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

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Congregational Splits:
Seventeen Lessons In The Aftermath

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

Number 102

1) God Builds His Church. He Really Does!
 
After severe conflicts and/or splits, the church which survives and thrives serves as a living testimony or monument of God's faithfulness. No longer is it just a building. It's a monument, a stone and mortar testament, that God has acted in a powerful, undeniable manner to build His church through you and others.
 
2) God Is In Control--Not You.
 
Whenever conflict ensues, things tend to get out of control. Some would think that the greater the conflict, the greater the experience of a loss of control. It's not true. The lesson of conflict is simply the lesson one should have learned in more peaceable times. You are not in control. You never were, you aren't now, and you never will be. God is.
Proverbs says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, the laborer [i.e. pastor] builds in vain." Congregational splits and conflict are simply God's way of wresting the church away from the Pastor's strength and submitting it to His control. Yes, you have to Let Go and let God. If you can't do it willingly--or if you think you have already done it--let God put you to the test. Conflict and dissension are that test. Those who "pass" always learn the most important lesson: God is in control, not you.
 
3) God Really Is In Control.
 
Through all the chaos, the unpredictability, and the anxiety, it's easy to doubt God. It's easy to wonder if He really cares. As offerings drop precipiticiously, membership losses dwindle with no end in sight, and the fires of conflict continue to burn uncontrollably, you can feel so powerless.
 
If you need proof that He is in control, consider this: It is in your overwhelming awareness of powerlessness that God has brought you exactly to the point where He wants you. Now that He has brought you to the point of attention, He will teach you the greatest lesson of ministry: He is in Control. He really is! As Psalm 46 affirms, "The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our Refuge!" He is with us! He is our Refuge! He is in control!
 
4) You're Not As Strong As You Think You Are.
 
Conflict, rejection, disapproval, disappointment, and feelings of failure do take their toll. The human body and mind can take only so much before it reacts either by snapping into an anxious mental state or by starting to wear down.
 
The slow incremental wearing down which may be that which is most damaging to leaders in conflict. Since there is no sharp demarcation of the onset of mental health and its symptoms (e.g. depression, anxiety, obsessions, addictions, suicide, et al), some pastors may feel "pushed to the edge" and unable to hold up physically, mentally and spiritually.
 
At such times appropriate medication and professional therapy are essential interventions before pastors hit bottom (e.g. Paxil, Zoloft, et al)--and they will hit bottom--thoroughly exhausted, devastated and virtually ruined. Most important, however, is the recognition that every pastor has weaknesses.
 
When pastors must deal with their self-perceived weakness, they must give significant responsibilities to other leaders. They must challenge others to make a difference in those areas not specifically related to the calling of the pastoral office where, formerly, the pastor was making a difference.
 
When pastors feel they are not as strong as they think they are, they must recognize that this may be the way God is telling them they must lighten up, loosen up, and let go. They are forced to look outside of themselves. They must broaden their leadership base. They must delegate. They must let even ministry novices try, fail, and succeed. They must trust others.
 
They must be willing to give credit to others. They must be willing to share--or, at times, get out of--the limelight. Finally, they must be willing to enthusiastically and publicly celebrate God's working in them in their respective ministries.
 
5) Even In Your Weakness, With God You Are Stronger Than You Think You Are.
 
In your weakness, God will demonstrate His strength. But He can only do that, humanly speaking, if we patiently wait, persevere and hold out hope. God will work through our special calling to weakness to change, mold and shape us as we have need. Let go. No matter how much time God uses or needs, let God work. Then, in seeing His work, you will learn just how really, really powerful God is and how He can work that power in you!

6) Pastors Cannot Survive Splits Without Access To Competent Christian Professional Counseling.

Seeking counsel is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of strength. As faith is rooted in confession and absolution, admission and healing, so pastors need a real confidant with whom they can totally, absolutely and safely pour out their souls just like parishioners do.
 
Congregational conflict can be especially distressing to the pastor's spouse, family, supportive staff members and friends. Though these individuals and others may want to give support, they have finite capacities. Recognize that and get key support from a counseling professional and those ready, willing and fit to be part of the necessary coping relationship network.
 
7) There Is A Lag Time Between The Congregation's Healing And Your Healing.
 
The Pastor may be the first one to see trouble coming.  When such is the case, the pastor not only feels the pain first, but the pastor feels it alone. After the conflict, the pastor may be the last to heal. Having directed so many energies to the healing of the organization, the pastor may have not taken the necessary time in crisis to regenerate.
 
There may be a significant time of intense grief, rejection and disappointment before the pastor feels back to his "normal" self.  Sometimes that lag time may last months or several years. Let it happen. You will heal. The healing will have, as its greatest resolution, the realization that God used the crisis as a catalyst for your spiritual growth and transformation. As the healing occurs, this awareness becomes a profound source of confidence in God, in your calling, and in your Christian joy.
 
8) Once Burned, Twice Shy.
 
