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:

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

Tom Watson
I have seen countless churches in conflict and little of it has been of a spiritual nature.
It is usually a personality dispute or power grab by either the layity or a staff person.
The reason many leave after a church dispute is that "somebody won" the power grab. Really, no won wins a power grab but Satan. After the power grab is over, it may be impossible to continue to try to worship there under those circumstances.
8/29/2010 10:55:47 AM
Dr. James Willingham
The one thing designed to really produce a spirit of humility is a great work of grace in the life of the individual. That is one of the reasons I have been praying for a Third Great Awakening for 37 years. The First and Second Great Awakenings produced the effect of humility. Such a spirit of humility is beautifully summed up in the words of the greatest of Christian hymns, Amazing Grace. Rugged old John Newton had been a terrible, wicked sinner until the wonderful grace of God taught his hart to fear. His new source of life led him out of the slave trade and into the Gospel ministry and into labors to get slavery abolished in the British empire in which he worked with Wilberforce to get that accomplished. Three factors are tied up in an Awakening, the right theology (Sovereign Grace), the Heavenly Presence, and humility, so that people are more than willing to admit and confess that they are inadequate to the task. That spirit of humility was magnified by the Pilgrims who were willing to be the stepping stones for others to advance the cause of Christ which I think literally happened. Baptists, by the way, got into missions before they even knew it. One of the first missionaries of Separate Baptists to go to another area and establish a Baptist Church was an African American minister, George Lisle, who founded the first Baptist church in Jamaica. He left with the British, when they gave up and left Savannah. That was a few years before Dr John Thomas went to India and even more before William Cary. Perhaps one of the most humbling things is to see slaves who gave of their limited resources to the cause of missions for the message that had given them hope in their dark miseries. It was concerning the great Christian characters of the African American Christians in the time of slavery, that I proposed to write a Doctoral Dissertation at Columbia University in NYC. Just think of what they grasped from the fact that in the church records they are referred to as Black Brother so and so, Black sister so and so. And think about how even the whites would purchase the freedom of a Black man so that he could minister. I even found in one case where the whites made a Black man the pastor of their church for some 10 years. While at Columbia I gave a lecture, "The Stanley Elkins Thesis: A Critique." It was an answer to that historian's ideas that slavery could only produce Uncle Toms and Black Samboes, but the proof lies in the character of the African American Believers and in their greatest creativity, the Negro Spirituals, acknowledged by many nations in the world as outstanding music - produced in spite of slavery due to the Christian Faith. I would remind everyone that the freedom for all was enlarged by African Americans determined to secure their rights under the law of the covenant, the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, basic documents derived ultimately from the biblical ideas of covenant as practiced especially by the Congregational and Baptist churches, joined to some extent by other Christians for the same reasons. African American Christians have often been the best representatives of American Ideals.
8/26/2010 3:52:24 PM
Gene Scarborough
I suspect "all things public" are seeing more conflict as we are molested by a bad economy / war / rise in drugs and crime / etc.

Human nature is to take out aggression somewhere. People kick their dog / cuss out their wives and children / write angry letters and fuss on growing blog sites.

Just like a football coach at the local high school, people expect their Preacher to always be a winner. Outside of fast growing metro areas the usual measure of growing numbers and giving is hard to find. Even in growing areas, money is tight / people are cutting back / if salary is reduced by 20% it means the tithe is calculated on a smaller amount.

To me, it is more important to play the game to the best of our ability and with integrity than to win all the time. The NCAA is having more and more trouble with infractions from schools which "always win." Have we lost integrity as part of this equation as well as politics and religion?

Things are tough all over. I run a small business earning 30% of what it did 3 years ago. Still there is no future in killing my preacher / kicking the dog / cussing out my wife.
8/25/2010 10:08:19 AM
 Security code