The worst nightmare in my life came without warning. My church wanted me out. Not just the usual grumblers. I could have handled them. But a broad cross section of members, including some of my friends, wanted me to leave. I waded through a whole gamut of emotions: disbelief, shock, anger, hurt, pain, betrayal, a sense of failure, and rising bitterness. I wanted to lash out, defend myself, make people understand it was all a mistake.
Questions flooded my mind. What was I to do? Run for cover? Call the conference? Quit? Fight it out? What about my family? How would this affect them?How deep was my commitment to ministry? How much was I willing to endure or let my family endure? Maybe I would just wrap myself up in righteous indignation, stamp the dust off my shoes, and seek another assignment. When the initial shock was over and reality set in, I began to think more rationally. Conventional wisdom had it that I was finished—at least there. My effectiveness was gone. It was time, such "wisdom" said, to ask for a new assignment and start packing. Yet I've never been one to cave in to conventional wisdom. I knew that such conflicts were not impossible to re solve, that there was hope even though slim. So, bathed in much prayer and soul searching, I took the following steps.
Prayerful steps to take
1. Although I had significant experience in conflict resolution, I immediately sought out carefully chosen people with a background in resolving conflicts in a church context. Those whom I consulted stayed close to me during the whole process.
2. After receiving counsel, I made up my mind not to have any conversations with anyone about moving until we had at least at tempted to work out our differences. Once reconciliation had occurred, I would then sit down with the church and together we would decide whether it would be in everyone's best interest for me to move.
3. I tried to keep the conflict from escalating even further by doing the following:
• I requested the conference not to intervene, and they honored my request. This allowed time to work through our problem without added complexity.
• I approached members immediately involved in the conflict through a third party, who encouraged them to speak with me.
• I continued preaching. I resisted the temptation to use the pulpit to address the issues at hand or defend myself. I also avoided topics that would alienate or escalate offenses.
• I attempted to treat everyone with honor and respect, especially at church.
• I avoided no one and spoke to everyone.
4. Complaints and issues started to be aired. The issues were varied:
• The length of my stay; some thought I had been there long enough and it was time for a change.
• My personal style, how I do things.
• The way I offended people.
• The decline in the quality of sermons.
• Lack of leadership.
• A number of other pastoral expectations that some felt were not being met.
As I sorted through these complaints and issues I did a lot of praying, counseling, and soul searching. As a result I took ownership of those issues that were clearly mine.
5. I worked with my head elder, who handled all the details and was cautiously supportive.
6. I followed the formal but unofficial process that was put in place, which meant I never met with the opposition group until the meeting described below.
7. After a number of meetings between members, which I did not attend, as well as a series of "facilitated conversations" between myself and offended individuals, there was a final meeting. After I made a brief statement, we had a question-and-answer session. The group then decided that I should stay and use the opportunity to see how changes could be brought about in the months ahead.
It took two years for healing to take place and for reconciliation to become a reality. After two years another informal meeting resulted in closure for myself and those most directly involved.
This allowed me to move on without fear or concern that somehow the residual effects of the original conflict were still hanging over my head.
I believe the experience has strengthened me, the concerned group, and the congregation. We now resort to biblical conflict management principles to resolve differences rather than let them fester and poison us.
Some thoughts about pastor-congregation conflict
It is no secret that time and again pastors are moved because of unresolved conflict. This is the bane of church administrators these days and an unnecessary burden for pastors and church members. Some of the conflicts we experience are the result of our human condition and will continue until the Lord comes. And painful as it is to say, we have brought upon ourselves so much of the conflict that results in moving pastors. We have trained our people to believe that when a conflict arises between pastor and congregation, the best solution is to move the pastor.
When a pastor is moved because of unresolved conflict, it damages both the pastor and the congregation, and it does not help those in the conference office. Often the pastor's reputation is damaged because members talk to relatives and friends in other places about how bad the pastor is, and pastors will talk about how troublesome the congregations are. When conflict is unresolved, both pas tors and congregations often separate with a sense of failure, betrayal, anger, hurt, and occasionally a quality of bitterness that boasts about the joy being delivered from a "den of lions." Without a clear process of reconciliation and an attempt to implement it, both pastor and congregation easily become major conflict centers waiting to happen again.
The greatest disservice we do pastors and churches is not resolving conflict when it arises. Any conflict crisis is an open invitation to healthy growth all the way around. We would best serve pastors and churches by helping them to work through conflict in healthy, productive, and positive ways by carefully entering the conflict with them, providing models and tools to do so.
Here is what a proactive pastor can do to manage conflict.
1. Be sure of your calling, and remind yourself always that you are there to serve.
2. Treat those who disagree with you with respect. Honor them by trying to understand their position. Many conflicts are started and escalated by ignoring or writing people off.
3. Practice the principles of peace making found in Matthew 18:15. I no longer hesitate to go to a person right away when I know that person has a problem with me. This alone has fore stalled a number of potentially large conflicts. It is often as simple as taking him or her to lunch (never the church office) and just saying, "I understand we have a problem. Can we talk about it?"
4. Learn as much as you can in conflict resolution and mediation. Learning these skills, techniques, and processes is an invaluable addition to any pastor's toolbox. If I had not had a clear under standing of the process of conflict resolution and had I not observed other conflicts being resolved I would have moved or been forced out, and reconciliation would not have taken place.
5. Be willing to own your own stuff. If you have a problem, if you're doing something that isn't right, if your pastoral practices are poor, admit to it and change it. Sometimes all that people want is acknowledgment of the problem and some hope that it can change. Too many of us pastors become defensive. All defensiveness does is escalate the conflict.
6. Since some conflict is inevitable, decide beforehand, perhaps in consultation with two or three elders, how significant enough conflict might be handled if or when it does arise. Share some resources, decide ahead of time what you want to do and how you will go about it if a major conflict arises. Preach a series of sermons on reconciliation and God's methods of resolving disagreements. Don't wait for a conflict to happen and then start throwing around sermons, Bible texts, and processes. Do it up front. Prevention is always better than cure.
7. Make yourself easy to approach if someone has a problem with you. It takes a lot of courage for most people to confront a pastor face-to-face. Make it easy for them.
A final word. Since I was the pas tor involved in this conflict, what you are reading is subject to my memory, biases, and perspective. If you were to talk to others involved, you would get a different perspective. But this one thing I know. Our church has changed for the better. I am a better pastor for this, and the congregation is better also. Our past year together has been the most productive in a long time. We are excited about outreach and evangelism. God is working among us. We are not perfect. We still have squabbles. There are still those who don't always view me in the best light. But overall, our health is much better.
My experience is not yours. Every situation is different. But God's principles are consistent. When we go through the pain of conflict, work through the dysfunction, and love one another, we grow and we honor God and declare His power of reconciliation to those around us.