The Single Cure-All for Church Eruptions

An epidemic is sweeping our land in the form of church dissension over the smallest of issues.

The pastor wants to begin living by the constitution rather than the whims of a few self-appointed decision-makers. They are up in arms; who does he think he is, a dictator? That’s their role.

A Sunday School teacher refuses to cooperate with her church’s leadership. She and her little class have been together all these centuries; they certainly do not need to change. Everyone is upset at the high-handed way of the education minister.

The pianist has served that church forty years and now “owns” that little corner of the sanctuary. She has been faithful–let’s give her that–but now, at the hint that the pastor might be wanting to replace her with someone actually qualified, her family and extended circle of friends rise up in arms.

An influential member of the congregation gets upset with the pastor for unknown reasons and lets it be known he wants the man replaced and will not take ‘no’ for an answer. Since he employs half the church, people are afraid to buck him.

Congregations watch in stunned silence as their beloved church tries to self-destruct when a few angry members threaten to bring the whole house down.

What’s a pastor to do?

There is an answer, and this is it.

It might seem to some that the way to deal with these and other divisive situations in churches are wide and varied. The people are different, the dynamics and politics vary, and thus the solutions would seem to be unique to each case. Wrong. It’s not that complicated.

The solution is in godly leadership.

When the Jerusalem church was threatened by division, the apostles told the congregation, “…select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3).

That’s the beginning and ending of the problem of internal church strife: Leadership.

Much of the history of the Old Testament, particularly in the days of Moses and Joshua, deals with selecting and training leaders for handling whatever came up in the life of the nation.

When the Lord Jesus began His ministry, He chose twelve whom He would train as leaders.

When churches were established, pastors (teaching elders) were not the only ones chosen and commissioned to the work of extending the Kingdom of God. Leaders of all kinds and callings and abilities were included.

There are two kinds of leaders in every church, each critical to its success.

There are those officially chosen as leaders: pastors, deacons, teachers, and other officers. They plan the ministry, carry out the program of the church, and have the daily responsibility for the care and health and effectiveness of the congregation.

Then, in most churches there is a smaller group of godly and mature men and women of powerful influence who lead simply by the lives they live. They are unofficial leaders, the second layer.

Often, there will be some overlapping of the two.

The panacea for church ills–that is, the means God has established for His church to deal with life-threatening viruses–almost always includes the second group.

Let me admit up front I do not have “a verse” to support this assertion. Yet, I believe it to be consistent with the entirety of God’s Word. (This is not to say there is no such scripture; only that one does not occur to me at the moment. Do we need such a “verse”? I think not.)

How do we find and choose this second tier of church leaders?

We don’t.

They rise to the forefront of a healthy congregation like cream to the top of a pail of milk. (This farm-boy analogy is probably lost to 90% of our readers. Sorry.)

In almost all congregations there are a few people of great influence who are the heart and soul of that church. Here are some ways of recognizing them:

–First and foremost, they don’t know they’re in that group.

If you told them they were, they would scoff at it. Good sign.

–They have a great love for God’s Word, believe strongly in prayer, and love their pastors, no matter who they are.

As team players, they are supportive of the leadership, even when they don’t always agree with them. You will never hear them complain.

–They are reluctant to speak up in church business meetings. But when they do, the room gets quiet because everyone wants to hear what they have to say.

–They never run for an office, and yet if it is thrust upon them, they do it well.

When you leave them, you know something special has just happened. You felt “the Presence” about them. (But I guarantee you, they don’t have a clue you feel that way. Remember, after weeks in the presence of the Almighty on Sinai, Moses did not know that his face was shining when he returned to the congregation. –Exodus 34:29)

What are such leaders to do in protecting the Lord’s church from division?

They are to do nothing until called upon. (There is an exception or two; see below.)

The worst thing they can do is take the initiative upon themselves and investigate every rumor, quell every dissent, stifle every outburst, rebuke every wayward member. To do so is to create a small Gestapo within the membership of the church, making them a bigger problem than the issues they were addressing.

When the pastor–always this is preferable, but sometimes not feasible; sometimes the pastor himself is the problem–and another leader or two call for their help, they should respond.

Here are some random principles about the work of this group.

a) This second level of leadership is always loosely formed, never an official group. Therefore, it should not be necessary to assemble each and every qualifying person to participate in its activities.

b) This second level of leadership may go for years without meeting. If the church is healthy and people are faithful, they will not be summoned to deal with internal problems.

c) The test for inclusion in the group is a simple one: “Do we need his/her wisdom?” A second test is: “Will he/she be upset if left out?” If the answer to the first is “yes,” get them there. If the answer to the second is “yes,” leave them out; they do not qualify.

d) Often, all the pastor will need from this group is their wisdom and insight–their counsel on what to do, how to handle a situation, or the assurance that what’s being done is good.

e) In extreme cases only, several members of this group will be needed to handle a bad situation directly. They go into action only when a) the problem within the church is the official leadership or b) when the normal leaders are ineffective for some reason.

If the pastor himself is disobedient to the Lord and is hurting the church, there may be an official team in place for working with him. If not, this is the time for the “second layer of leadership” to act.

There is another time when they may want to act unilaterally….

When a faithful pastor is being battered by the unfaithful and rebellious, this “second layer of leadership” should go into action.

