Posts Tagged ‘conflict with the pastor’

Many years ago, I attended a Taylor-Johnson Temperamental Analysis seminar with Christian author, counselor, and professor H. Norman Wright.

Wright, who taught at Talbot where I went to seminary, shared great insights into human behavior during that seminar … and I’ve never forgotten them.

The Taylor-Johnson test indicates how an individual scores regarding nine personality traits.

When my wife and I had premarital counseling, for example, our counselor pointed out that while Kim scored high in social interaction, I scored low … meaning that she might want to attend social events that I’d prefer to skip.  (And that conclusion has proven correct over nearly 42 years of marriage.)

The test also measures traits like lighthearted/depressive, dominant/submissive, and self-disciplined/impulsive.

But Norm Wright told seminar participants that out of all the traits, the most important one was called objective/subjective.

The objective/subjective trait measures how a person interprets life events.  Do they see what’s happening around them accurately or inaccurately?

It’s my considered opinion that when it comes to church conflict … especially conflicts that involve the lead pastor … that several key individuals … on the official board, on the staff, or in a faction … grossly misinterpret the pastor’s behaviors and motives.

Let me give you an example.

In my second pastorate, I found an old box of hymnals in a back room of the church gymnasium.  They weren’t the current hymnals we were using, nor the previous generation of hymnbooks, but the generation before that.

Nobody wanted them … not even the local rescue mission.

I thought to myself, “I’m going to make a unilateral decision and toss these hymnbooks.”  So I threw them in the church dumpster and buried them deep.

But the following Saturday, at a workday, my all-time greatest antagonist somehow found those hymnbooks.  (I should have thrown them out at home.)

His conclusion?

I wasn’t throwing out old hymnbooks … I was throwing out the old hymns!

And that’s what he started spreading around the church … which angered some of the seniors, who loved those old hymns.  (I do, too.)

Whenever a pastor is accused of wrongdoing but is innocent of the charges, there are usually several people who misinterpret what the pastor said or did.

And based on their faulty thinking, they conclude that the pastor has to go.

But the truth is that such people think emotionally rather than logically.  They substitute feelings for facts, are driven by fear and anxiety, and read their own past traumas into the current situation.

Let me share with you some scenarios where a pastor’s actions or words can be misinterpreted by his opponents:

*Sometimes a pastor makes a statement during a sermon … his opponents interpret that statement in the worst possible light … and before night falls, that misinterpretation has spread to many others.

*Sometimes a pastor announces a change that’s going to be implemented at the church … his opponents hear the opposite of what he intended … and resistance begins to form.

*Sometimes a pastor’s car isn’t in its usual spot at church … his opponents conclude that he’s not working … and the charge begins to circulate that he’s lazy.

*Sometimes a pastor buys a new car or takes a nice vacation … his opponents conclude that he’s making too much money … and before long, he’s charged with being materialistic rather than spiritual.

*Sometimes a pastor is seen talking with the same woman on several occasions … his opponents begin to gossip … and before long, they’re insinuating that he’s having an affair.

This is why every church needs several people on the board and staff who are both fair-minded and, in the words of Jesus, “Judge with righteous judgment.”

Let me offer several ways a pastor can combat these highly subjective people:

*Keep them out of leadership … and watch how prospective leaders handle themselves when they hear bad news.

*Ask several believers with good judgment to report to the pastor any baseless charges that are going around the congregation.

*Keep the board chairman and key staffers informed of any false accusations that may be floating around.

*Devise a biblical process for handling charges against the pastor … have the board approve the process … and have the pastor preach on that process initially and refer to it periodically.

*When the pastor is under attack, he needs to vow that he will not resign unless a biblical process is used to test the charges against him.

I have discovered in my own life and ministry that when it comes to others, I’m very objective and demonstrate good judgment.

But when it comes to the way I view myself, I can plunge into subjectivity rather quickly.

Because pastors can become highly subjective at times … especially when they’re under attack … they need to surround themselves with objective leaders.

Especially when they decide to throw out the old hymnbooks.

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I live about thirty miles from San Bernardino, California – the city where a husband and wife team committed horrendous atrocities last week.

Because our entire country is understandably anxious right now, the amount of conflict – reflected in public rhetoric – has also risen among us.

Whenever anxiety rises – whether it’s in a country, a workplace, a family, or a church – conflict inevitably escalates as a result.

There are times in every group when anxiety – and thus conflict – are predictable.

And when we know that anxiety is likely, we can create strategies to lessen the anxiety level – which will lessen any possible conflict as well.

Let me share with you four times that conflict is likely in a church – and I could have included many additional examples:

First, conflict is likely whenever guests are coming over.

My wife and I hosted a Thanksgiving meal at our house two weeks ago.  We had fifteen people show up, including our son and his family, our daughter, and my wife’s twin brother and his family.

