A Candid and Confidential Look At Church Conflict
Three Ministry Couples Share Their Stories After Their Storms
Call them Pastor and Mrs. A, B, and C. Or, in the interest of more personal pseudonyms, think of Pastor and Mrs. Smith, Jones, and Taylor. Better yet, picture in your mind flesh-and-blood husbands and wives — Bill and Kara Smith, John and Leslie Jones, and George and Sarah Taylor.*
They agreed to talk to Enrichment journal about church conflict, one of the most difficult circumstances families in ministry face, and how it affects the entire family.
No one in ministry leadership realistically expects a lifetime of smooth sailing. Differences of opinion arise in every congregation. But when those differences grow until the pastor’s authority is challenged, a church arrives at a critical crossroads. Is pastoral authority being challenged because of errors in leadership or errors among those who should be following?
Such a distinction does not eliminate the possibility of minor missteps by either party. Each of these couples reflected on things they might have done differently. But these examples were chosen because, at some point, solid pastoral leadership was opposed for less-than-solid reasons. To varying degrees, the conflict brought disruption to both those in ministry and those in the pew.
Different Problems, Common Lessons
A congregation, a staff, and a church board — pastors interact with all three, and these couples experienced specific problems connected to each of these groups.
For Bill and Kara, conflict arose from staff members. The Smiths discovered a difference of vision between themselves and a ministry partner and his wife. In time, that couple’s refusal to follow the Smiths’ leadership forced Bill to take steps with his board to remove them from staff. He is grateful his board prayerfully stood with him, clearly recognized the problem, and completely agreed with him concerning the necessary solution. But there was still fallout in the congregation.
George Taylor wishes his board had been as loyal. He found his leadership questioned and discovered that board members whom he thought he could reason with had influenced key members of the church. He and Sarah were voted out of office, had to relocate their family, and spent years rebuilding their lives in another ministry environment.
John and Leslie Jones came to a congregation that had been established as the result of a church split. The schism created a negative testimony for the congregation in the small community where the Joneses ministered. John believed that making peace with the other congregation was the only way his church could become all that God desired them to be. As he sought to address past conflict, he thought he had the support of his church. But when he began the reconciliation process, he discovered that his church did not want reconciliation. The Joneses, unable to redirect their church’s priorities, made the decision to seek another pastoral position.
Three churches, three couples, conflicts arising from three sources — but when differing factors are pushed aside, underlying common denominators come into focus. These couples agree that, regardless of the conflict source, their resulting emotions were raw. In each case, their families felt attacked where they once felt loved, and they looked for ways to defend themselves and preserve their homes. Accustomed to offering strength to others, they saw their own strength drained and had to find renewal. But their most powerful common denominator has a Romans 8:28 theme. In the end, surviving their conflict gave them a renewed perspective of what God could accomplish in their ministry. They share their perspective to help others who are facing similar pain.
Confronting Emotional Fallout
Since the Smiths’ conflict was more tightly focused on a staff member, some of their painful emotions were as well.
“You think, ‘I’m going to help this guy,’ ” Bill says, “and he rejects that help. He doesn’t see that you’re really out for his good. I kept wondering why he couldn’t see that I was his biggest fan and that I wouldn’t ask him to do any of this if I didn’t think it was for his own future and what God wants to do in his life.”
Because the Smiths’ board stood with them, Bill and Kara did not feel in danger of losing their own position. But discouragement still lurked. And when the staff member began to confide in church families, the Smiths struggled with the doubts and accusations these families began to express toward them.
“Did I ever think of throwing in the towel?” Bill says. “Sure, I did. But it was just as clear from the Lord this was never the time.”
“The Lord brought to my remembrance how He had asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac,” Kara says. “The Lord had started this church, and we had gone forward. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he was willing to do it, and God stopped him. There was a point where I had to be willing to step away if that would be the right thing.”
George and Sarah did not have the option of holding on to their church. The Taylors felt shock and disbelief when someone on their board convinced the congregation to vote them out.
