It has been said, “Soldiers fight the enemy on the front lines, but in the barracks, they fight each other.” Trouble always turns a church inward upon itself and when that happens each holds, ever so tightly, to their religious mask fearing the moment when their true self will be revealed.
Consider the monumental challenges pressed upon local churches during the recent pandemic. In the early months of the pandemic leaders were changing things almost daily and often without any opportunity to gain consensus. Even worse some churches didn’t gather for worship for many months, and let’s just admit it, Zoom didn’t fill in all the gaps.
Then, when churches resumed live worship attendance was down, relationships were uncomfortable, and there was an overwhelming sense that something just wasn’t right. Legions of ministers whose self-worth had been tied to attendance numbers no longer had these statistics by which to measure their value. What is the entrepreneurial pastor to do when they are called upon to shepherd the flock instead? How does the progressive ideolog suddenly transition from pundit to pastor? How could our ministerial pride deal with the embarrassment of less growth, or even worse, none?
Congregational lay leaders, who for years served diligently in one ministry program or another, suddenly found themselves with people-less programs. Classrooms were sparse, or worse, empty. Budgets had to be cut. Programs were suspended. Much like the Bill Gaither song, “All the marketplace was empty, no more traffic in the streets, all the builder’s tools are silent, no more time to harvest wheat—and suddenly the marketing tricks that worked so well for 20 years, no longer did. The uncertainty of a strange new era descended upon the church.
Having led in four successful revitalizations and one church re-plant ministry I believe I am qualified to at least make a few observations about the wounded shepherd and sheep. I hope that these observations will help others better navigate when wounding occurs inside their faith community.
Conflict affects communication, heightens emotions, divides friends, and destroys long-held relationships. I’ve seen this multiple times in five churches. Before the crisis, conversations were open and free filled with lighthearted jesting, life events, honest admissions, laughter, and shared experiences—but then conflict. In what seemed like only a day something unexpectedly had changed. Now there is an unspoken heaviness and a guardedness, overshadowing the fellowship.
People pause before they speak fearing how their words, or merely the tone of those words, will be heard or retold. The conversation is no longer happy and free, but instead agenda-oriented and issue-heavy. Just the perception of an odd word or turned phrase is enough to prompt detailed analysis and interpretation in a later conversation somewhere else.
A quick look around reveals one cluster talking in hushed tones down the hallway; another group huddling around a car long after service has ended; a trio lingering behind in the classroom after others have left, and sentences abruptly stopped when someone passes the select group. Even in worship an otherwise good sermon is seeded with passive-aggressive words, reactionary tones, and innuendos.
A bird’s eye view of the larger life of the worshipping community reveals that this cancerous conflict is not merely disrupting Sunday, it has invaded the community. The far-reaching tentacles of “the issue” now extend to restaurants, golf courses, school events, athletic games, and even into the bedrooms and living rooms of the flock. The Puritan Thomas Brooks wrote this in his work, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.
“Satan has his devices to destroy the saints’ and one great device that he has to destroy the saints is, by working Christians to first find another strange then to divide, and then to make them bitter and jealous, and then they will bite and devour one another.”[i]
Sadly, even after the conflict has passed the residual effects of the wound remain. I once heard a congregant say, “I can live with them going to another church but what hurts so much is that I never see them, and we never talk anymore. We were friends for 15 years.”
This doesn’t have to be. Healing begins with the act of forgiving even the most painful wounding from the dearest friend. Paul reminds us that true love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
Here are three lessons I have learned about church conflict.
Lesson #1. When a church is wounded, everyone is wounded. Trouble never happens in a vacuum. Every individual, leader, or laity not only plays some role in the drama, but they also often become disoriented through it.
Leadership says, "It is our job to fix the trouble." So, the call is made, “There is an emergency leadership team meeting tonight!” Everyone gathers and the conversation is about blame, best practices, and being bold. Attempting to manage the situation with as little fallout as possible, leadership seeks to find a way of using their power to resolve the tension.
The meetings of the laity are unofficial but no less critical. These occur in the ordinary contexts of gatherings, coincidental encounters, and casual conversations. “So-in-so leader has done a number on this church.” “This would have never happened under X.” “We need to get rid of...” In very informal ways the laity, much like the leadership, attempts to resolve the tension through the power it possesses.
In 1957 psychologist Leon Festinger published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. He theorized that cognitive dissonance occurs when people act contrary to their beliefs. He proposed that the degree of dissonance (or discomfort) experienced is directly proportional to the type and value of the beliefs contradicted in behavior—the disparity between action and belief. The greater the distance between the two, the greater the dissonance.
Festinger further theorized that when cognitive dissonance happens most people have an internal impulse to relieve the discomfort and resolve the dissonance. He called this instinct the “principle of cognitive consistency.” People want the conflict to be resolved as quickly as possible.
Lesson #2. Wounded people often act in ways contradictory to their character because of this instinct for cognitive consistency. In impatience pragmatism often trumps ethics.
The church family is a single community of many individuals, and everyone experiences the same dissonance in conflict. (When one weeps, we all weep.) However, identical experiences do not translate into identical responses. Much like a large rowboat filled with panicked rowers, conflict divides the singular community into multiple groups and isolated individuals all rowing in different directions with varying degrees of force.
In this confusion, godly leaders and godly laity can become disoriented and often behave, with good intention, in inappropriate and even ungodly ways, that stand in stark contradiction to their reputation and character. This results in even greater dissonance with the church. One thing feeds off the other and with each turn of the cycle the wounding escalates.
Lesson #3. The most powerful thing a wounded person can do is forgive. The first step in healing is becoming aware of what has happened. The second step is realizing the road forward passes through the gate of forgiveness. However, for this to happen one must admit they have hurt and have been hurt—this is the selfish and unselfish component necessary for healing.
Through the forgiveness of others, the pain of wounding is replaced by the reemergence of joy. Those friends who became enemies in the conflict can, through forgiveness, become even greater friends than before. This is the nature of grace.
Forgiveness of self is the admission of the sin of self-righteousness. In church conflict people often attempt to claim the moral high ground; attacking those who disagree from the hill of their own self-righteousness. And even after the conflict has ended people tend to remain on that “moral high ground.” In most cases, the moral high ground is more perceived than actual. There is no greater proof of feeling guilt than one’s defense of past behavior. Coming down from “Mount Self-Righteous” means owning one’s part and accepting God's promise to “restore the years the locusts have eaten.”
Forgiveness is the fertile soil from which brighter futures and better relationships come. If you don’t believe me, hear Peter after his betrayal preaching Christ to thousands from the Southern steps of the Holy Mount. Read Paul's words in his last letter to Timothy, "Bring John Mark when you come."
If you have been wounded by conflict and turmoil the solution isn’t discarding past friendships, starting a new church, or going to another—It is forgiveness. This is how bitterness is purged. This is how new trails are blazed. This is how the church begins the wonderful journey of rediscovering what it means to be the ambassadors of Christ in n thier community.
I know personally the destructive nature of bitterness. It can be debilitating for years. On the other hand, I have also know and have seen forgiveness heal and transform a church.
“Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh new world began. We do not mean to be overly dramatic. Although many have not yet heard the news, it is nevertheless true: A tired old world has ended, and an exciting new one is awaiting recognition.”[ii]
I agree with the assessment of Hauerwas and Willimon. This should be our attitude. Rather than pine for a former world that will never return, let us look forward with hope realizing that the brightest and best days for God’s church lie ahead of us.
[i] Thomas Brooks: Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices. Device IV point number 3.
[ii] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 15-16.