luis Palau say that if a husband and wife agree on everything, one of them is retarded.)

What isn’t okay is for us to go to bed angry with each other.

Early in our marriage, there were a lot of nights where we stayed up until midnight trying to iron out our latest disagreement.  We were determined to obey this verse and not “let the sun go down” while we were still angry.

My guess is that we’ve only gone to bed angry with each other a handful of times over those forty years, and in every case, we quickly resolved matters the following morning.

This concept is so important that I believe that every successful married couple practices it.  It’s unbearable to live in the same house day after day when you’re ticked off at your partner.

But the context in Ephesians 4 isn’t marriage, but the local church … and for some reason, when another Christian wrongs us … or we wrong someone else … we quickly become hurt … even angry … and rather than resolve matters by moving toward the other person, we move away from them, which creates distance.

And then we recite the hurt to others in hopes of seeking allies.

Most of the time, when someone in the church became visibly angry in my presence, I was able to listen … calm the person down … hear what they were upset about … and suggest a way to resolve matters.

But since most Christians believe they shouldn’t become angry … and should never express that anger … they just push their feelings underground, and it surfaces in the form of avoidance … sarcasm … gossip … slander … and even rage.  (Paul was cognizant of the phenomenon of unresolved anger, commanding us in verse 31 to “get rid of all bitterness … rage and anger … brawling and slander … with every form of malice.”)

I’ve heard that pastors on the whole are an angry bunch … probably because we have a lot of be angry about.  And sadly, I must confess that there have been times in my ministry when I overreacted … said something stupid … failed to restrain my emotions and language … and deeply hurt someone else in the process.

If and when that happens, I need to make things right with the target of my wrath as soon as possible because:

Finally, unresolved anger invites Satan’s influence into a church.  Paul says that when believers don’t resolve matters before sunset, we are giving the devil “a foothold” into our life … and into our church family.

In fact, bitterness (mentioned specifically by Paul in verse 31) is probably the leading cause of church conflict … church splits … and pastoral termination.

It’s okay to share with another believer that I am upset about something they said or did … as long as I “speak truthfully” to my neighbor and remember that “we are all members of one body” (verse 25).

In other words, it’s fine to be assertive as long as I’m not aggressive (being assertive + angry) in the process.

But when I’m aggressive instead of assertive … and when I fail to speak directly to the person I’m upset with … and when I involve others in my dispute … then I’m making a situation worse, not better.

And Satan rubs his hands with glee, because now he has an entry point into the congregation: my own bitterness.

But I don’t want the devil to roam free throughout my church family.  Instead, I want the Holy Spirit of God to have free rein (verse 30) and I want the devil chased away.

Paul concludes Ephesians 4 with one of the greatest statements in all of Scripture: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Translation: you’ve been angry with God and others on many occasions, haven’t you?  And every time you’ve approached the Father and sought forgiveness, He’s forgiven you, correct?

Then when others are upset with you … even when their anger is unjustified … forgive them unilaterally.

And do everything possible to rectify matters with your brothers and sisters so you can reconcile with them … just as the Father reconciled Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

As I think back over my life and ministry, I find that I’m not upset about the people who came to me and bludgeoned me with their anger.  Sometimes these were good people who were hurting in another area of their life and sensed I was a safe person to unload on.

No, I’m much more upset that I said or did something that may have driven someone else away from the Lord or His people … and that, if I did sense their pain, I didn’t resolve matters as soon as possible.

What are your thoughts … and feelings … about anger in the church?

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The key to preventing conflict in a group – whether it’s your family, your workplace, your neighborhood, or your church – is understanding the role that anxiety plays.

This is what family sytems theory teaches.

In my last post, I mentioned a woman named Ethel who is undergoing overwhelming anxiety in her own life.

Then she comes to church on Sunday … hoping to receive encouragement and comfort … and discovers that the music director has left the church without explanation.

With her anxiety already sky-high, she begins doing what all anxious people do.

She complains … to anyone who will listen.

The church is now in a dangerous place.

There are two kinds of anxiety in a church: acute or chronic.

Acute anxiety is crisis generated.  When the giving is falling behind budget, or there’s an influx of new members, or there’s a major shift in lay leadership, acute anxiety appears.

In a healthy congregation, the events causing acute anxiety are acknowledged and addressed so the anxiety is eventually abated.  People regain their perspective and are able to control their reactivity.

But chronic anxiety is embedded deep within the church system.  It’s a condition that never ends.  Even the slightest change in a church triggers reactive behavior.

To obtain relief from this anxiety, chronically anxious members act out their anxiety by making accusations, exaggerating events, and spreading rumors.  They’re uncomfortable with the way they feel, and so attempt to displace their anxiety onto others.

