Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 1

If I were to ask you for the most common reason pastors are exited from their churches, what would be your guess? Lousy theology? Bad work habits? Lack of concern for the members?

fired2 Drawing from numerous studies conducted over the last 4 decades, the experts agree that conflict – “the ugly pastor/pew rift over how the life and work of a particular church is to be understood and acted upon” (Chuck Wickman, “Pastors at Risk, p 39) – is the top reason.

Last Fall, I was invited to Grand Rapids Theological Seminary to speak to a class of seminary students studying “Moral Issues in Christian Life and Ministry.” The topic I was asked to comment on was this very one – conflict. Over the next few weeks, I would like to share with you what I shared with them regarding this key issue that divides churches and crushes pastors. Let me begin where I began with them…

We are not sufficiently aware of conditions – In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard observes how the story of early polar exploration can mimic our experience of the church and ministry. She describes, in detail, one of the more memorable failures in attempting to navigate the Artic:

 “In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men embarked from England to find the Northwest Passage across the high Canadian Artic to the Pacific Ocean. They sailed in two three-masted barques. Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a twelve-day supply of coal for the projected two or three years’ voyage. Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200-volume library, “a hand organ, playing fifty tunes,” china place settings for officers and men, cut glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware. The officers’ sterling silver knives, forks, and spoons were particularly interesting. The silver was of ornate Victorian design, very heavy at the handles and richly patterned. Engraved on the handles were the individual officers’ initials and family crests. The expedition carried no special clothing for the Artic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Navy.” The last sighting of the expedition was two months after it had set sail.”

sir john Dillard notes that over the next 20 years search parties discovered remains of the expedition – “…life boats dragged across the frozen wilderness containing chocolate, tea and a great deal of table silver. Skeletons were found, silently gripping settings of sterling silver engraved with officers initials and family crests.

Reflecting on the early attempts of polar exploration, Dillard makes this insightful comment, “In the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.”

(Not) sensible of conditions…unfortunately, this oft-repeated approach to ministry can lead to similar outcomes. Idealistically, many pastors – especially those new to ministry –  believe that conflict will either never happen to them, or will be easily navigated. Here is the first key idea in dealing with conflict –


For countless generations, the idea of conflict as a part of all of life was the norm. But somehow, we have lost this understanding and replaced it with the drive to keep the peace at all costs. More on this later.

If you were to describe conflict in the terms of physics, it is two or more objects trying to occupy the same space – usually you and me! The reasons are multi-faceted, from churches with unresolved issues where factions and power politics are at play, to pastors with personalities and leadership styles that elicit confrontational responses or are unable to navigate troubled waters.

We need to expect conflict because we live in a broken world with broken people, and WE are broken.

BibleConflict runs throughout Scripture: Nehemiah faced it with the exiles who had returned to the land, Jesus had to deal with conflict among his disciples, Paul experienced conflict with both Peter and Barnabus, and the early Church had its encounters with it as well. Gordon MacDonald remarked that, “Adam blamed Eve for his problems, thinking he could wiggle out of conflict. Abraham and Lot split their joint venture because of growing contentiousness among their servants. Brothers Jacob and Esau reached a point of resentment so great that one of them simply skipped town. Joseph had a legitimate case against his brothers but chose to end it in forgiveness. The Israelites constantly drained the spirit of Moses with their complaining. They may have left Egypt, but Egypt never left them. There is Saul angrily chasing David through the wilderness, Ahab expressing antipathy toward the prophet Micaiah, Nehemiah fending off the efforts of saboteurs. In the New Testament, there is frequent squabbling among the disciples, the debates among the early Christians, and the messiness of life in the divisive church in Corinth. Each of these conflicts was different. Many ended badly (David and Absalom). Others ended with great grace, none better than the morning when Jesus made breakfast for the failed disciples and offers them another shot at being on the point of his mission to the world.” – Gordon MacDonald, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Relationships” (Leadership, Winter 2011)

Even the famed colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards ran headlong into conflict – with a less than optimal outcome for him. In 1728, he succeeded his maternal grandfather as pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, where his preaching brought remarkable religious revivals. But he alienated many of his congregation in 1748 by his proposal to depart from his grandfather’s policy of encouraging all baptized persons to partake of Communion and instead to admit to this sacrament only those who gave satisfactory evidence of being truly converted. He was dismissed in 1750. More recently, in 2009, Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, succeeded the late James Kennedy as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tchividjian’s church plant, New City, merged with the larger Coral Ridge, but the honeymoon was short-lived. Seven months later a group of church members, headed by Kennedy’s daughter, circulated a petition calling for his removal. On September 20, 2009, Tchividjian survived a vote to remove him from leadership.

