August 2010

Conflict in local churches

August 24 2010 by Bill Wilson

So what do we make of the rising tide of conflict in local congregations?

First of all, is there actually an increase in conflict? Anecdotally, the number of calls and conversations we are having around conflict seem to indicate that local church conflict is becoming more frequent and widespread. Statistically, patterns of terminations for clergy suggest that, indeed, life as a minister in the 21st century is more stressful, more toxic, and more likely to end in termination than ever before. (An excellent source for multiple studies is this web site: http://bachdevelopment.com/bach778.html).

The rates at which parishioners change churches are increasing. No longer do members endure dry seasons in the life of a church patiently. If a favorite minister leaves, or music styles shift, or relationships fray and conflict erupts, the exits are clogged with people on their way to another church home. The resulting loss of attendees invites conflict. Many times conflict renders a church wounded for at least one generation (15-20 years) after it occurs. Clergy may move on, protagonists pass away, but the church continues to limp along for years as a result of a season of conflict.

It is difficult to measure the impact of conflict upon the unseen aspects of congregational life. The loss of passion and vitality for the gospel, the reduction of sacrificial giving, the jaded spirits, the ministry thwarted, the disillusionment among younger people, the loss of hope, the cynical attitudes that conflict leaves in its wake are all very real, but not easily quantified.

Our witness to the world, at a time when it has never been more needed, is in danger of being derailed by critical spirits and incivility. Mirroring the mood of the public square, local churches often share more in common with the harsh rhetoric of political parties and incendiary talk radio than with the spirit of scripture, the stories of the Bible, or the witness of Christ.

How might we begin to turn this tide of turmoil?

Healing from conflict begins when we humble ourselves. Humility and repentance precede any healing for God’s people. We must turn to God in humility, admit our own shortcomings, and confess our own sin. As tempting as it may be to confess the sins of all those around us, the path to healing begins in the prayer of David, “Create in ME a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit in ME.”

I am struck by how difficult those words are for us to pray with integrity. Forsaking genuine humility, we settle for self justification. We honestly believe that if the facts were known, we would be exonerated. When honest, we think we are right and others are wrong. Deep down, we refuse to consider the notion that our motives are mixed and our intentions impure. We see ourselves as we wish we were, not as we truly are.

God’s people have always had a love-hate relationship with humility. We want and demand it in others while we excuse its absence in ourselves. From the Garden to the Exodus to the Prophets to the Disciples and the Church, the Bible is filled with examples of people taking themselves far too seriously, and God far too lightly. When Jesus established his church, humility was a foundational ingredient for the new community. Christ is the head of the church, and no one else need apply.

When conflict visits our fellowship, the beginning point of turning away from a dead-end future is for all Christ-followers to humble themselves, turn from their sins, and seek to embody his spirit and presence. It is only then that the journey back toward health and life can begin for a church.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)
8/24/2010 4:35:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 3 comments



Jason’s Upside Down World

August 10 2010 by Bill Wilson

If asked to identify a favorite New Testament character, most of us go with the predictable and obvious: Barnabbas, Mary, Nathaniel, Peter, Lydia, Timothy, Phoebe. You know the list.

Let me remind you of an obscure character who can remind us of an important truth about church health. His name is Jason, and you will find him in the first nine verses of Acts 17. He lived in northern Greece in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas come through town on one of their missionary journeys, and make great headway at the local synagogue, persuading many Jews and devout Greeks “and not a few of the leading women.” Their success is not well received by the synagogue leaders, and so a band of ruffians is hired to find Paul and Silas and run them out of town.

In the midst of the search, the posse shows up at Jason’s house and drag Jason and some other believers before the city authorities. In verse 6, a telling comment is made: “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests.” Jason bonds out of jail, and Paul and Silas escape the vigilantes. Jason disappears from the pages of the New Testament, however, his spirit lingers on. Jason’s risky bed-and-breakfast served as a key link in the spread of a gospel message that reversed the established order of the day and heralded a new way of thinking and believing about God.

Hosting those who bring a new, upside-down day is always risky business. In the 21st century, hosting can take the form of considering an idea, proposing a new method, suggesting an alternative, or raising a question. Sometimes hosting takes the form of saying what everyone is thinking but no one is willing to say. Upside-down ideas are those which challenge the established order or way of thinking or of being a church. Healthy churches need to have a steady diet of hard conversations about such ideas. If not, we will grow rigid and inflexible and we run the risk of missing the movement of the Spirit.

Of course, that is easier said than done. The established order may give lip service to wanting change and innovation, but the truth is most of us find change offensive and obtrusive. The way we do things brings some order to the chaos of our life and enables us to avoid the surprises that fill most of our days at work and at home. Those who bring or suggest change are often labeled as troublemakers or misfits and their ideas dismissed as unreasonable. Some days our church is the one place we can go that reminds us of how life used to be … and we cling to that fading dream with a vengeance.

The spirit of Jason is the spirit of adventure and a willingness to embrace the possibility of the new. Jason’s world was turned upside-down by these gospel messengers and by the revolutionary person they gave witness to. Jesus spent much of his teaching time upending the commonly held perceptions of his day.

Instead of leadership being determined by position and power, he suggested that the true leader is a servant first.

Instead of power being the avenue through which God works, he suggested it is weakness.

Instead of finding our life by holding onto it, he suggested we find life when we lose our life.

Instead of the rich receiving God’s blessing, he called the poor blessed.

Instead of loving self and looking to our needs first, he suggested loving our neighbor and seeking His kingdom first.

At every point, Jesus turned the world upside-down. He continues to inspire his followers and churches with upside-down thinking and acting. Our world will surely resist now as his world did then. Our goal must be to be among those who are accused of harboring such radical ideas and hosting such dangerous possibilities. Turning the world upside down was hard work then, and it is hard work today. In the end, upside-down was what brought abundant life and unconditional love to a world desperately in need of both.

The next time you are asked to name your New Testament heroes, consider Jason and his upside-down world. Even more, consider adopting his spirit and enabling your world to be turned upside-down!

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)
8/10/2010 9:45:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 0 comments