Stories from the church trenches

Stories of church conflict:

  • Parents called for the youth leader’s resignation because she led Bible studies at McDonalds.
  • Church Elders were so offended with the 1960’s hymn “Lord of the Dance” that they considered ripping the pages out of the song book.
  • A church needed a full scale congregational mediation over destructive disagreement concerning the pipe organ.

I had trouble believing these were true stories and dismissed them as “silly.” I was surprised that these training role-plays were true! They were great practice for the ministry which I am living out with fear and trembling, determination and humility.

What is really behind church conflict?

Some people claim that the cause of such conflict is Satan.  Others claim it is stupidity, or as I believed, “silliness.”I learned to look beneath the “surface” issues and discern the deeper “real” issue.

Now I believe that, most often, the cause of church conflict is fear. (Note: I admit to wondering how Evil can use this fear to make people behave in silly ways and make the situations worse!) It seems that people are feeling more and more powerless in a world that seems more and more scary. Media tells us that there is danger at every turn. We see news of mass shootings, political scandals, and, in my humble opinion, alarmist fear-mongering that sounds like real news. In a world that seems unstable, it is human nature to seek and cling to whatever provides a feeling of safety.

For Christians, many times that place of safety is the church. Many quote Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” This refers to the supremacy of Christ over the changing teachings of the culture. However, many times this is interpreted as “Jesus does not change; therefore, the church should be a place of no change.” We forget that Jesus continually challenged the status quo and called people to change their entire belief systems and ways of life! In anxious times, we often equate our stability and security in Jesus to our stability and security in our traditions. We may be threatened by even the possiblity of change to what we are doing and / or how we are doing it.We will cling to and defend what we know and what we have always done rather than change. It is as if change is the match that ignites the fuel of anxiety and fear.We fear what can happen if the match is lit. So we will fight for the safety of what we know.

What can we do?

First, we can pray, pray, pray and remember where our security really lies: In Jesus Christ, not our ways of doing things. Scary, I know.

Second, we can accept that the presenting issue usually is not the “real” issue.

  • For the church conflict over the youth director leading youth Bible study at McDonald’s, the “real” issue was fear that the Sabbath and sacred teaching were being watered down in a world of fast food and instant gratification.
  • For the church upset about “Lord of the Dance,” the “real” issue was fear of losing traditions that were vital to their identity. This congregation had a long tradition of being against dancing. If this tradition was compromised and discarded, what could be next?
  • And for the church upset over the organ, one of the real issues was how to honor their past while embracing the future.

Underneath the power struggles, back biting, and fear in each of these conflicts, there was a real passion for the Bible, for the health of future generations, and for Christian integrity.

The stories don’t end there. These congregation admitted they they needed help, called in a mediator,  and journeyed through the struggles. They came on the other side of the conflict stronger and more cohesive than they had ever been before. One church even had three successful capital campaigns that were necessary for their exponential growth!

The moral of the story: Realize where our security truly lies. Look for the “real” issues that are deep beneath the surface. Listen to concerns. And call for reinforcements if necessary.  There is hope!

Thoughts? Comments? Post below.

You want to do what??? One reason why I’m in the Mediation biz

I have a long history of being afraid to speak out. In fact, I have been so afraid that at times I’ve lost my “voice,” or my ability to speak up for myself and others.

I began losing my “voice” in my 4th grade classroom on a typical school day when I heard the town whistle. This whistle was also used to sound a tornado warning the night before in my small western Oklahoma town.  I immediately believed that my whole elementary school was in danger. I gathered my courage for a few precious seconds, stood up and yelled, “It’s the tornado warning!”

False alarm. It was the noon whistle. (For those of you don’t know, the town “whistle” is used for tornado warnings, tornado “all clears,” and to let the town workers know it is time for lunch.) The bullies in my class jeered. “It’s the noon whistle, dummy!  She thinks it’s a tornado!  Funniest thing I ever heard!  How stupid!” I was so embarrassed! And my friends didn’t speak up for me, so I believed they thought I was stupid, too. I was teased for the rest of the school year. Thankfully it was already late spring and the end of the school year was near.

Right then and there, I decided that I was not going to be embarrassed, seen as stupid, or make a fool out of myself ever again. Even if I could speak up or stand up for something or someone, I kept my mouth shut out of fear.  What if it were another false alarm?

My fear of speaking out was more intense in times of conflict. Witnessing church conflict as a pastor’s kid sometimes made me want to run from church, and sometimes Christianity altogether. Conflict resolution can be painful, and people have a tendency to avoid pain at all costs.  (I should know.) Rather than deal with the issues, people will lash out and make someone else a target. I just resolved to conform even more and to become a “pleaser” in order to protect myself and my family.

I couldn’t wait until I no longer had to go to church or deal with these people.

So, you can probably imagine that when God called me into ministry I balked.  Yet, here I am.  And I have found that many pastors have issues dealing with conflict.  We desire to lead people to God, to help people, to equip people…. And then we can end up in some really conflicted, and dare I say nasty, places.

Through my experiences of being embarrassed and losing my voice,  being a preacher’s kid, and witnessing church conflict, God called me to teach the church how to address conflict and to empower people, especially my clergy sisters, to find their voices again and speak out against injustice.  It’s quite a journey.

So, dear readers, what are some of your experiences in conflict?  Are you afraid? Or are you bold?  Avoider, or engager?  I look forward to your comments.