So, rather than packing our proverbial pastor’s suitcase with fancy silverware and flip-flops, we need to be aware of the conditions we will likely encounter, and prepare sensibly. The weather in many churches can change from balmy to blizzard in a hurry, and pastors need to expect that snowshoes and winter survival gear may be necessary. The expectation of conflict is the first key to surviving it.polar gear

Doing Church in a Facebook world – Guest Blog

The pastoral world today is different in many ways from when I was serving in that capacity. As a result, I thought it would be good to invite some of the younger guys to jump in and talk about some of the unique challenges they face in trying to live out the call of God as pastors in today’s church. Today, I want to welcome a guest post by Dan Rose, assistant pastor for several years at Grace Chapel, and now a church planter. You can see what he is up to at “The Antioch Movement” and on his own website at

 If Facebook were a country, it would be the third most populous country in the world. Did you actually read that? Yes. Facebook has changed the way that people live their lives. The word “Facebook” has transformed from simply being a noun, to being a verb. People say, “I will Facebook you” and you know exactly what that means.

People spend hours and hours on Facebook, Twitter, and yes, even Google+. Instagram and Foursquare allow us to document our lives in pictures and locations. Everything we do and everything our friends do is out there for us to interact with and engage.

We live in a world of immediacy with a constant flow of information. We are able to interact with one another more efficiently than ever before, and through the rise of social media we are able to take messages around the world to anyone we want.

Facebook has changed everything, including the church.

Here’s a dirty little secret: I don’t like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, what have you. I really don’t. But, I am convinced that they are critical tools for doing ministry in today’s landscape. Therefore, I use them. Gutenberg’s printing press required the people of that day to completely change the way that they thought about sending the message of the Gospel to those around them, and so has social media.

Social media is not a neutral tool. It demands that we change the way we communicate. We must communicate in brief, in summary. The problem is that the things that we are concerned about in the context of the Church demand time, space, and true community.

Time is lost when it comes to social media. Responses are immediate. We see a comment or receive an email and fire off a response without taking time to consider or pray. This is dangerous in the context of the Church because we are dealing with people’s lives. When we feel that we don’t have time to consider and think, we respond from our flesh. When our responses are from the flesh, they typically lead to problems and misunderstanding.

Space is lost. Everywhere I go my phone beeps with social media and email notifications. Text messages flood into the device. My phone will ring and ring with people who want to talk to me. Social media has driven the mobile communications sphere (yes, text messages and email are social media). With the advent of the “smart” phone, we have lost space because now we are able to carry our entire relational sphere in our pocket. This loss of space means that we think we have less relational capital to spend on real people in our domains, and actually makes it that much more difficult to build the kingdom of God.

True community is lost. Community is ultimately formed through conflict and resolution. When those two things occur, people have the choice to either move forward in light of forgiveness given or received, or end the relationship. With most of our “community” occurring in the social sphere, the communal process of conflict and resolution is short-circuited. When conflict occurs, responses come fast and furious (loss of time) and the conflict is ever present (loss of space) so that we cannot process and pray. Often the “conversation” ends without any resolution. True community is not developed.

Doing church in a Facebook world means that Christ followers, as the Story-telling representatives of Jesus, need to subvert the entire culture. It means that we must choose to engage in person. Face-to-Face, not FaceTime. It means that the Church needs to subvert the immediacy mindset and easy connect. In my opinion, the church growth model of the 80s and 90s simply feeds the beast. It embraces instead of subverts.

The reality is that social media is here to stay. The Church has to engage with it in such a way that subverts its individualism and immediacy. We cannot run away from social media, for if we do we are running away from the world with which we are called to engage. We must understand social media needs to be subverted in such a way that we move from the virtual to the real. From image to substance.

How do we do that? I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out. I am certain of one piece, though. That is, we must “move into the neighborhood,” just as Jesus did. In practice, I think we can simply open our homes and embrace again the biblical principle of hospitality. I am convinced we change the world one good meal at a time.