“We kept wondering how this could happen, because everything was going so well,” Sarah says.
The Sunday after the Taylors lost their vote, they went to a local Assemblies of God church and sat through the service in a daze. When they returned home, George lay across their bed in defeat.
“I remember standing over him,” Sarah says, “and I told him, ‘You know, we have a choice here. We can either be bitter or we can be better, and we need to determine that we’re going to come through this thing better than we were before.’ And so we determined we weren’t going to let it destroy us, because it definitely could.”
The Taylors made a foundational commitment to embrace recovery. But personal determination can be complicated by others’ perceptions and reactions.
“In a conflict,” John Jones says, “it gets very confusing, especially when there are personal attacks. You wonder if there is validity to what people are saying. You begin to evaluate yourself and evaluate each other. And if you’re not careful, you can turn on each other and begin to believe some of the criticisms.”
“I would be depressed for days and days,” Leslie remembers. “I would pray and ask God to help me to get out of it because I didn’t know how to respond. I would go into myself and Satan would really play games with my head. He would say, ‘Maybe this is true. Maybe this is all you.’ There were many nights when I stayed up all night and just prayed and cried.”
John cautions that in the initial deep despair, pastors are vulnerable to false comforts offered by sinful habits.
“We have to be very careful that we don’t turn to the world,” he says. “You can’t turn to alcohol or pornography, or turn to the things of the world during that time. We have to heal the hurt with the medicine of God.”
John and Leslie discovered they needed to be less introspective and look more carefully at the people in their congregation who opposed them.
“So often the hurt and pain will cause you to go inward,” John says. “And all you’re doing is focusing on yourself and how you feel and what they’re saying about you. But there are times in the conflict when you must take a look at why this person is doing what he is doing.”
As the Joneses looked more closely at key families, they discovered people who carried pain that was deep, long established, and unresolved. When they discovered this, their own sense of self-respect began to revive. As they put themselves in the place of their accusers, they began to develop empathy for them.
“The call of God is about loving people and loving God,” John says. “That’s the essence of being a servant in the ministry.”
But church conflict impacts more than congregational relationships. It can also make interaction with ministry peers challenging.
“At district council,” George Taylor remembers, “we couldn’t even get people to have conversations with us unless we approached them. People were just uncomfortable with us. They didn’t know how to talk to us. When they saw us it just brought up all kinds of insecurities. It was painful for us, but we understood what they were going through. I encourage pastors and their wives to step over their own insecurities and embrace those who are going through conflict and help them and encourage them and speak hope into their lives. That’s what ministry is supposed to be about — edifying and encouraging one another.”
Painful emotions take time to dissipate, even when pastors have entered a new ministry.
Months after the Smiths saw God bring resolution to their conflict, they were still flinching at the unexpected ripples in their church.
“You’d be just about ready to put something behind you,” Kara says, “and then it was like those old sci-fi movies where at the end the monster kind of wakes up or moves or something. Every so often, just when we were thinking it was dying out, something would happen that would make us think, Oh no, here we go again.”
Sarah Taylor struggled with memories of the blessings she and George had enjoyed before they were voted out. She found herself reluctant to transition into their next pastorate.
“When we first came here, I was in a Bible study, and I just broke down and started crying,” she says. “I admitted to the ladies I was with that I didn’t want to be there. They just loved me through that, and that was a real turning point for me.”
The women’s expressions of love helped Sarah rediscover the deep and healing emotions that can be found when members of the body of Christ are in healthy relationship. After a family has left the scene of a conflict behind, such rediscovery is vital. Pastors and their wives must avoid the tendency to constantly watch their backs and make assumptions about others.
“Any pastor who goes through a similar experience feels like he wears a scarlet letter,” George says. “Everywhere they go they feel like people are looking at them, thinking about them, talking about them — and of course, it’s actually not true.”
