Most church conflict is unnecessary

By now all our readers have had a chance to comment on our church governance report. A few of you wrote. As might be expected, some thought we were too easy on views they found weak or too hard on the view they preferred. We didn’t settle anything, not even within our own staff. We still have advocates for contrasting models in the office?and all within the bounds of a high view of Scripture. I’m pleased that we opened the dialogue a bit and made available the wisdom of experienced and successful leaders.

For my part, I’m convinced that church conflict often has less to do with leadership style than it does with selfishness. Deron Biles is right in saying that a pastoral termination is the result of sin; in the pastor’s life, in the congregation, or (and most often) in both. That’s what I mean. Look at the common reasons for conflict.

According to LifeWay’s study on the subject pastoral leadership and related issues are the top reasons for pastoral termination. Their information came from a survey of DOMs who had observed the churches in their associations. There is another layer under that, I think. Maybe it’s stubbornness, a desire to win.

I have been a close observer of several pastoral terminations sparked by the pastor’s inability to distinguish between a preference and a mandate. That difference is important. As a pew sitter I see the logic of an end-of-service offertory, for example. Many churches do that because it allows guests to fill out a registration card during the service and it allows those who have responded to the altar call to be sorted. I remember when the idea was radical and divisive. Now, as then, I prefer the offering to be taken at the end of the worship hour. It is not a mandate or a crusade though, so I wouldn’t fight you for it. Some would. They’re confused. When they get crosswise with other church members is it because of the order of worship, their leadership style, or is it because they can’t tell the difference between the significant and the trivial?

Let’s say Pastor Bill is quietly (it’s only quiet to those outside) forced to leave over this difference. He finds another ministry but he is scarred. A terrifying thing has happened to him and he’d just as soon not repeat it. But he hasn’t changed his mind about what’s important either. Maybe he can avoid a conflict with his deacons or committee leaders in the next ministry by changing governance styles. Can he find reasonable biblical interpretations that allow this? Yes, he can. Is it a biblical mandate? No, it’s not. In fact, his motivation nearly guarantees he will move rapidly on this change and will thus have another version of the same conflict with his new church. Maybe he’ll survive it or even win but it’s not about governance any more than the first church forced him out over the order of service.

Governance is not necessarily a minor matter and a change in style is not always prompted by fear. Often it’s not as important or God-initiated as we say, though.

By now some of you are shouting at me, “What about the congregation’s part in this?” Yep, I’m coming to that. I’ve seen conflict from both sides and I’ve never supported a pastoral termination; but it still has happened in my church. If the pastor is wrong (in your view) about something trivial you’ll never know if he is also stubborn unless the trivial matter is also too important to you. Trivial things are only flash points when both sides dig in there.

But what is trivial? Most things, I think. Music style and worship order, nearly always. Many styles, done well, can glorify God. Probably the role of committees is a trivial matter. Used properly, they can be a great way to enhance church ministries. Maybe the number of business meetings and the deacons’ role in those is also more molehill than mountain. Short of some gross immorality, this paragraph has just accounted for the surface reasons of most pastoral terminations. If these things are even maybe not worth fighting over, it is peace for our time.

And maybe not. It’s like saying that the Battle of Gettysburg was about shoes?the real reason the Confederate army stopped in Gettysburg. The Confederates may have been looking for shoes, but the Union army was looking for the invaders. A combined 200,000 men went at it because they were at war. The place was chosen by neither side. A crusading pastor and a peevish congregation will meet at some small intersection; and they will fight if they are determined to dominate one another.

Absent selfishness, churches will not fight over trivialities. Certainly I should not fight over my right to have things according to my tradition or habit or need of personal affirmation. Healthy Christians don’t devour one another.

Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:3-11 applies to all of us. Jesus is our model for humility and self sacrifice but he showed us this while being prophet, teacher, and savior. Our different roles, even roles of leadership, do not absolve us of the call to humility.

Pastors are not lords of the church any more than deacons and committees are tasked to make sure they toe the line. Pastors must lead and sometimes must lead where it does not occur to other church mem

Correspondent
Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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