The memories and impact of a split can have a lifelong impact. The experience of the pain, the hurt and the intense feelings may remain vivid for a considerable time. The memories can last forever.
 
Even as pastors start to lead the congregation to rebuilding and renewal, they may feel a sense of hesitancy not felt before. Such is an indication that the grief has not yet reached resolution. After the grief, leaders may be tempted to hold back and be less passionate in their ministry zeal.
 
Avoid the temptation to shyness. Be prudent, but don't be overly cautious. Take risks, but count the cost prior to exercising the risk. Pastors are change agents. Recall and resume this essential basis of your calling as soon as possible.
 
9) The Lay Leaders Must Bear The Weight Of The Ministry.
 
A pastor cannot do it himself. The fewer the number of leaders, the greater the temptations for pastors to bear the whole load by themselves. Unfortunately, the very second a pastor succumbs to this temptation, the pastor may 1) begin to sign his life away to the control of others, and 2) introduce long-term instability in the congregation by making it dependent on himself.
 
Under most normal circumstances, if the members of the congregation are not committed enough to carry out their respective ministry responsibilities, the pastor does the church a great disservice by doing it for them. In so doing the pastor also does a great disservice for the Ministerial Office in that place by reducing or expanding it far beyond the appropriate Scriptural understanding and mandate for the ministerial office and that of the laity.
 
10) Dysfunctional Churches Cannot Grasp A Healthy Ministry Vision.
 
Perhaps there are two main reasons people persist in addictive behaviors. First, because they cannot imagine themselves not being addicted. Second, because they lack the necessary energy, vitality and interest in making the painful change away from addiction.
 
In the same way, dysfunctional congregations can become addicted to low morale, low self-esteem, indifference, anger and self-defeating behaviors. The greater the time and intensity of these dysfunctional dynamics, the greater the difficulties one may experience in trying to promote a healthy vision among them regardless of the skills and vision of the pastor.
 
In extremely dysfunctional churches (e.g. churches with history of serial pastoral resignations, repeated and serial splits, etc.), conflict--albeit extreme--may be the only way to break the addictive dysfunction. If such occurs, recognize that the pastor's role in conflict is like that of a counselor. Use the pain of conflict as a means of directing the congregation to healing.
 
Throughout the conflict, redundantly restate God's purpose and vision for the church. Utilize as many and varied resources and experiences as possible to uphold the healthy vision. Use the services of denominational executives, guest preachers, hold workshops, Bible studies, all directed for this purpose. Then, when the fire burns out, what will remain is the beginning of a new "fire" of ministry based on the vision which God has given through the conflict.
 
(For more information on dysfunctional churches, see Ministry Health's Articles,   Five Types Of Congregational Dysfunction, Characteristics Of Dysfunctional Churches, and the The Dysfunctional Church Inventory.)
 
 
11) The Pastor's Appropriate Active Role Is In Word And Sacrament Ministry.
 
The pastor is not the janitor, the secretary, the fix-it man, the errand runner, the lawn-mower, snow-shoveler, greeter, musician, usher, and overall trustee responsible for everything and everyone. God's plan for the church was for pastors to do the "work of ministry." This does not mean that the pastor is aloof, uninvolved, or able to have an "easy" ministry; nor does it mean that he must be a part of every decision and working of the church.
 
What it does mean is that the Pastor, more than anyone else, must be a living proof that one can trust in the working of God through Word and Sacrament in His church. Whether it's preaching, teaching, worship, small group ministry, prayers, or administration, people need to see that their pastor really believes--and lives and leads by--an unshakable conviction of the Gospel as the exclusive effective power of God to build His church.
 
12) God's Calling For You Is Not Yours To Decide.
 
Often pastors may find themselves confused about their calling. Though they know they are called, they may lack confidence regarding what specifics God desires of them in their given location.
 
But God knows. His plan for us may be that we, like Jeremiah, lay waste or destroy, tear down or ruin, or build or plant. What may surprise us is that when we think we are building, what has been built is torn down. Why? Because that was God's calling for us. Whatever the specific ministry calling, often it's only from hindsight that we gain the best perspective on what God had really called us to. Whatever it was, it was not yours to decide. It was God's. That is why He allowed--and led--the results that occurred.
 
Therefore, rejoice! Whatever the results, God's Word has accomplished that which He determined and He did it through you. You may not have desired or decided that it should have be done that way. But remember. God's calling is His to decide, not yours!
 
13) Pastoral Attachments May Be Fragile.
 
Conflict disrupts relationships by inciting varieties of stress shifts. These shifts, as indicated in  Ministry Health Article #81 How To Deal With Dr. Jerkily-Mr. Hyde, can totally change the ways individuals and confidants respond to pastors and vice-versa.
 
Every individual in the church has various stress tolerances which vary from situation to situation. Because of this, things may become very difficult when issues arise in which pastoral confidants must choose between their lifetime church friends and their pastor.
 