Because my wife and I wanted everything to go perfectly, we engaged in meticulous preparation.  We created a menu, bought the food, determined seating, cleaned the house thoroughly, and let everyone know that we were having brunch (without turkey) at 10:30 that morning.

Not everything went optimally, though.  Because we have a preschool in our house – and because we don’t own a dining room table – our guests had to sit in small chairs at low tables.  And because many family members wanted to help cook the food, it was hard at times to move around the kitchen.

But everyone was in such a good mood that we easily overcame those temporary obstacles.

Churches have times during the year when they anticipate company as well, such as Easter Sunday, Mother’s Day, and Christmas Eve.

And because pastors and church leaders are aware that guests will be visiting on those days, they want to create the finest possible impression … but sometimes, people differ on what that looks like.

Many years ago, I pastored a church that was having a Christmas Eve service that started early in the evening.

Some key participants in that service weren’t able to leave work on time, so when they arrived for rehearsal, they were late … but they still wanted to go over their parts until they were satisfied.

When it was time to start the service, our guests were gathered outside the double doors to the auditorium because those involved in the service were still practicing inside.

Watching those guests fidget, I went to our programming director and said, “I don’t care if you’re ready or not, we’re opening these doors right now.”  Although he pushed back, I felt it was important to start at the time we had advertised.

Thank God, we worked things out later on, but I’ve learned that whenever a church is having a big service … or a large event … designed to make a positive impression on newcomers … conflict inevitably results.

Second, conflict is likely when there are changes in a pastor’s family.

I attended some seminars many years ago where the presenters made the following statement:

“For many people in a church, the pastor assumes the role of a father, and his wife assumes the role of a mother.”

And, we might add, some in the congregation see themselves as their children.

As long as the pastor and his wife seem healthy and happy, the congregation feels secure.

But if the pastor and his wife experience disconcerting change, it can affect the entire church family.

Many years ago, I had a friend who was the associate pastor at his church.  While he was there, the senior pastor had a heart attack and was hospitalized.

The church didn’t want to terminate their pastor in his hour of need, but the longer he was out of commission, the more anxious the congregation became.  As I recall, it was his third heart attack, and his recovery period stretched for months.

The church board wanted the associate pastor to provide leadership for the congregation, but he felt that if he did, he would be betraying his supervisor.

Over time, the congregation shrank to such an extent that they had to borrow money from the denomination just to pay their bills … and the entire incident created great anxiety and conflict.

A pastor is a part of three families: his family of origin … his current family … and his church family.

And any change in one family will provoke change in the other families.

So if the pastor gets sick … or his sister dies … or his son gets in trouble at school … or his wife has an operation … the changes in the pastor’s family will cause him weakness, or sorrow, or disappointment, or fear … and those changes in his life are bound to spill over into the congregation.

And when the pastor isn’t acting “normally,” that anxiety inevitably leads to conflict.

In fact, when changes hit the pastor and his family, it’s common for a staff member or a board member to sense that the pastor is now in a weakened position, and to save the church, they assign themselves the role of LEADER and start making decisions that the pastor would usually make … leading to even more conflict.

Third, conflict is likely when the pastor is away.

Whether the pastor goes on vacation … or takes a sabbatical … or is hospitalized … or engages in continuing education … when he’s not around for several weeks, it creates anxiety around the church, and conflict is usually the result.

I once worked for a pastor who took a trip around the world.  His trip took an entire month.  Less than a year later, he was unemployed.

While he was gone, the people who didn’t like him had the opportunity to meet, gripe, and organize without his knowledge.

Nine years ago, I took a much-needed sabbatical.  I was entitled to at least three months off, but because the church had never had a pastor take a sabbatical before, I limited my time away to six weeks.

I went to Europe with my daughter … my wife flew out and joined us … my daughter flew home … and my wife and I went to Moldova for a week of ministry there.

I remember going out to breakfast with the board chairman and another member, reviewing every single issue in writing that I could anticipate … but I couldn’t anticipate everything.

I had lined up all the speakers before I left, including an author and an expert on Islam, but he cancelled his talk while I was away, and church leaders had to create a Plan B.

Unfortunately, Plan B created conflict that ended up lasting for many months.

I didn’t have a cell phone that worked in Europe back then, and if I had one, church leaders could have contacted me and the whole conflict could have been averted.

But the longer a pastor is away, the greater the chance that disgruntled people will start opposing him behind his back.

My wife and I twice visited a church recently where the pastor was teaching Christian leaders in Europe.  At each service, a video clip was played of the pastor greeting the congregation and briefly describing his ministry overseas.

I thought to myself, “That’s really smart.  It seems like the pastor is looking at us … even though he can’t see us … and we can see him as well.  It’s a reminder that he’s the pastor and that he’ll soon return.”