Sometimes pastors are reluctant to ask others to step up and defend them. I suspect their motives are noble (“no one should have to fight my battles for me”), but they are misguided. This is not simply about the preacher. It is about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is about the work of God on earth, it is about the health of the congregation and whether it stays on course to bring the gospel to the lost.

If a little group is allowed to tear up the fellowship of the church and destroy its peace and unity in order to have their way, the church’s mission grinds to a halt. The ministry of a good pastor is possibly ruined for years, leaders are disheartened, disappointed members disperse,and the lost and unchurched in the community are abandoned.

This must not be allowed to happen. The stakes are too high.

Write this in stone: Attacks on the preacher are not about the preacher.

The preacher is the visible representative of the Lord Himself. That is to say, God chose him and sent him. (Acts 20:28.) For someone to oppose him simply because they don’t like him or a personality conflict or they want someone else in his place should be seen for what it is: rebellion against God Himself and an attack on the Body of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When it becomes obvious certain ones in the congregation are attacking the preacher without just cause, lay leadership should go into action immediately.

Lay leadership handles internal problems better than the preachers do.

Not all pastors agree with this. Some will cite examples of times they called on a troublesome member who repented and all was well. The exception does not disprove the principle, however.

1) The pastor is vulnerable since his livelihood is at stake. A disgruntled but powerful church member can get the preacher fired and cause a major disruption in his ministry for years. This must not be allowed to happen.

2) But that powerful church member cannot fire another church member. That’s why lay leaders deal with troublemaking church members best.

3) After a long bout of dealing with internal church conflicts, a weary pastor will sometimes simply resign and move to another church. On the surface, it would appear the conflicts have ended, but not so. They are merely lurking beneath the surface. Cancerous members will soon be working their magic on the new preacher.

That’s why the laypeople–those who will be staying in this church and are not threatened by the damning work of a an evil few–must be the ones to deal with these problems.

4) There are no textbooks with all the answers. There are no guides for solving all internal church disputes. But there is something better: The Holy Spirit.

No one without a love for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and the courage to stand up for Him should ever be called or chosen as a leader of the Lord’s people. Sooner or later, he/she will be called into action to demonstrate both that love and that courage.

Let them be ready and able to function well.

3 thoughts on “The Single Cure-All for Church Eruptions

  1. I’ve often wondered why churches (either first or second leaders) keep allowing one or more people to get away with throwing fits or leave it to the pastor to deal with. My first Sunday at one church, I was privately approached by two members of the pulpit committee to warn me about a person well placed to cause me and the church grief. Had they told me the same thing during the discussion with the committee, I would have told them to take care of that before I came, or I would not have come. Turned out a catalyst for multiple problems that created more problems when I stifled their ability to poison the church with gossip, etc. Laymen reading this, deal with these people! Yesterday!

  2. I deal with this in the small church I pastor. Two or three affluent members threaten to withhold their money if we don’t do what things the way they want them done. A couple others want us to hoard our resources and not reach out. I have even had a member offer to make a large donation if we promised to ask a certain subgroup of our church leave, pernamently! He not only made that offer to me, but also to others in leadership of our church… When they brought it up at our council meeting I refused and stood on what Scripture says. When they want to hoard resources, I speak what the scripture says about helping the poor. When they threaten to withhold money, I tell them that they need to use their money according to what is in their heart, God will provide for his work. I don’t addresss these issues directly from the pulpit, because I don’t need to preach to 2 or 3, I preach to the congregation. One of my favorite words, however is “Whosoever”. I use that word as often as possible. I do encourage my congregation to trust God to see his will accomplished with his church. If someone threatens to leave if we don’t do something their way, I tell them that they need to go to the church they feel lead by God to go to, and if that is somewhere else, it is ok. I address each attitude with what Scripture says,(who can argue with that?) and I treat the troublemakers with love and respect. All of these actions are wrapped in prayer…. the battle is with the unseen and only God can deal with that. As a result the affluent are starting to lose their power over decisions. I even had one of my leaders speak out at our last council meeting with scripture.. a turn in the right direction. I know it is easier with a small congregation, well maybe not easier, but the results are quicker. But it works, at least for us. Praise God!

  3. We recently went through a problem where 9 people left in a huff – and those of us left are still trying to figure out what happened. A Sunday School teacher rose in a business meeting, expressed some concerns, most of which confronted the pastor with some objections to something that was not his doing. The following Sunday she was there, but her class wasn’t.The majority moved their letters to another church within a couple of weeks. The ones left came to my class when she was 20 minutes late arriving for the Sunday School hour. All who left were mad at the pastor – This lady took a stand (right or wrong) and her class disappeared. Down right “discombobultin’ to all of us. Our attendance went down to an ave. of 20 – 25. This month a mission church, which pulled out of another church over a disagreement in policy (as we heard it)Still another group from yet another church was having problems and many of those members started going there. Another church in the county is supporting them by sharing their pastor. They were in need of a more stable meeting place (not a school gym). They will meet in our building around our services for now. Be in prayer God’s will is being heard and accommodated through our two churches and that His name is glorified in it all.

    Your articles are most heartwarming to me personally and I share with others. Our pastor has carefully led us through this cooperative effort. We met together one Saturday night to get them familiar with where they would be and to meet us. It was great! I know this sounds confusing, but being there has a lot to do with understanding – God is in this. Just not completely sure what He plans – but it’s big, I’m sure.

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