Taking a Troubled Church


Pastors face few greater challenges than attempting to lead a congregation out of conflict. Yet newly appointed pastors often find
themselves in a factious congregation that is paralyzed by anger.

For thirty months, I worked in that kind of deeply divided and mistrustful congregational environment. The ten insights listed below have proven essential to the healing process at Christ Church.

1. Listen, listen, listen. I spoke with the previous head-of-staff and associate pastor. A few common themes began to emerge. I listened carefully to the pastoral nominating committee’s perceptions of the church’s health. The committee on ministry of the presbytery painted the most accurate picture. Everyone was honest and straightforward-but no one knew the entire story. Only after my installation as pastor did I begin to peel back all the layers and see the full intensity and pain of this conflict. No amount of prior analysis could substitute for carefully listening as people shared their stories of pain and betrayal, misunderstanding, and sadness. Over time and after many conversations, the puzzle pieces slowly fell into place.

2. Be politically astute. Do not ignore the intricate web of relationships, alliances, sides, and posturing that the congregation
exhibits to the new pastor. Some people will demand that you “take a stand, ” but stay as neutral as possible. Tread carefully. Think through the subtle connections in your conversations with parishioners. By refusing to take sides, you ultimately make it easier for people to build trusting relationships with you. Take care not to alienate anyone through your offhand, though well-intentioned and informed, remarks.

3. Affirm the previous leadership. Avoid speaking negatively of your predecessors, even if they deserve your criticism. Many in the church who thought highly of previous leadership will take offense at your commentary, if it is remotely critical. This erects barriers to developing a trusting relationship and delays the healing process.

Go beyond refusing to speak disparagingly of earlier pastors. Affirm their unique contributions in public. These pastors surely made contributions to the parishioners’ lives and the congregation’s ministry. By highlighting their legitimate accomplishments and intentionally downplaying their failures, you strengthen your own leadership base and expedite reconciliation among the people.

4. Accentuate the positive. Churches emerging from severe conflict have usually undergone a period of diminished corporate self-esteem. Many good members may have taken flight during the conflict.

Some of the young families probably transferred their membership across town. Quality staff people may have resigned or pursued another call.

Attendance at worship and other social gatherings may have declined. Many in the congregation will therefore feel that even you, after discovering the depth and breadth of the dissension, will soon depart to a healthier parish.

From the onset, affirm the church’s strengths and positives, even if they seem insignificant. Point out every little gain. Make big deals out of small celebrations. Receive new members as often as possible. Repeatedly tell the congregation how pleased you are by any growth or new development. Affirm your love for them over and over again. By continually emphasizing the positives, you help people once again to believe in the value of their contribution to the larger ministry of the Church.

5. Go back to the basics. A congregation that just “fought it out” must rebuild its theological understanding of community. Many members will have forgotten what it means to forgive, love, reconcile, work together, trust, and take risks with each other. Early on, I continually wove those concepts into my preaching and casual conversations. As time elapsed, I saw previously alienated members begin talking about what they were hearing, moving toward one another, and taking new steps of understanding-attempting to move beyond the pain. Deep down, congregations want to start over.

Between the setbacks, which inevitably come, people will begin to move positively toward retooling for healthy relationships.

6. Broaden the leadership base. Over the years, the same people repeatedly tend to fill the majority of leadership roles. From
committee work to the governing board, a small pool of active members usually does most of the work. In a conflicted church, this creates serious issues of power and control.

Over time, many of our new and reactivated members began serving as elders, teachers, and committee participants-alongside those who were always significantly involved. Broadening the leadership base begins to diffuse the power and control issues. Additionally, by emphasizing the amount of work, service, and Christian modeling involved in good leadership, you reduce the infatuation people often have with leadership positions in the church structure.

7. Be confrontational, as necessary. Even after preaching, encouraging, and broadening the leadership base, some people still insist on perpetuating rancor or publicly criticizing the antagonists they perceive as responsible for the conflict. For those well-intentioned and involved members, I personalized my approach. I pulled them aside for a conversation in my office, telephoned them, or visited their homes and gently challenged them to “lay down their anger.”

After listening to their expressions of disappointment, I explained the practical results of continued disharmony within the congregation. It was up to them, as with everyone else, to turn this church around. I needed them to be part of the team. People are often willing to move beyond their old patterns when they have been heard with love and acceptance.

8. Give them responsibility for the church’s health and growth. Pastors lead in facilitating and orchestrating the church’s ministry, but the congregation’s vitality depends on its members and attenders. I reminded people at every turn that this was their church and ministry. I was responsible for my job as pastor, but they must create a positive and healthy church environment. If they were unwilling to reconcile and resolve their disputes, the church as a whole would continue to suffer in myriad ways.

The congregation began to take bold steps because the members were ready to embrace the future and leave the pain behind. Deep down, people want to move off dead center more than they want to be immobilized by persistent division.

Repeatedly remind them of their responsibility in this matter. Many will start modeling new behavior, and those who have the greatest resistance to letting go of their pain and anger will ultimately follow.

9. Point them beyond themselves. Conflicted congregations spend an inordinate amount of time looking inward. By constantly blaming one another, they lock into a destructive downward spiral of accusation and blame. Encouraging them to lift their eyes beyond the sanctuary walls to the world outside helps to diminish the arguments and forge new alliances. They begin working toward goals that do not involve personal opinions of right or wrong.

This also gives people a new platform from which to redefine their relationships.

Working on a local mission project together, or strategizing about how to evangelize the surrounding community, provides a healthy distraction. People catch their breath, lift their eyes from the familiar conflict, and begin to reconnect with each other. Many discover that they still like each other after all.

10. Give it time. A conflicted congregation did not get that way overnight. Often, the discontent rose to the boiling point over a
number of years. Likewise, moving a conflicted congregation back to health and wholeness may take substantial time. Measure this in months and years, not days. Prepare for the long haul. Temper your ministry, hopes, and dreams with the reality of your situation. Keep on saying, “I know you are trying, and I’m pulling for you.” People are more ready to move on when they trust you to be patient with them.

Leading a divided congregation out of conflict is a true “baptism by fire” for any church leader. The pastor either survives the arduous process or becomes entangled, devastated, and crippled by the pain he or she attempts to heal. This kind of leadership role is an art but more than an art: It is a spiritual journey that requires intense and continued prayer. No Moses moves beyond this kind of wilderness without God’s power and providence. Earnestly ask for it and you will receive it.