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Posts Tagged ‘managing church conflict politically or spiritually’

Not long ago, I heard about a church that held a members only meeting.  The leaders said that several members had engaged in serious sinful practices and had been placed under discipline in hopes that they would repent and eventually rejoin the fellowship.

The wayward members were named and their sins were specified.  But the leaders also took pains to delineate the process they had used in each case to try and win back their brothers and sisters.

The process they used was based on Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17, which begins:

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.  If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” 

Sadly, since there wasn’t any repentance from the disciplined members, the leaders were engaging in Jesus’ last step: “tell it to the church.”

I was shocked when I heard about this meeting, not because the leaders did anything wrong, but because they did everything right.

In a nutshell, they handled matters spiritually … not politically.

But too often in our day, when a church board is upset with their pastor, they approach matters politically rather than spiritually … and in the process, devastate the pastor, his family, the congregation … and the leaders themselves.

Let me give you an example:

Chris has been the lead pastor of Harmony Church for seven years.  The church has grown under his leadership and become one of the most effective churches in their community.

In October, a group of fifteen people ask for a meeting with Martin, Harmony’s board chairman.  They agree to meet at the home of Carl, the group’s leader.

The Group of Fifteen recites a list of things they don’t like about Pastor Chris, including:

*the way he dresses when he preaches.

*occasional references to his favorite sports teams.

*the kind of car he drives.

*the haircut his fourth grade son sports.

*the fact that his wife doesn’t work outside the home, which all the women in the Group do.

And on and on and on …

Martin tries defending Pastor Chris several times, but finally, Carl throws down an ultimatum:

“Martin, we’re telling you right now: either Pastor Chris goes, or we go, and if we go, we’re going to form a new church nearby and take as many people as we can with us.”

Martin looks around at the fifteen people in Carl’s living room and feels sick inside.  The chairman feels that the ministry is going well … that Pastor Chris has been a solid leader and preacher … and that the Group is overreacting.

But he doesn’t tell them that.  Instead, Martin says, “Let me speak with the other board members and I’ll get back to you.”

Martin quickly decides to call a meeting of the nine-member board without Pastor Chris’ knowledge.  When Martin reveals the conversation he had with the Group, he’s disheartened to hear that four board members agree with Carl’s complaints … and add some of their own.

As the board talks into the night, Martin feels increasingly helpless.  He doesn’t want to fight.  He just wants peace.  But the more adamantly the four board members make their case against Chris, the more Martin senses that several other board members are now wilting.

After closing in prayer, Martin asks the board members to keep everything confidential and to meet again the following Saturday morning at a restaurant outside of town.

When Saturday rolls around, Martin discovers that the four board members who oppose Chris have successfully persuaded two more members to join their cause.  Only Martin and two other members support their pastor … and even then, their support seems tepid.

Several hours later, the board has agreed to ask Pastor Chris for his resignation and to give him a three-month severance package.  Because most board members don’t want to go on record against Chris, they ask that Martin and Jeff – the most outspoken member – deliver the bad news.  In the name of unity, Martin reluctantly agrees.

The following Monday night, Martin and Jeff meet with their pastor in his study.  They tell him:

*there are people in the church who are against you.

*some board members think your time at the church is up.

*the board is asking for your resignation.

*you will be given a three-month severance package if you resign tonight.

*if you don’t resign tonight, we will fire you without any severance.

Chris is both angry and devastated.  He feels betrayed.  He didn’t see this ambush coming.

He asks the two men, “Will you give me 48 hours to think and pray about this?”

They answer, “No.  Our proposal is final.  Take it or leave it.”

Not knowing how to support his family financially without any severance, Chris takes the deal, and promises his written resignation the following morning.

Having operated politically to force out Chris, the board continues to handle matters politically to cover up their involvement in Chris’ resignation.

Over the next three months:

*Attendance plunges nearly 50% while giving shrinks by 40%.

*The best people in the church leave while the malcontents remain.

*Parts of the children’s ministry and youth group are shut down due to lack of volunteers.

*Pastor Chris and his family move to another state and move in with Chris’ brother.  Chris takes a job as an overnight custodian to support his family.  His wife becomes suicidal.  His children vow they will never attend church again anywhere.

*The district minister intervenes and tries to get Burt – his oldest friend – a job as interim pastor.

*Watching the fallout, three of the board members and nine of the Fifteen leave the church anyway.

*The board becomes so overwhelmed without Pastor Chris’ leadership that they regret forcing him out.

But this sad story never had to happen.

Let me share five mistakes that Martin made because he operated politically rather than spiritually:

First, Martin should have stopped the Grievance Festival at Carl’s house after the first few complaints.  He should have told the Group:

“According to Scripture, a pastor should only be disqualified from ministry if he has committed a major offense without repentance.  Do you have any evidence that Pastor Chris has committed such a major offense?  Has he engaged in heretical teaching … sexual immorality … criminal behavior?”

Since the answer would be a reluctant “No,” Martin should have continued:

“Here’s our policy at Harmony Church.  According to Matthew 18:15, if you have a personal concern with anyone in the body, including the pastor, you need to speak with him directly or let it go.  This covers matters like the way he dresses and the car he drives.  I don’t tell you how to look or what to drive, and we aren’t going to do that to Pastor Chris.”

“Next, if you have a policy concern, you may speak with any board member (because we make policy together), and we will either answer you immediately or bring your concern to the next meeting.  Before I leave, I need assurance that you will do what I ask and not take this any further.  Agreed?”

