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How To Survive A Split

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 15

The loss of a major portion of a congregation resulting from major (level 4+) conflict can be the most trying experience in ones life. It will test your spiritual character and your physical and emotional stability in ways you never imagined. Like Peter, you will be "sifted like wheat"
 
What can you do to survive?
 
1) Remember The "Peak To Peak" Principle.
 
Robert Schuler’s "Peak to Peak Principle" says that when we are down in the valleys we should change ourselves. Then, after we’ve made adjustments, we climb back up the next peak. When we’re at the peak--when everything is going well—is the time to change direction, churches, or leadership styles. Don’t immediately change churches, resign or give up. Wait until you’re back on the peak if possible before making any drastic life changes.
2) Work A "Normal" Full-time Schedule.
 
Do not succumb to pressures of guilt and emotional obsessions to try to "fix" everything by overcompensating with enormous resources of time and energy. On the other hand, don't withdraw or shrink from your regular responsibilities. Save your "after 40 hour work week" energy for maintaining your own self in conflict. Take some time off—morning, afternoon, whatever—and get away. See Rick Warren's suggestion in Ministry Health Snippets.
3) Pray…
But in a different way than you are accustomed. Devote a half-hour at a regular time slot and go into a chapel, take a prayer walk, or whatever. Just be careful not to let your prayer time become a depressing brooding time. Use the crisis as an opportunity to develop your faith in with a more spiritual understanding and connectedness with God.
 
Discerned reading of spiritual literatures will help to deepen your understanding of faith. An outstanding place to start is a consideration of Scott Peck’s Road Less Traveled. Though his Christianity is certainly not orthodox, his insights into the experience of faith and life's difficulties can be remarkable.
4) Start a Bible Study on Suffering.
 
Those who would wish to support you, but don’t know how, may find attending a Bible Study on Revelation 2-3, I Peter, II Timothy, et al. a wonderful way to support you. As they grow, they will be there to pray and support you enthusiastically after the dust settles. Be sure to check out Ministry Health Archive entitled, "Principles of Suffering."
 
 
5) Repeatedly Clarify and Communicate the Congregation’s Mission.
 
Conflict often may arise because a congregation’s ministry is not well-defined and articulated. Denominational specialists in missions and evangelism can help in remarkable ways by leading seminars, workshops, etc. highlighting, clarifying and communicating the church’s mission. Sermon series on outreach are also helpful.
 
6) Don’t Triangulate.
 
People will follow the leader...especially in conflict. People—even those supporting you—will be watching and evaluating whether you are trustworthy in the way you communicate with (and about) others, observe confidentiality and, in general, avoid slander, put-downs, etc. Don’t let them down.
 
Your model will be the seed for the communication patterns to prevail when the post-split healing begings. Communicate your stress to confidential outsiders. Counselors are best; Wives, secretaries and staff members ought be spared the continued, unending unloading of emotion that often accompanies stress.
 
7) Attend Conflict Training Events.
 
Psychological Studies (Bloomfield Hills, MI) and Lombard Mennonite Peace Center are two outstanding opportunities to learn about conflict and leadership. Contact your denomination or judicatory for a listing of various types of trainings. Internet searches can also be helpful. Various events will also be publicized through Ministry Health E-mail newsletter and those of other related sites.
 
In general, any type of professional growth program from attending seminars to getting another academic degree can be helpful by stimulating growth, reflection and giving opportunities for growth.
 
8) Read.
 
Reading also helps to give "handles" to work through the grief, guilt (earned or unearned), confusion and self-doubt. Some of the best readings suggested might include Friedman’s Generation to Generation, Alban Institute Publications, and readings on co-dependencies (especially those published by Health Publications, Deerfield Beach, Florida). Charles Stanley also has good spiritual resources (e.g. Advancing Through Adversity, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996). After the conflict is over, resolve to attend at least one conflict training per year.
 
 
9) Evaluate Your Expectations.
 
Some of the most devastating emotional downturns result from dashed expectations. In the "calm before the storm" when everything seems to be going soooo well, our expectations can rise to great heights. The storm which comes knocks us from these highest heights to fall to depths we’ve never before experienced.
 
 
10) See Your Doctor Immediately.
 
Stress usually causes physiological symptoms. Get a full physical. Check your blood pressure. If you are feeling tired, moving slower than normal, forgetful, feeling apathetic, angry, etc., you’re likely depressed. Ask your doctor for a mild anti-depressant such as Zoloft. St. John's Wort can be an inexpensive effective alternative for those without insurance to cover prescriptions.
 
For anxiety, Paxil is often used and is supposedly better than Xanax which is addictive and generally considered best for short term use (6-8 weeks). Temporarily taking prescripbed medications for the duration of the conflict can keep your body from becoming burned out and can help you keep a "non-anxious presence" so necessary in conflict. Such medications will also enable you to experience a quicker recovery for the rebuilding period following the split.
11) See A Professional Therapist.
The most valuable confidant and support is a competent professional therapist with whom you can discuss, rag, vent, cry, and complain—without unfairly bearing on others. Even best friends and family members have their limits. In personal grief and anguish, be a friend to your friends and don’t burden them with everything you feel. (cf. Ministry Health article #14,  "Five Types of Necessary Coping Relationships").
12) Evaluate Your Leadership Style.
 
Are you co-dependent? Do you care too much for people? Are you too aloof? Do you tend not to delegate? Do you have a disregard for authority and accountability? Are there personal issues from your past which affect your leadership style?
 
There are many good books on personal and leadership issues. Read some and be open to an honest scrutiny of yourself. Some resources such as Injoy Leadership tapes can be helpful and motivational, but can leave one with a sense of guilt and failure.
13) Join A Secular Club/Take Up A Hobby.
 
The key here is to get into something totally unrelated to the church. Try to find a club that is not local where no members or others who know you will be there. That way you can be yourself, relax, and enjoy the affirmation of a "normal" atmosphere where you can be affirmed, respected, and enjoyed for who--not what--you are.
14) Remember Rule #6.
 
This rule was popularized by the sainted Dr. Martin Scharlemann, former professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO. Rule #6 is "Don’t take yourself too seriously." And what are Rules 1-5? His response? "It doesn’t matter."
15) Finally Trust--Really Trust--God’s Leading.
 
Jesus promised that "He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). Let go of your own control and simply trust God's promise.
 
Churches are very hardy, tenacious, and enduring organizations. That's why they become so entrenched in the dysfunctions and traditions they have! But it's also a positive, too. Such tenacity is God's way of preserving His Church...even through storm.
 
After the storm, you will clearly see how God’s rainbow of promise and renewal on you and your church. Let go, be patient, and let God transform both you and His church before your very eyes!
 
Certainly here are many other things that might also be helpful. This is just a start. But be sure to remember that you’re not alone. As John Maxwell once noted,

Whenever you’re thinking about the 20-30 people in your church who are always grumbling, just think of Moses. He had 1.5 million
grumbling Children of Israel with him every day for 40 years!

Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:36 PM