The email from our [Covenant Theological Seminary] graduate was all too familiar. He wrote:

“I recently had a review of my job description, and the senior pastor came down on me hard in almost every area — essentially amounting to him conveying that he thought I was totally failing at my job. I can take this, if it is true, but many (if not most) of his facts were way off or just plain wrong. This meeting lasted almost 6 hours and all of it was focusing on what I was doing wrong, with little to no attention to the things I have clearly done well or excelled at.”

The senior pastor later told him he was not called to the pastorate. I knew this graduate well from our numerous discussions during the course of his M.Div. program, and I knew he was called to the pastorate. His ministry style reminded me of Eugene Peterson — the famous author and, for many years the pastor in a small town of what I call a “Relational Church.” In contrast, the style of our grad’s senior pastor fit what some call the “tall-steeple church,” more rapid paced and accomplishment driven. His ministry preferences were quite suitable for the suburban community he was reaching and were by most measures a biblical style of ministry.

This graduate’s email brought to mind sad memories of when I was ordained as an assistant pastor in a church of 400 people. During the first couple of years I came to realize that my ministry style did not mesh well with the senior pastor’s. It was clear from his communication — verbal and nonverbal — that I fell short of his expectations. I had no models in those days to help me understand our differences, but now I recognize that my “Inspirational” style clashed with an “Organizer Senior Pastor.” There were several occasions during those years that the senior pastor would have forced my exit if my style had not resonated with a significant portion of the congregation.

I recently received this email from another one of our M.Div. graduates:

So, my style (Inspirational) and my session’s style (Organizer) are very different, and that has been a serious struggle for the years I’ve served here. I’m very familiar with the tensions and why those tensions exist. I’ve spoken at length with my elders (individually and corporately) about those tensions and the general response is basically either, “this whole style thing is bunk,” or “your style is wrong, and you need to just start doing things our way, 100 percent of the time.” Needless to say, I can’t do much with that.

Are these isolated experiences? Sadly, the answer is no. An often-quoted study conducted by John LaRue Jr. of Christianity Today found that 34 percent of respondents serve congregations who either fired the previous minister or actively forced his resignation. LaRue reported that one-third (11 percent of the total) of those who were forced out have not returned to pastoral ministry.

The reasons for termination were:

1. Conflicting visions (46 percent)

2. Personality conflicts with board members (38 percent)

3. Unclear or unrealistic expectations (32 percent),

4. Personality conflicts with persons other than board members (22 percent),

5. Theological differences (21 percent).

The first four of these reasons are the “on-the-surface” causes; the biblical explanations are found in 1 Cor 12:19-21: “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  . . . (Verse 25) that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.”

The Apostle Paul teaches us that a primary reason for division in the church is that the Lord has intentionally placed different members of the body of Christ with a variety of gifts, callings, and ministry styles into the broader church — such as presbyteries and General Assembly — as well as the local church. A good example of a man who understands and acts on this principle of the God-ordained diversity in the church is another of our Covenant Seminary graduates. He is the senior pastor of a large “tall-steeple” downtown church and over the years has hired several of our graduates with ministry styles that are different from, and therefore complementary to, his. I was pleased to note this diversity among his staff members when I did a study of his church, as I have now done with more than 160 churches across the nation.

A statement I often make to our M.Div. seniors — who have been required for the past 15 years to hear me make this presentation on church conflict — is that godliness and maturity trump the dynamics of conflict in the church, but such wisdom is in short supply in many churches. This is because it takes hard work to decipher the communication of those whose style is opposite to one’s own.

To make the point, I have recently been showing our seniors a film clip of a native French speaker who is “trying out” on YouTube the English she has been learning. She does well, but because of her heavy accent it takes significant concentration to discern what she is saying. The point is that we have to work equally hard to understand people whose communication accent is different from ours.

Another positive example is the experience I have had with an administrator at our seminary with whom I have been working closely to reconfigure our Doctor of Ministry program. He and I are opposite to one another in ministry and communication styles, but we recognize our God-given differences and therefore worked hard to listen to and appreciate the perspectives of one another. As a result, the new D.Min. program will meet the needs of a wider array of pastors and staff members.

Churches — as well as people — have differing ministry styles. When I presented these concepts to a friend who is highly esteemed throughout our denomination, he told me of his experience in moving to a medium-sized city and then visiting the twelve PCA churches in the region one by one on consecutive Sundays. He found that every church exhibited a different style, some being more outgoing while others were more reserved. One longhaired pastor wore jeans, and another was shorthaired and wore a suit. Worship at one church was loud, while another featured a subdued pianist playing hymns composed before 1900. But each church held to the same theological views, were led by pastors who graduated from seminaries with formal or informal connections to our denomination, and were governed by elders who took the same vows.