If a pastor knows he can trust the church staff and church board, then he can go away for a few weeks without fear.  But if has any doubts at all … it’s better to take shorter trips.

Finally, conflict is likely when just one staff member rebels.

It’s my belief that when a pastor hires a staff member, that person needs to be 100% loyal to him, both in public and in private.

And if that staff member can no longer demonstrate loyalty, he or she should resign and leave the church.

A disgruntled staff member should not stay at the church … should not spread their discontent to other staff … should not meet with a board member and trash the pastor … and above all, should not lead a rebellion against the pastor.

But I’ve been hearing more and more stories of staff rebellion, and it troubles me greatly.

In some cases, a staff member will claim that the pastor hurt his/her feelings, so they are justified in resisting the pastor’s leadership.

In other cases, a staff member starts to believe that he/she is more competent than the pastor … a sure sign that staff member should find another position somewhere else.

But in still more cases, a staff member believes that he or she should become the pastor, so they use any and every means necessary to push out the pastor.

For the life of me, I can’t understand this thinking.

In such cases, I always go back to the story of Moses and Korah in Numbers 16.

Moses was a deeply flawed leader.  He was reluctant to serve … very old … prone to frustration … and wasn’t leading Israel anywhere productive.

Korah, Dathan, and Abiram – members of Moses’ staff – led a rebellion against him … and felt they had every right to do so.

But when the ground later opened up, Moses was the only leader still standing on solid ground.


And the same thing is true today.  Regardless of a pastor’s personality flaws or creeping age, if God has called that person to be the pastor, then staff members either need to follow him or resign.

But if a staff member resists the pastor’s leadership … or openly rebels against him … his/her actions will become known, and send the signal to others, “We don’t have to follow the pastor’s leadership anymore.  We can all rebel.”

And World War 3 will break out in that church.

Church leaders can write policy manuals that hope to cover every possible situation, but regardless of their detailed planning, some anxiety-provoking event will always surface in a congregation.

Long beforehand, the wise pastor will tell his people:

“Not everything will go perfectly in this church.  No matter how well we plan, we will occasionally experience bumps and glitches along the road.  But when those situations occur, let’s resolve together to stay calm, to talk things out, to confess our shortcomings, and to forgive each other.  If we do that, we’ll triumph regardless of the issue.”

While we can’t stop anxiety from invading a congregation, wise leaders acknowledge that anxiety … bringing the level of conflict down … which enables God’s people to create spiritual and rational decisions rather than emotional and drastic ones.

What is the anxiety level of your congregation these days?
















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My wife recently gave me a unique birthday gift: a three-hour “Tragical History Tour” of infamous locations in Hollywood appropriately called “Dearly Departed Tours.”

We saw the house where Michael Jackson died … the bungalow where John Belushi died … and the hotel room where Janis Joplin died … and heard some gruesome but fascinating narration.

While it all sounds a bit morbid, we also saw the Cunningham’s house from the TV show Happy Days and many other memorable locations in the greater Hollywood area.

All this got me to thinking: what if I took you on a tour of churches in your community?  The narration might go something like this:

Welcome to the Church Conflict Tour!  My name is Jim, and for the next 90 minutes, we’ll visit four churches in your community, as well as hear the back story behind their histories.  Since this tour frightens some people, I want you to know that once we leave our beginning point, you must complete the tour.

The first church we’re going to visit is Trinity Bible, the tall white building on your immediate left.  Back in 1994, Pastor Don tried to update the music and add video screens so the church could attract the unchurched.

The governing board voted unanimously to support Pastor Don’s vision, and for two years, the church grew from 211 to 326.  But several vocal members opposed Pastor Don and complained to their friends on the board, threatening to leave the church if Pastor Don didn’t quit.  When the board succumbed and asked Pastor Don for his resignation, he complied.

See the parking lot there that’s overgrown with weeds?  That’s where many of the discussions opposing Pastor Don took place.  And the chipped paint on the sanctuary walls … the overgrown bushes and grass … and the deteriorating church sign all indicate that this church is just a ghost of its former self.

Now barely 45 people attend the church, which is composed primarily of people who don’t have families and consider this church their family.  And Pastor Don?  He’s selling insurance, trying desperately to make ends meet.

The lesson from this church?  It’s far better for the governing board to follow their pastor than chronic complainers.

The second church is about a mile away and is called Unity Baptist.  The church began in a storefront in 2002 when Pastor Rick – who had recently graduated from seminary – moved to our community with his wife and baby daughter.

Pastor Rick wanted his church to be characterized by love, which is why he called the church Unity Baptist.

Things went well for the first four years.  The church grew from a core group of 18 to 163 people on Sundays.  People were coming to Christ … serving with joy … and enjoying the fellowship.