Preserving Family Foundations
Despite their pledge to pursue personal growth through their crisis, the Taylors found that losing their church and relocating their family put enormous stress on their marriage. Every element of change in their situation seemed to contribute to the strain. A smaller church meant a significantly reduced salary for George. A smaller community meant fewer job opportunities for Sarah, whose income had been supplemental at their previous church and was now vital to their budgetary survival.
Their first step after their move was to participate in a marriage retreat.
“We spent a week with a marriage counselor and 15 other couples,” George says. “We just concentrated on marriage maintenance. We knew we needed outside help to keep this thing together.”
But there would be no quick fix.
“It took me a couple of years after being here to realize how angry I was with George,” Sarah admits. “I blamed him for the devastation that happened to the family. Something inside of me said, You should have prevented this. No family should have to go through this, and you should have done something so this wouldn’t happen.”
When Sarah did find a job, it required a daily commute. Their family’s new location meant long, lonely drives, particularly in the winter. “I’m driving 35 miles to work,” she recalls, “crying the whole way there, the whole way back, ‘God, why do I have to do this? I don’t want to work full time. I don’t want to have to drive on icy roads to get to work.’ ”
With his own challenges in a new ministry post, George seemed oblivious to Sarah’s turmoil. “He was not seeing the whole lifestyle change for me that had happened in this thing,” she says.
Yet, the Taylors agree that the experience eventually drew them closer together. Despite their conflicts, or even because of them, all three couples found themselves relying on each other in new ways, seeking opportunities to spend time as a family, and even discovering areas of neglect in their relationships that had cropped up in the midst of active ministry.
“What came out of this was we just spent a lot of family time together,” Leslie Jones says. “We got really close as a family and tried to stay united, because the church wasn’t united. I was determined as a mom that it was not going to separate our family — that we were going to stay together. People were going to try to tear us apart, but as a family we were going to stay unified and stay together and live for the Lord.”
“We spent a lot of time together,” George Taylor says. “The outside pressure and dynamics really cemented us. It was something painful that we were walking through together, so we did a lot of talking. There was a lot of dinner table discussion about how we were doing and what was going on, and we were honest with the kids about the dynamics of what was happening. We needed them to be a part of it.”
George and Sarah’s decision to bring their children into the discussion was due to the unavoidable impact the move to a new community had on their family. Pastors have to weigh the extent to which they can include their children in discussing conflict. In many cases, the choice is determined by factors outside the home.
Bill Smith remembers the effect their staff conflict had on their son and daughter. “I think our son did well because he never really got pulled into it,” he says. “Our daughter was in junior high, and I think she would have done well, but the parents of a friend of hers were very involved in this. She came home one day after a long discussion with some of the girls in church. So we didn’t have any choice at that point but to talk to her about the conflict. It hurt. But for our daughter, the last couple of years have been a wonderful opportunity for her to learn to die to herself, to let go of these things. I think this has actually turned out to be a growing experience.”
The Joneses’ three daughters reacted in different ways to the tension in their church.
“One of the unfortunate things was our girls were hearing the other kids in the congregation talking about us and about the conflict even though they weren’t hearing it in our home,” John says. “They were hearing it through the other kids because their parents were talking about it. That was an abusive time for our children, especially for our two older girls. Our youngest was really too young to be affected.”
John and Leslie tried to protect their children as much as they could as the conflict escalated. There were times when Leslie would leave church before the end of the service.
“She would take the girls out at that time,” John says. “It was self-preservation at that point.”
Leslie remembers their oldest daughter asking why families in the church were attacking her and John: “ ‘Do they love Jesus?’ she would ask. And I would tell her, ‘Honey, they don’t understand. They’re trying to do what they think is right. You just have to pray for them and love them.’ It’s hard to explain that to a younger child — that you’ve got to love people when they’re doing something that’s wrong.”
In the end, the impact on their daughters proved to be a deciding factor in the Joneses’ resignation and relocation to another church.
“The Spirit of God spoke to me clearly that if I did not get out of that church that my daughters would not serve Him,” John says. “He told me He had a call on my oldest daughter’s life. She is now in her senior year at college preparing for ministry.”