Things may also become difficult when trusted confidants in the past disagree with the ministry direction after the split. They may also feel slighted by the pastor, especially if they had expectations that their faithful support of the pastor in the past was a guarantee that they would have special pastoral influence for the future.
 
As pastors can never be sure of the ministry horizons that God may bring with new leaders, pastoral attachments often carry with them a built-in fragility. Must you depend on them? To a great extent, probably yes. But don't bet your bank, your self-esteem, and your spiritual, emotional, and psychological well-being on them. If you do, you may open yourself up to significant hurt.
14) Denominational Support Is There.
 
Denominational staff are gifted, willing and able to provide necessary personal and pastoral support according to their gifts. Some are able and willing to give encouragement and guidance. Others are extraordinarily gifted reconcilers. These gifts are essential bases of support and leadership in crisis.
 
Though the search for a supportive, competent executive to help may be exhausting and troubling, don't ever give up. Your ability to survive, humanly speaking, is greatly curtailed if the conflict is experienced without their assistance, support, prayers, insight and invaluable Christian support.
 
The greatest joy of conflict is that when you find a denominational professional to support, encourage and lead you through the trial, God will bless you with numerous experiences. He may give you a mentor. He may give you a confidant. With their insight, you may embark on the most significant learning experience of your life as you see how God can powerfully work through these special servants.
15) You May Have Potential For Out-Of-Control Emotions.
 
It doesn't matter how patient, caring, loving and full of the fruits of the Spirit you are. Severe conflict inevitably uncovers the things which cut to the heart of the most basic building blocks of our self-esteem. Rejection, disapproval, distrust, and abandonment issues are just some of the Knives which may affect and anger us in ways we never, ever,  imagined. Other issues relating to Adult Child dysfunctions may also become overwhelming factors.
 
"I can't understand it. I've never been angry like this before!" is a very common, though not unexpected, tell-tale reaction of pastors experiencing congregational crisis. Working through this anger and bringing it to resolution and releasing to the forgiving grace of God is, for some, the absolute most difficult experience of their lives. Yet, after this difficult work is completed, pastors will grow to an inestimably profound sense of the "depths of the riches and knowledge of God."
 
16) Congregational Conflict Is The Greatest Opportunity For Congregational Renewal.
 
Perhaps the Chinese know it best. Conflict is not bad; it's an opportunity. Though painful, conflict raises up leaders and human and spiritual resources not often seen in the church.
 
Pastors who are able to stay at the church through the entire conflict from ignition to resolution to restoration will have witnessed the singularly remarkable life-changing power of God's Word in others and themselves. In conflict, God raises up people that pastors and others would never expect to become important leaders and supporters of ministry. Be patient. Endure. Watch God's undeniable working in you and others and don't underestimate whom God may use to lead the renewal!

17) Congregational Conflict May Change The Character And Quality Of Your Spirituality.

Conflict, like all trials, may affect your spirituality. It may deepen your spirituality or it may make it more shallow. Whatever your connection and relationship to God was, conflict will test it. Conflict and intense ministry trauma can also set into motion an unprecedented deep spiritual search for meaning. "What's it all for?" "Is this all there is?" Such questioning is the undeniable indication that the spiritual journey of transformation has begun. Let it happen...and watch God transform you and your understanding of faith, grace and the ministry calling.
 
The Most Important Lesson
 
What's the most important lesson to learn from congregational splits?
 
It's simply this. Regardless of what happens in ministry, God is there. Because He is there you can celebrate that He is there guiding each individual event, moment, and action. Though it may not always be evident during the crisis, in the aftermath His presence and guidance in those events will be absolutely UNMISTAKABLE!!! The greater joy is to see how God, after healing has begun, brings renewal and vision to the ministry in ways that prior to the conflict were unimaginable.
 
For those able to patiently wait and ride it out, the greatest reward is the unique, spirit-transforming experience that results. "Grace will," affirms the hymn verse, "bring you home." 
 
Don't Quit
 
Crisis in your church may simply be God hitting a home run. Go ahead. Run the bases. All of them. It's your calling.
 
One of the biggest and most common mistakes is that pastors quit too quickly.
Don't quit. That's not where the joy is and it's not where the blessing is. It's certainly not where the fulfillment of His promise is. Remember this: God has hit the ball out of the ballpark. He's already hit the home run. Wouldn't it be stupid not to take advantage of the home run and not run all the bases until completion?
 
Is your ministry in crisis?  It may appear that way to you, but not to God. The ministry is really in renewal. God's already hit the home run. All you have to do is to run the bases and celebrate the victory He's given. Once you see God's victory, you'll anxiously await God's next major accomplishment: the grand slam! Wow! What opportunity for renewal!!!
 
"Batter up!"
 
Thomas F. Fischer
 
* Hyperlinks refer to related Ministry Health Articles. Articles are indexed at the Ministry Health Web Site.

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:37 PM