But a faction arose within the church and opposed Pastor Rick’s ministry.  There were only six of them, but they were aggressive and determined to bring down Pastor Rick.  At first, they were very quiet … researching his background, contacting his previous churches, and looking online for any dirt they could find about him.

Then the rumors began: Pastor Rick was lazy … he was buying his sermons online … he was really a dictator … and on and on.

The rumors spread throughout the church, and by the time Pastor Rick heard them, too many people believed the lies.

Pastor Rick was never given a chance to respond to anything said about him.  He was never allowed to face his accusers.  And no one ever produced any evidence that the charges were true.

So Pastor Rick resigned.  His wife was devastated, and began drinking heavily to medicate her pain.  The couple are still married, but they’re a shell of their former selves.

After Pastor Rick left in 2006, the church has had three more pastors … two of them pushed out by the same faction.  With only 22 attendees left, the people are discussing closing their doors.

The lesson?  At the first sign of vicious rumors against the pastor, insist that those making charges meet with the pastor and governing board and make their accusations to his face … or leave the church.

Just two more churches to go.  You there … you can’t leave the van while I’m driving!  Only 40 minutes to go.

The third church today is Serene Community.  The church began in a school but moved to a light industrial building in their eighth year.  The church was 14 years old when Dr. Steve was called as pastor in 2005.  Under Steve’s leadership, the church grew from 273 to 681 people in just six years.  In 2011, this was THE church in town to attend.

Dr. Steve had two teenage sons: Robert and Jake.  Unfortunately, Robert was caught one day after school smoking pot.  Pastor Steve and his wife went to the police station and brought him home, but the news spread quickly throughout the community, and within a week, there were calls for Steve to resign.  Some people said he couldn’t manage his family.

Steve knew nothing about Robert’s “problem,” and when he found out, he took swift but loving steps to keep his son drug-free, including counseling.  But some people in the church pounced on this news and wanted Steve removed from office at once.  One group of about twenty people stopped attending and giving until Steve was dismissed.  When that didn’t work, they began demanding that Robert “repent” of his sin in front of the entire congregation.

Steve was torn between his calling and his family.  When the board wouldn’t stand up for him, Steve negotiated a severance package and left the church quietly.

Meanwhile, most of the people at the church were devastated by what happened.  The serenity at Serene Community quickly disappeared, and for the next two years, those who supported Pastor Steve refused to interact with those who opposed him.  In the end, most of the happy, healthy people left the church, and the church faced some rough days.  Within another two years, the church had dwindled down to barely 100 people.

Ironically, two of the leaders who had opposed Steve ended up having teenagers who also had drug problems.  They didn’t ask their kids to repent in front of the church, and they didn’t view themselves as poor parents.

Pastor Steve went back to school, earned a PhD, and is teaching at a Bible college in the Midwest.  Although he still loves Jesus, he attends church sporadically, but spends lots of time with his family … including Robert, who just married a fine Christian woman.

The lesson?  Only a congregation that extends grace to their pastor is deserving of the name Serenity.

Finally, let’s drive by Christ Church.  See it there on the right?

Christ Church was founded by Pastor Garth in 1997.  The church grew steadily until 2001 when The Group began making accusations against Garth.

They claimed that he didn’t show his emotions when he preached … that he was ignoring some of the older members … and that he was making changes too quickly, among other things.

Up until this time, the church had grown from a handful of people to 475.  But when the complaints began, the church stopped growing and began declining … and The Group laid the decline squarely at Pastor Garth’s feet.

Fortunately, Pastor Garth had taught his people from Scripture how to handle conflict situations.  When members of The Group complained to board members about their pastor, the board members all said, “Let’s go speak with Pastor Garth about that issue.”  In every case, The Group members backed down.

Then they called the district minister of the denomination and complained to him, but he stood solidly behind Pastor Garth as well.

The Group then began circulating emails filled with gossip and innuendo, implying that Pastor Garth was having an affair.  When one of the emails was sent to a board member, he tracked down where it originated, called another board member, and made an immediate visit to the home of the complainer.  After listening to her complaints for 30 minutes, the two board members told her: “If you want to stay in this church, then we ask that you stop your complaining right now, confess your wrongdoing, and support our pastor completely.  If you don’t repent, we will return with a third board member and you will be asked to leave the church.  Do you understand?”

She never attended the church again … and mysteriously, all the complaining instantly ceased.

Just like in Acts 6, once the conflict was resolved, the church exploded with growth, and last year, Christ Church became the largest church in our city, reaching nearly 1800 people every weekend with the Word of God.

The lesson?  When rumors about a pastor begin, they must be dealt with swiftly and firmly or the pastor may be forced to leave … and the church will take a nosedive as well.

As we drive up to our starting point, that completes our Church Conflict Tour.  I’d like to say, “I hope you enjoyed yourself,” but maybe I should say, “I hope you learned how to handle church conflict much better” instead!




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