My Very Own Church Conflict
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. + Matthew 18: 15-16
It’s true: conflict in congregations can be good thing. It can lead to new ways of thinking, open minds and hearts to new ways of being church, and keep congregations nimble, relevant, and flexible. Conflict is part of life and growth, no less in church communities than in any other.
My first experience with church conflict, however, fell well short of these ideals.
I was fresh out of seminary and doing a new church start. Young and idealistic, I was caught completely off guard by the way in which a small, anonymous group of people could violate healthy forms of communication and impugn someone’s leadership and character.
I know everyone jokes about churches splitting over the color of the carpet or which hymnal to use, but what these folks seemed to be most concerned about was power and control. There was no talk of doctrine, vision, mission, or whether or not we were living up to the name “Christian.”
What there was instead were a few members of the congregation and a few more disgruntled folks who had already left, surreptitiously phone-calling other members whom they suspected shared their concerns about pastoral charisma, who had control, and church bylaws. Then those folks (about twelve in all - ironic, I know!) held secret meetings over the course of six months to discuss their concerns, with nary an invitation to anyone who could actually address them.
We were six years into this new church start. I was a young, new mother who was working hard to create beautiful weekly worship, preach the good news of the gospel, create communication systems to hold together our growing community, attract visitors, and shepherd her people through the conflict - but no one in this concerned group communicated with me directly. They met with each other instead, gathering again and again in an echo chamber. And then they wrote a letter - an unsigned, anonymous letter - outlining their grievances, and presented it to me through a representative. They requested a formal meeting, and invited a denominational official to facilitate.
For all the solemn drama and intrigue, you would’ve thought their concerns were that I had been embezzling money, or that I had been sexually inappropriate with a parishioner. But as I sat there in the meeting listening, what they said were things like, “We didn't know you were going out of town on vacation,” and “We don’t have enough input into what goes in the newsletter.”
It was surreal. The issues were all so minor, so easily handled directly and in person, and in any case completely inappropriate to months of secret gatherings. And yet the meeting itself was so tense and grim, as if issues of great moment were at last being brought to light. The facilitating denominational official nodded earnestly, in effect legitimating the concerns by not raising questions about them or the group’s process and behavior.
I listened, responded calmly, made suggestions about how we could do things differently. But inside, my heart sank. The triviality of the issues, along with the intensity of the process, created a bizarre atmosphere of hostile dysfunction.
I remember leaving that meeting thinking two things. (1) “That’s it?? There’s nothing there.” And (2) “Hmmmm. Maybe pastoral ministry isn’t for me.”
I’ve now lost count of the number of colleagues in ministry I’ve met who have similar stories, often eerily similar. Change the names, and my story could be theirs, and theirs could be mine, right down to the details. When I was going through it, it felt isolating and lonely, as if I were the only one. But now I’ve learned that it’s practically textbook. This kind of dysfunction is legion in the church, and we need to get it out into the open, talk about it, and address it.
Nadia Boltz-Weber, the cranky and beautiful pastor of House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO, and author of Pastrix, writes that her bishop has a joke about clerical collars. “You know why we wear those little white squares right here?” he asked, pointing to his throat. “We wear them so that people can project their home movies onto them” (Pastrix, 112).
Projection is all too human; we all do it, one way or another. If we’re wounded in one part of our lives, we often project our needs and resentment somewhere else. Echo chambers have their allure; there’s safety in numbers. And what’s more, leaders need good criticism. All of us, always, have something to learn.
But the ubiquity of such things, even the ways in which they are understandable, do not justify dysfunctional patterns of life. Jesus knew that each of us have things to learn from our neighbors, and for this very reason he laid out a clear and simple method for approaching one another - and his advice, please note, does not include secret meetings, echo chambers, or anonymous letters. Quite the contrary: he puts the emphasis on face-to-face communication, respectful discretion, mutual accountability, and ongoing dialogue.
Church conflicts are all too common, and in my experience, they’re all too often destructive, not creative; discouraging, not empowering. Many young clergy find such environments demoralizing and intolerable, and my guess is that many more with gifts and graces for ministry aren’t even considering the pastorate, in part because of the dysfunction they sense here and there in congregational life.
It’s time to face this squarely, for the sake of both clergy and community - and most of all, for the sake of God’s kingdom now dawning on earth, one healthy conflict at a time.