Imagine that you’re a member of the church I mentioned above.  The music director is no longer on the staff, and Ethel comes to you after the service to complain.

She’s angry with the pastor for not getting along with the music director.

She’s angry with several people on the music team she suspects pushed out the music director.

She’s angry that the music director is gone because she liked both him and his music.

What should you do?

First, let Ethel know that you can’t do anything about her complaints.

Second, encourage her to speak with the pastor or board members and share her concerns with them.  In fact, offer to go with her to speak with them if necessary.

Finally, let Ethel know that while she has the right to speak with a leader about this issue, she does not have the right to complain indiscriminately to others in the church.

Because Ethel wants someone to listen to her, validate her feelings, and take away all her anxiety.

But if you agree with her complaints – and throw in a few of your own – you have assumed her anxiety and you are dangerously close to becoming divisive.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders mentally.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders to their faces.

It is not divisive to disagree with church leaders when talking to a friend or family member.

But it is divisive to pool complaints with others … because people who share gripes are ripe to form an unofficial coalition.  And if they can find a leader … or a complainer offers to take on the task … they will start meeting in private.

And then they will put the needs of their group ahead of the church and start making demands.

And then you have division.

Church consultant Peter Steinke writes:

“It is the chronically anxious individuals in the church family who are apt to conduct a ‘search and destroy mission.’  They will not hesitate to impose their wills on others.  They make hostages of their gifts, attendance, and participation.  They employ their stewardship as brinksmanship.  Their ultimate threat is to run away from home – transferring or terminating their membership if an action is not rescinded, a person is not removed, or a demand is not satisfied.  These tactics are effective in church families that place a premium on peace and harmony.”

If those who are upset about the departure of the music director would speak with church leaders directly, they might discover the real reason why he left … which might alleviate their anxiety.

But if they don’t engage the leaders, and decide to take matters into their own hands, they’ll just make a mess of things and trigger even more anxiety in their congregation.

If and when those with complaints share their concerns with the church’s leadership, the way the leaders respond is crucial.  The key to church health is how the leaders respond whenever anxiety surfaces.

The more threatened the leaders feel, the more the congregation can be disrupted.

The more calmly the leaders manage anxiety, the safer people feel.

According to conflict expert Ronald Richardson, it’s the job of effective leaders to help keep down the anxiety level in the emotional system of the congregation.

And effective leaders do this best by managing their own anxiety.

When my wife and I were first married, we lived behind a church.

One Sunday, we visited that church.

As soon as we walked into the worship center, you could cut the tension with a knife.  Seriously.

The pastor stood up and gave announcements for twenty minutes.  The church was making changes in their scheduling, and he wanted to explain the changes to the congregation.

Good move.

But he spent so much time explaining that he became defensive.  I could sense that his explanation wasn’t working.

It wasn’t long before he was looking for another job.

I don’t know who, if anyone, was the human culprit in that situation.  But I do know that unchecked anxiety assumed control of that church.  I could feel it … and I was an outsider.

People probably blamed the pastor for things.

He probably blamed some board members and powerbrokers.

But most likely, the leaders allowed anxiety to run amok … and when that happens, chronically anxious individuals either leave the church or try and push out key leaders … usually the pastor.

The lesson is simple:

If you’re a parent, keep the atmosphere in your home calm.

If you’re a boss, make sure and manage the anxiety in your workplace.

If you’re a church leader, do what you can to keep anxiety from spilling out into your congregation.

Because as anxiety goes up in an organization, conflict escalates.

But when anxiety goes down, so does conflict.

What have you witnessed along this line?

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In Simon and Garfunkel’s second album, Sounds of Silence, Paul Simon sang these lyrics with his partner on their song “Blessed” :

“Blessed is the stained glass, window pane glass,

Blessed is the church service, makes me nervous …”

In my last article, I mentioned that there are many elements during a worship service that can make people feel uncomfortable: the music, the greeting time, the sermon, the pastor’s voice … all kinds of things.

And I used the worship service as an example because it’s the most visible expression of what a church is about.  During the worship time, a church is at its best.  For a pastor, his whole week culminates in what happens during the 75 minutes or so when the congregation gathers together to focus on God.

But before, during, or after that worship experience, the anxiety level in a church can rise significantly.

And when anxiety rises, conflict escalates.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine that you attend a local church service this Sunday.

During the singing time – without introduction or explanation – a man who has cheated people out of investments sings a vocal selection … and most of the people in the church know his reputation.

How will people feel?  Most who know him will feel upset … angry … ticked off … even violated.  Why?

Because they instinctively believe that only people who are walking with the Lord should stand on that stage.

The anxiety level in that church is going to rise immediately … and people are going to react.

A few might get up and leave the worship center.

Others will write a scathing note to the pastor on their response card.