Most churches and pastors are adept at proclaiming their theological convictions, most demonstrate biblical standards of godly character, and most work toward ministering effectively in their community contexts. However, many neither understand nor communicate clearly the distinctiveness of their church and pastoral ministry styles. As a result, churches are surprised by the conflict that develops between the majority members and staff who fit their predominant style and the minority who do not.

Think about the following contrasts — none of which can be categorized as unbiblical — which describe a variety of church and pastoral ministry expectations and assumptions. Then consider the conflict these distinctions can create even though none of these descriptors in moderation can be categorized as “right and wrong”:

  •  Achievement. How is effectiveness defined? Is fruitfulness measured by larger numbers of people, growth of the budget, expansion of church facilities, or by meeting goals or adhering to certain standards of conduct?
  • Time. Is the church focused on the next quarter or the next five years? Is it acceptable to fail to reach goals during the next few months but succeed over the long term? What is the church’s patience level for a new ministry effort? How much time is allowed for a ministry to do well before it is shut down?
  • Mistakes. All churches and pastors make mistakes. How are they handled? Does the church chastise or accept? Does the church encourage those who have stepped out in faith; who have tried to innovate — and failed? Do people come together to fix a mistake, or step back and critique? How are mistakes defined, and by whom?
  • Decisions. Do the pastor and other key leaders make most decisions? Or is congregational consensus a must? How important is transparency? Are board decisions obeyed or second-guessed? Is reanalyzing a decision because of new information encouraged or frowned on? Does the church consider impact on the community when making decisions, or is the focus on what is best for the members?
  • Risk. How much risk is tolerated? Is the church willing to try expansive ministries, or is there a preference for smaller, measured steps? If a ministry in the church “climbs out on a limb,” will people be supportive or critical?
  • Trust. Do church members trust one other out of a spirit of interdependency, or are they characterized by independence and individualism? Are people inclined to trust and submit to what they hear from the official leaders of the church, or are they vocal in questioning authority?
  • Formality. Does the church encourage members to interact with leaders privately, or is there a preference for a formal means of communication? Do church meetings follow “Robert’s Rules of Order,” or are they free-flowing? Is casual dress at meetings encouraged, or do people feel it more proper to appear in suit and tie? Does every classroom look clean, or is the tidiness of the building given a lower priority?

Again, in moderation none of these characteristics describe “good and evil”; all are in the category of “scruples” or “opinions.” They communicate God-given distinctions that mirror the different parts of the body of Christ and enable us to discern the underlying causes of conflict in many churches.

We have been re-created in Christ as people and churches with differing spiritual gifts and ministry styles so that each is empowered to accomplish the unique mission the Lord of the church intends. How sad when our distinctiveness, which God has meant for good, causes unhealthy and destructive conflict.

 

Dr. Philip Douglass is professor of practical theology and director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Covenant Theological Seminary. He has planted six churches and pastored two others during three decades of ordained ministry. For 27 years he has served on the PCA’s Mission to North America Committee, five of those years as chairman. For the past 25 years he has counseled seminary students, pastors, and elders in how the Lord has uniquely gifted them for ministry. His book,What is Your Church’s Personality?: Discovering and Developing the Ministry Style of Your Church,” is available on Amazon.com or through P&R Publishers.

4 Responses to Conflict in the Church

  1. Bob Allen says:

    Absolutely love this, thank you.

    Too often a firm personal sense of calling skews into a destructive pride that unconsciously says: If God uses me this way, then that’s the way everyone should be. If this style works for us, then it should work everywhere.

    Stepping back to appreciate–and give space for–the many and varied gifts and personalities God uses is a delightful exercise… if we can only get away from admiring the mirror.

    Peace.

  2. Ian Hard says:

    Thanks, Dr. Douglass. I think this is particularly pertinent as we approach GA. While I know you are particularly speaking to leadership of individual churches, I believe a lot of the tension and conflict over important matters at GA is only heightened by lack of attentiveness to these matters.

  3. Kent Miller says:

    The solution for church conflict is as simple as it is profound, Sola Scriptura; Scripture Alone. If a church, both the leadership and the membership, would embrace and obey God’s Word for direction there would be unity, peace and purity. There will always be differences, and Scripture would need to be followed exclusively as THE final authority. After all, God has promised us:

    2Timothy 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

    We know we can take God at His Word, but doing so is the hardest part for fallen men. That’s what prayer is for, He…

  4. Kevin M. Bowen says:

    Very well done and timely, Phil. As always, you analyze the issues and break them down in an understandable and constructive manner.