Dan Rose

Staying Out of the Statistics

A few weeks back, I wrote about the startling statistics that highlight the trends occurring in pastoral ministry today – trends that are resulting in pastors self-ejecting from, or being forced out of, their churches. In the turbulent world of church leadership, many pastors are “at-risk.”

Below are four of the top factors that put pastors in serious jeopardy, as well as a few suggestions on how to stay out of the “statistics.” I shared these at my recent presentation to the Midwest Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and they reflect not only sound research but also personal experience.

1. Isolation (and loneliness). Many pastors have no real friends! The lack of significant relationships – living inside our own bubbles, with the sound of our own voice as the predominant one –  can lead to self-doubt and self-delusion. If you’re not connected to anyone, you’re not accountable to anyone.

2. Not Understanding our Limitations. We are afraid of our own humanity. We believe that by acknowledging our humanness, we will somehow deny the power of God at work in us. Most pastors enter ministry with high expectations to change, if not the world, then at least their corner of it. Yet our grasp of how that might happen exceeds our reach, and as a result, we turn inward in a dangerously negative way. We end up evaluating ourselves against ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that come from ourselves, not Jesus.

3. Lack of Good Boundaries. The best example I can give of this is the inability to say “No!” Dorothy Parker, American poet and satirist, once remarked, “That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” With a sigh, pastors will often admit to this (as will their spouses). Our desire to care for others and work hard in our ministry is hijacked by the desperate need to please. As a result, our internal eye becomes fixed on how we are affirmed by the congregations we serve, rather than finding our affirmation in Christ.

4. Inattention to Self-Care. In spite of the warning to watch over ourselves first (Acts 20:28), most people in church leadership refuse to pay attention to their own needs, both spiritual and physical. The pastor’s relationship to Jesus and the Scriptures can become purely “professional,” with studies showing that 70% of pastors only spend time studying the Word when they are preparing sermons. Our significant relationships, as well as our personal health and well-being, suffer. We forget that we, too, are “in-process!”

Left unattended, these conditions begin to erode the soul, sour the attitude, and corrupt the behavior of those in church leadership. Narcissism takes over, and we begin to believe that it all depends on us. We begin to experience anger, cynicism, bitterness, emotional fatigue and the desire to control everything. The outcomes are catastrophic and almost inevitable: burnout, termination, moral failure.

The question we all want answered is, how do we stay out of the statistics? How do we minimize the conditions within our control and reduce the probability of being “at-risk”?

1. Recognize that you cannot solve it alone! Pastors need to model and practice the advice we would give anyone who is a part of the churches we serve: seek out community! I have become very fond of James 5:16, where it talks about confessing our sins/faults to one another. It is a practice we avoid like the plague in the evangelical church, yet true community cannot exist without it. Do you have a spiritual director, a mentor, or a friend who can fill this role for you? Where is a safe place for you to be totally transparent?

2. Be conscious of the fact that all ministry has a “shelf life.” I found this concept surprisingly refreshing when I came across it in David Rohrer’s book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry. Taking his cue from the ministry of John the Baptist, Rohrer believes that seeing our ministry in this finite light can keep us from trying to be the center of the universe, while at the same time knowing that we have a significant role to play.

3. Be human! This is a difficult idea to keep in mind. Our inability to live within the limits of our nature is the poison that flowed to us when our first parents bought the lie. Living within those limits requires humility, but pays off big in reducing our sense of frustration. God is more interested in WHO you are, than WHAT you do!

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. As people trained in public speaking, we are often poor personal communicators. Pastors are expected to fill an increasing amount of roles in our culture, and therefore need to enter into dialogue with our churches, fellow leaders and our spouses regarding our needs, roles and expectations.

5. Build a Rhythm. Although it should go without saying, I will say it anyway: your relationship with Jesus is the bedrock for all you are, will be and will do. Building spiritual, emotional, and physical rhythms into your life and ministry, such as the Sabbath, silence and solitude, family, and play, is one of the surest ways to stay out of the statistics. I love the “Pastoral Rule” that Peter Scazzero and the staff at New Life Fellowship implemented for building these rhythms into their life and work. Check it out at

There is always hope for coming back if we find ourselves “at-risk,” or even “risked” and failed. It is an encouragement, however, to know that we can take a good, hard look at the conditions that currently surround us and ask, “How can I stay out of the statistics?”