Strengthening The Spirit
Conflict not only interrupts the flow of ministry to a congregation, it can rob ministry couples of the strength and spiritual reserves they once enjoyed. Suddenly, they find themselves in emotional and spiritual need. Those who survive this inner wasteland do so by clinging to basic spiritual disciplines.
“You have to be prayed up all the time,” Leslie Jones says. “You have to be prayed up morning, noon, and night.”
“During this period, Kara and I had more intense prayer times together than in our whole ministry life and married life,” Bill Smith says. “We had intense times of prayer in our living room at different times of the day, really seeking the Lord for help.”
“Our whole approach,” Kara remembers, “was to discover what the Lord was trying to do. It didn’t matter what people were trying to say about us. What mattered was what the Lord was trying to teach us, because He was allowing it.”
The Smiths’ commitment to prayer overflowed to their congregation. As the staff conflict painfully worked its way toward resolution, the church scheduled a weekend of fasting and prayer. Those weekends are now held four times a year.
Personal devotions are vital to continued spiritual growth throughout life, but they can also lay a foundation for recovery in the midst of crisis.
George Taylor had begun reading a book called The Calvary Road on the subject of brokenness about a year and a half prior to their church’s struggle.
“When this began happening, I already had a theological foundation laid in my heart,” he says. “I knew this was going to be a very painful thing, but it was not the end for me as a pastor and as a husband and as a father. I already had hope that this was going to pass and God was going to do some good things out of this.”
John Jones also discovered a devotional book helped him and Leslie to weather their conflict.
“What really helped us through that time was R.T. Kendall’s God Meant It for Good,” John says. “In it, the story of Joseph came so alive. Living the Word right in front of those people was so important. I could not get on the level that they were on and fight the way they were fighting and be blessed by God. It just would have been wrong. That book really opened my eyes to how to deal with justifying yourself. You don’t want to become self-righteousness. Joseph let God vindicate him. So, I had to live the life of Joseph.”
George and Sarah are quick to say they would never want to go through a similar trauma again. But they are just as quick to say they are glad for what they went through.
“God has made us different people, and we are better because of it,” George says. “Our marriage is better; our ministry is better; our character is different. God used this to break us and change us.”
For the Joneses, part of that inner reshaping came about through pursuing other ministry opportunities even during their conflict.
“When you’re in a situation like this, you need outside ministry,” John says. “I would recommend that pastors and their wives try to find some other ministry that reminds them that God is still using them. There are lots of practical ministries you can do. One of the things you have to realize is that at times you have to preach and minister when you are hurt. How you deal with that is so important.”
“Who knows if I might have just stayed to myself if I had a nice big church that was just growing all the time,” Leslie says. “I never would have met many of the people in my community. There were a lot of elderly people that lived around us, and they needed help at times. And we would just go out and pick up stuff out of their yard and offer to mow grass or help them or anything like that. You have to step outside the church so you can take the focus off the negative and look at the positive things in the world too.”
George Taylor emphasizes the need for humility if a pastor is to come through a conflict spiritually strengthened: “If a pastor is proud and not teachable, it’s going to be real tough for him to learn from his experience and bring help to his family and to go on in ministry. But the pastor who is humble and willing to be broken, who accepts the purposes and plans of God, will come through a conflict — and so will his family. That’s a vital dynamic.”
Regrouping And Sharing
The Smiths, Joneses, and Taylors look back on their respective church conflicts from the vantage point of new or renewed ministries. While a desire to forget the hardships they endured may seem natural, they each describe lessons learned that continue to energize their ministries.
Bill Smith quickly identifies three principles he now lives by that emerged from his staff conflict. “First, you have to die to self and to some of your concern over what people think,” he says. “Second, you really begin to understand that you have to trust biblical principles over your feelings.”
“Every time we were feeling something,” Kara says of that second point, “we would go back and realize that was just our feelings, so we couldn’t trust them in the middle of that turmoil. We were hurt, we were broken, we were confused, and we were tired. So we had to identify the biblical principle, the right thing to do right then in the midst of those feelings.”
