The Subtle Signs Of Impending Conflict

Congregational conflict has the not-so-happy knack of sneaking up out of the blue and catching everybody by surprise. It is all the more remarkable when it is realised that the signals of impending trauma will have been around for a while although few will have seen or recognised them for what they really are. If they have been noticed, it is highly likely that little or no action will have been taken in the fond hope that matters would resolve themselves. Of course, they rarely do.

After years of observing churches entering into conflict situations and often being involved in trying to sort out the problems, there is an identifiable pattern of warning signs which are displayed for all to see (provided you know where to look). There will be variations from place to place but the overall plot is very much the same regardless. Check out the following:

The Early Signs of Trouble

These usually occur in the order outlined:

  1. Meetings of church leaders and meetings of church members increase in time well beyond what has been the usual
  1. Tensions begin to emerge between the pastor and some leaders without adequate resolution. Much of this tension is really underground with an absence of effective and honest communication. Indeed, there may be a denial of any real difficulties on everybody’s part. If there is a team ministry, the tensions will create unspoken stresses between pastors.
  1. The pastor and leadership become less sure of the overall vision and direction of the church. The focus begins to shift from matters of outwardly directed mission and ministry to internal concerns and anxieties.  The church’s mission slides into the background.

The Congregation Becomes Involved

It is not too long before the congregation as a whole begins to feel the growing stress:

  1. The weekly offerings begin to reduce for no apparent reason. Budgets are harder to frame. Some leaders will start looking around for the cause and it is not too long before the pastor is being held responsible. Why this is so is not necessarily clear although issues of leadership style and preaching will emerge as possibilities.
  1. There are increasing levels of disenchantment in the church and behind-the-scenes gossip moves into high gear. Confidentiality in the leadership team will have broken down by now with tensions between church leadership being well known within the congregation.
  1. Where there is a pastoral team, there is the very good chance that members will begin to identify with one pastor over another. Unless there are the highest levels of communication, loyalty and maturity on the team, pastors will become deeply embroiled in the developing politics with catastrophic results being guaranteed.
  1. Some worshippers will be leaving the church without explanation. They will probably not be followed up and some will be glad they have gone. This confirms that the church is moving into serious division.
  1. Letters of complaint will be arriving in the administrator’s letter box. These will range from genuine statements of concern from the thoughtful, to hard hitting criticism or righteous indignation from those who are aggrieved in same way.

The More Serious Signs of Real Trouble

If the early signals are not noticed or acted upon, the church moves closer to the brink or real disaster:

  1. Congregational meetings to address issues and problems produce increasing irritation and frustration. Conversation becomes debate tinged with mild invective (or worse) and a lack of charity. Discussion becomes the preserve of the articulate and the angry with the ordinary person too afraid to get on their feet.  Attendances soar for meetings which are seen to be controversial.
  1. If the tensions have not been adequately addressed and prayed over within the pastoral team, honest communication will cease with pastors subtly taking sides in order to gain support. As the church divides, individual members, friends and families will become selective, only attending those services where their preferred pastor is preaching.
  1. Lobby groups will become active. Small, clandestine meetings are held and phone company profits grow to new heights. The leaders may want to meet without the pastor. Sooner or later a group within the membership will call for a special church meeting. A few strong personalities in each faction will start pushing for a show down. This will scare those who have a gentler, more gracious disposition.
  1. In the effort to deal with the problems, personalities and issues become hopelessly blurred. It seems almost impossible to deal with matters in principle. Specific individuals (pastor, leaders, strong personalities) become embroiled in the general unhappiness. Objectivity is now an endangered species.
  1. The church is now moving from one crisis to another. All meetings are clogged with problems needing to be solved (except that very few of them are). The leadership is now not sure what the original problem was. Pastoral team members will find reasons to prevent them from attending team meetings if they have become involved. They will have already stopped praying together.

Fragmentation is Public and Painful

Despite the realisation that emergency surgery is essential, fellowship breaks down at many levels:

  1. Some individuals and groups in the church air their doctrinal and biblical concerns with the pastor’s preaching. These concerns may also include leadership style and/or various ministries being exercised in the church. Pastoral team tensions are now critical with bitterness and back-biting emerging between members.
  1. Some leaders resign out of frustration. They cannot cope with long meetings and sustained stress.  Some will be the more competent who believe they now have better things to do with their time. Pastoral team members will have started to look around for other possibilities in ministry.
  1. Leaders of other ministries start resigning through a perceived lack of support and/or interest in their service.  They may feel that decisions are being made which are actually inhibiting their ministry.  Unrestrained criticism will speed this process.

Polarisation Is Now a Fact of Life

Sadly, the congregation has now moved into opposing camps with most people holding strong views. Genuine fellowship is now a thing of the past for most:

  1. The pastor, by this time, has become understandably defensive and is increasingly unable to listen to, or make reasonable sense of, conflicting perceptions within the church. Objectivity is almost impossible with the pastor either launching into various strategies designed to guarantee survival or seriously contemplating alternative.  The pastoral team, which will usually be well caught up in the conflict by now, will be fuelling the difficulties through very poor modelling and the taking of sides.
  1. By this time significant numbers of the congregation have actually polarised around various opposing positions, usually with high levels of emotion. It is rarely just a two way split.  There will be opposing forces with another group of peace makers toiling away without too much encouragement. They will be depressed. It is about this time that assistance to sort out the conflict is sought from outside. However, this is usually too late and the best that can be hoped for is some damage control.
  1. With many leaders now having left, the Annual Meeting is unable to appoint a full complement of leaders since those game enough to stand have difficulty obtaining the required percentages for appointment with a divided membership.

The Final Throes

A distressing outcome is not too far away:

  1. With objectivity now departed, the pastor sides with a specific faction to secure at least some personal support.  Unfortunately this has the effect of creating distance with others who may respect the pastor but who feel uncomfortable with those with whom he appears to have identified. The situation will be explosive in a team ministry if pastors have turned to different groups for backing.
  1. With all hope lost the pastor may leave or members of a faction depart, often in significant numbers. It is certain that the pastoral team will now fragment with one or more pastors leaving. Even if one stays, it will be very hard to regain the support of everybody especially those who were at loggerheads with that pastor.
  1. The church is often left without vision or finance and able to do little more than keep the doors open. Motivation across the board is low.  Some will feel that they have become a “problem church” with little hope of every regaining lost ground. There will be those who feel that they have “won” and who will make life very hard for others who wish to stay but who felt very differently about the issues and events.
  1. The church will have very little option but to move to a long-term interim ministry under the guidance of an experienced pastor who can help to bring about a measure of healing. Without grace and forgiveness, the church may take years to recover.
  1. Word about the problems will have circulated widely and other pastors will be very careful about any approaches from this “problem” church.  There may be a need to look outside the State for new leadership.

The warning signs in the congregation are subtle but they are there when life begins to sour. They need to be recognised and attended to early. There is always the hope of growth, acceptance and understanding except at the point where the church finally starts to fracture. 

There is a pressing need to learn how to handle our differences creatively and lovingly. It is also helpful to remember that the church does not belong to any one group of people. The more the Lordship of Christ over the church is forgotten, the greater the likelihood of breakdown and sadness.

Rev John Simpson