If I were Martin, I’d go around the room and make sure that each person agreed.  If anyone refused, I’d let them know that I was bringing their name before the board, that Pastor Chris would be in that meeting, and if they caused any trouble, they would be brought before the board for discipline.

But because Martin let the complaining fester, he threw his pastor to the wolves.

Second, Martin should have disagreed with Carl’s assessment of Chris’ ministry on the spot.

The chairman should have said, “While I understand your concerns, Carl, I believe the ministry has been going very well, and that Pastor Chris is the right man at this time in our church’s history.  I support our pastor fully.”

Then he should add, “If you believe that God is leading you to leave the church, then leave quietly.  If you’re just frustrated, then stay and work things out.  If your children were having trouble at school or work, you would probably counsel them to stay and talk things out.  If you’re determined to leave, I won’t stop you, but if you’re determined to make trouble, then I recommend that you all leave … tomorrow.”

But by not speaking up for Pastor Chris, Martin’s silence emboldened the Group, who figured they were starting to turn the chairman their way.  Martin’s reluctance to stand up for Chris also later empowered them to recruit several board members to their line of thinking.

Third, Martin should have informed Pastor Chris of the meeting right away.  

But because he failed to inform his pastor about the plot, Martin deprived himself of Chris’ training, wisdom, experience, and resources in handling what was really a coup.

And because Martin kept things to himself, he felt overburdened and anxious.  By the time he met with the board, he just wanted the whole thing to go away.

I once pastored a church where a group of malcontents called a secret meeting to list various complaints against me.  The board chairman not only told me about the meeting, he found out the place and time and showed up for the meeting unannounced.  His presence was so disconcerting that the group cancelled their meeting.

In another church, the chairman called to let me know that an older woman was very angry with me.  He stood up for me and told her how to handle things but wanted me to know there might be trouble on the horizon.

When a board chairman stands up for his pastor, the bond between them grows stronger, and most of the time, with the chairman’s support, the pastor can withstand any coup.  But when the chairman goes silent – or wilts – one can sense the devil sneaking in the church’s back door.

Division has begun.

Fourth, Martin should have researched and presented to the board a process for handling the complaints against Pastor Chris. 

The issue is not, “Should Pastor Chris stay?”  It’s much too soon to even talk about that question.

The issue is instead, “What process will we use to evaluate the complaints against our pastor?”

When the discussion goes right to “should he stay or go?” the approach will be political.

But when the discussion launches into “what process will we use?” the approach will tend to be spiritual.

The political approach to charges against a pastor involves:

*hyper-scrutinizing his life, family, and ministry for petty offenses … then throwing all those offenses at the wall as if to say, “How can such a flawed person lead our church?”

*letting people pile complaint upon complaint without evaluating their veracity.

*allowing people to make charges behind the pastor’s back but not to his face.

*attacking his humanity as if he were pure evil.

*forcing him to quit, and if necessary, destroying his reputation and career.

The spiritual approach to charges against a pastor involves:

*only allowing immediate dismissal for a major offense such as heresy or sexual immorality.

*asking each person who makes a charge, “What evidence do you have that your charge is accurate?”

*letting the pastor meet his accusers and allowing him to respond directly to their complaints (most will never do this).

*reminding people that the pastor is a flawed sinner like everybody else and that he’s a pastor because God called and gifted him … not because he thinks he’s better than others.

*extending a pastor God’s love, mercy, and grace as Galatians 6:1,2 specifies.

Finally, Martin must make sure that both the pastor and his detractors operate out of the spiritual realm.

We expect pastors to operate spiritually.  We expect them to obey Scripture, pray through their decisions, admit when they’re wrong, love people rather than harm them, and seek restoration rather than destruction.

But 95% of the time, a pastor’s detractors operate politically.  They gather together, organize, list complaints, plot, agree on an action plan, and attack, attack, attack.

In other words, a pastor’s detractors use power and control to get the outcome they desire: his departure from their church.

But most pastors aren’t trained to operate politically, so they’re at a disadvantage … and God forbid that the pastor use that same power!

When a pastor is under attack, he can’t lay down the ground rules for the conflict.  He’s so wounded he can barely function.

So the church board – supposedly composed of godly individuals – has to make sure that the conflict is handled spiritually.

This means that the board members must:

*consult their Bibles for wisdom.

*spend time in prayer and listening to God.

*operate by their church’s governing documents.

*slow down rather than speed up the process.

*seek what is best for the congregation, not just their own group.

*do what is right before God rather than being intimidated by who or how many are complaining.

If the board operates politically rather than spiritually, they end up siding with the pastor’s detractors by default.

If the board operates spiritually, they may lose a few people, but they will protect and preserve their congregation …and hopefully, their pastor.

Now here’s the deal: God cannot and will not bless this church … or any church … until it stops operating politically and starts acting spiritually.

And in most cases, the church can’t operate spiritually until those who operated politically admit their wrongdoing and seek forgiveness from everyone … including their former pastor.

When I went through a severe church conflict nearly seven years ago, a pastor read me the following verses from James 3:15-18:

Such wisdom does not come down from heaven, but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 

Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

There’s a lot to absorb here, but I have a single question for you:

When there is a conflict in your church, will your board act politically or spiritually?

The answer to that question may very well determine your church’s health and future.

But here’s an even more personal question:

When there is a conflict in your ministry, will you act politically or spiritually?

The answer may very well determine your health and future as well.

 

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