“Third, and at the base of everything else,” Bill says, “you have to trust God in those situations instead of yourself.”
Besides the personal lessons they learned, the Smiths’ church conflict strengthened their congregation.
“We saw a unifying of our church’s Kingdom purpose,” Bill says. “If you’re building more than one kingdom within a church, you’re struggling with unity. Our church now enjoys incredible unity in doing what God wants us to do. The people who weathered the storm — we saw their character.”
Bill identifies six key points a pastor can personally benefit from in conflict:
- Keep in mind the conflict is not a flesh-and-blood battle. “It’s powers and principalities,” Bill says. “So it’s pretty clear from Paul how you fight that. You fight it spiritually.” To that end, he says, it is vital to fight the conflict with prayer.
- Don’t get involved in the fray. “Don’t defend yourself,” Bill advises. “Don’t talk. Because whatever you say will be misquoted, then used against you. Just be quiet; let the Lord be your defender. And at the same time, let the Lord deal with you on things He needs to deal with you on.”
- Determine to forgive. “There are two commands that you can’t deny in Scripture,” Bill says. “You have to forgive everybody, and you have to love and be kind to everybody. You don’t, however, have to trust everyone nor do you have to go back into a deep relationship with someone. Renewing trust takes time.”
- Don’t pick up other people’s offenses. In the Smiths’ case, congregation members who were unaware of the problems created within the staff by the uncooperative staff member took offense when that staff member faced discipline. “It’s one thing to deal with your personal offense toward someone,” Bill says, “but when you are dealing with somebody who has picked up another person’s offenses, it is almost impossible to help that person through it.”
- Keep leading through the conflict. “Do you want to look through the rearview mirror or the windshield?” Bill asks rhetorically. “I encourage pastors, once you get past the initial hurt, as best you can let it go and lead.”
- Rely on mentors. “One of the great things that helped me through this,” Bill says, “was the sympathy and guidance from older, wiser ministers. Anybody who is in leadership has walked through what Kara and I walked through. They wouldn’t be leading if they hadn’t walked through these hurts.”
George Taylor says that final point is particularly valuable. “After Sarah and I were voted out,” he remembers, “there was a period of time where we were to continue ministering to that church until our scheduled departure. A dear friend who had retired from district leadership approached me with some advice. ‘George,’ he said, ‘how you walk through these next couple of months is going to determine the success level of the rest of your ministry.’ I took that to heart.”
George determined that when he was in the pulpit, even though he and Sarah were soon to leave, he would build the congregation up, encourage them, and help them focus on their future.
“All my messages were focused in that direction,” he says.
For the Taylors, the forced transition from one church to another made them refocus on God’s calling rather than any church’s endorsement as their ministry foundation.
“If you know that God has called you, don’t give up on your calling,” George says. “We get this feeling of ‘I must not be called to ministry if these kinds of things happen.’ But stick it out.”
A renewed vision of God’s calling is a freeing sensation.
“After we came here,” Sarah says of their current pastorate, “George said to me, ‘Now we are dangerous.’ What he meant was we had faced what a lot of people think is the worst thing that can happen in ministry. We were voted out and we had survived. Now we are willing to take risks.”
The Joneses also sense new opportunities in their new church.
“There was a conflict at the church that I’m pastoring now years before I became the pastor,” John says. “This church had also split. I have had the opportunity to go back and tell the pastor who went through that conflict that God used him during that time here. He didn’t even realize it. He actually wept. I think he felt that he totally failed.
“That’s often what Satan wants us to feel when we leave a conflict that hasn’t been resolved. But if we have ministered God’s Word, if we have loved those people, if we have prayed for them, if we have done everything we can to make peace — we haven’t failed,” John says. “We can walk away victorious. We can walk away as overcomers. We can continue to choose to love the people who hurt us and use the experience to help other hurting people.
“People have conflict. God doesn’t have conflict. He can still anoint us and empower us to witness.”
* Names used in this article are pseudonyms.