Still others will write a note to the person next to them (along the lines of “how can they let him sing?”) or whisper a similar statement instead.

After the service, some people will seek out the pastor or the music director to complain.

When the pastor gets home, he’ll receive some phone calls or emails from irate worshipers.

Because when people feel anxious, they react … and complain to others.

For years, I planned Sunday services every week with a team of gifted individuals.

We wanted people to focus on the Lord and the truth of His Word … but we didn’t want people to become complacent, either.

So from time-to-time, we’d take some risks during the service.

Most of the time, the risks worked.

But on occasion, they backfired … and I sometimes regretted what I did.

When I prepared the congregation for the risky element, they usually handled things with grace.

But when I sprung something on them without warning, some people became anxious and consequently reactive.

(I was once cast as Church Lady from SNL in a short drama during a Sunday service … and did a rap about sexual expression in marriage while wearing a dress.  It just so happened that my father-in-law … a pastor, missionary, and professor … chose that Sunday to visit our church.  Talk about anxiety!)

When a pastor springs a change on a congregation without adequate preparation, he is the cause of the anxiety floating through the church … and it’s the job of a leader to keep anxiety under control, not make it worse.

By the same token, though, even the slightest change in a church can send certain people into anxiety orbit.

Let me introduce you a woman named Ethel.

Ethel’s having a tough time in life right now.

Her husband lost his job, so the family is racking up debt.

Not only is her husband depressed, but he’s being tested for heart problems.

Ethel’s oldest son is on drugs, and can’t hold a job, so he’s living with his parents.

And Ethel feels overwhelmed trying to hold the family together.

When she goes to church on Sunday, she wants to know that God loves her, and that He will give her the strength and courage she needs to get through another week.

But when she arrives, she finds out that the worship director is no longer on the staff, and that someone with far less ability is now leading worship.

Because Ethel has been experiencing great anxiety at home, she can’t handle anymore anxiety at church … the one place she thought she could find peace.

So what does Ethel do with her anxiety?

Leave it at home?

Leave it with the Lord?

Leave it with her best friend?

No, Ethel starts complaining … to anyone who will listen.

The church is now in a dangerous place.


I’ll deal with that in my next article!

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I felt very uncomfortable in church last Sunday.

My wife and I are living in a new area and we’ve been looking for a church home.  Last Sunday, we visited a church several miles away that meets in a small converted warehouse.  Our daughter was with us because it was Mother’s Day.

There was much about the church that I liked.

They sang some praise songs I knew.

They acknowledged the mothers in their midst and gave each of them a gift.

They showed a cute video about Mother’s Day.

The pastor’s message was biblical and heartfelt.

But something bothered me … something personal.

When I brought it up to my wife and daughter in the car afterwards, they felt differently.

But I still felt uncomfortable … even anxious.

If I made that church my home, I’d remain anxious about this issue.  I don’t want to feel the way I do, but I do.

And this is how thousands of Christians feel every Sunday … at their home church.

They feel uncomfortable about:

*pews that are too hard

*theatre seats instead of pews

*the way the pastor dresses

*songs they don’t know

*songs they do know but have sang way too many times

*the style of the music

*the worship leader

*music volume

*the greeting time (“I don’t want to shake hands with people I don’t know!”)

*the pastor’s speaking voice (his accent, pitch, rhythm, clarity, volume)

*the pastor’s stories (too many, too few, too irrelevant)

*the pastor’s points (biblical?  relevant?  realistic?  meaningful?)

*the pastor’s body language (does he smile?  stand up straight?  wave his arms?)

When I leave a worship service these days, there are many criteria I can use to determine whether I’ll visit again:

*How much like me are the pastor and congregation?

*How well was the service done?

*How meaningful was the music?

*How wisely was Scripture used?

*Did God meet me there?

But increasingly, I find myself measuring a service by how the worship experience made me feel.

And one dominant question rattles around inside my spirit:

How comfortable did I feel in that service?

The more comfortable I feel, the more likely I am to return for a second visit … and eventually stay.

The more uncomfortable, the more likely I am to cross that church off my list and visit another one the following weekend.

Here’s how all this is relevant:

When most people attend a worship service, they want to feel comfortable there.

While they may be open to being challenged intellectually and spiritually, they wish to feel safe emotionally and socially.

If they visit a church once, and it feels comfortable, they may visit again … and again … and again … until they can predict that they’ll feel safe every time they attend.

And if the rest of their family has a similar experience, they will finally make that church their spiritual home.

But there are two wild cards that can mess things up and lead to conflict.

The first wild card is sudden or drastic change that makes them feel even more uncomfortable.

The second wild card is their own personal anxiety that they bring with them to church.

I will discuss both of these wild cards in my next article.

And I hope you feel comfortable until then!

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