church conflict

Read my interview about “Surviving Ministry”

(Recently my publisher interviewed me about my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership. Here’s what I had to say.)

What motivated you to write Surviving Ministry?

After being a pastor for twelve relatively tranquil years, I accepted a call that turned out to be extremely challenging. I was not a good fit for the culture of either the church or the community. Moreover, I was unprepared for the trials I would face. The church had been badly hurt by its two previous pastors. During my time there we went through crisis after crisis. Some of them were my fault; others were not. After five years I was done. I thought my days as a pastor might be over. But by God’s grace, I found a position in another church and recovered my zest for ministry. This book is a record of lessons I learned during and since those five “hurricane” years.

So you compare church conflict to a hurricane. How did you happen to land on the hurricane metaphor?

I live in Florida where hurricanes are always on people’s minds, at least from June through November. But I have personal reasons for being fascinated with Hurricane Katrina. My father grew up in New Orleans and one of my daughters lives on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Her husband is a pastor. They accepted a call to a church in Gulfport shortly after Katrina blew through in 2005. The church had been practically destroyed, literally and figuratively, by the hurricane. When turmoil strikes a church it often comes with devastating and unexpected power, leaving piles of hurt and animosity that may or may not ever be resolved. That sounds like a hurricane to me.

What would you say are the top three lessons your hurricane experience taught you?

It’s hard to pick just three, but I would say to a pastor: (1) know yourself really
well and be comfortable in your own skin; (2) spend most of your time in the early years of ministry in a church earning the trust of your congregation; and (3) base your identity on who you are as a beloved child of God, not on your popularity or success. If I may borrow from Proverbs 31:30, success is deceptive and popularity is fleeting. Several chapters in Surviving Ministry elaborate on these principles.

In your experience, how do pastors themselves often create or contribute to ministry storms?

I can speak from both experience and observation. Pastors often act like Lone Rangers. We think we can do it all. So we wear ourselves out and alienate a number of people whose support we need when things go south. We forget that our job is not to do the ministry ourselves but to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Another way we contribute to our own burnout is failing to invest in friendship. Pastors are some of the loneliest people in America. I devote full chapters to these two topics: teamwork and friends. Another thing we pastors are prone to do is talk, lecture, or scold when we should be listening. When I look back on my five-year hurricane experience, if I’d been a better listener I’m sure some of my difficulties would have been averted.

In your book you share openly about your own church leadership crises. Do you include stories from other pastors?

Yes. While doing my research I interviewed a number of pastors in the U.S. and Canada who either were in a period of severe ministry trial or had recently emerged from one. In seven of the sixteen chapters of Surviving Ministry you will read their stories. I felt it was important to write about real pastors and real problems. To protect their identities I changed their names and the names of their locales.

Was there a common thread that ran through all their stories?

Their situations were quite different. But if there was a common thread, it was the simple fact that church ministry is difficult. I think many of us pastors believe leading a church should not be hard. We think, if we just love people, preach biblical sermons, and pray, our churches will grow and people will love us. But this is a seriously deficient view of both the pastorate and human sin. In chapters one and two of Surviving Ministry I address the problem of pastoral idealism. The fact is, we are broken people working with broken people. Pastors need to expect hurricanes. Then perhaps we wouldn’t be so devastated by them.

Who are you hoping will read your book?

Ministers of the gospel are obviously my target audience, especially those who are suffering, considering jumping ship, feeling like a failure, and needing some practical guidance. But I suggest that every pastor read this book. We are most exposed to a ministry hurricane when we think we are invincible. Many churches are just one bad decision away from turmoil. Plus, you never know when a “well-intentioned dragon” will cause trouble in your congregation. I also think this book should be required reading for seminary students. Elders, deacons, and other church leaders would be doing their pastors a favor by reading this book and encouraging them to heed its advice.

What’s your last word to a pastor out there whose church is being blown apart by conflict?

Don’t give up hope. God is proud of you. Believe the gospel. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Ps 30:5, ESV).

Read an excerpt of “Surviving Ministry”

My book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, was recently publishePrintd and is available in both paperback and Kindle. Get it directly from the publisher for 20% off the retail price, or from Amazon, CBD, etc.

To get a feel for the book, click on this link:
Surviving Ministry Excerpt

Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

James’ story

frustratedPastor James (not his real name) had been at Christ Church for over twenty-four years. You’d think by then his church would be immune to controversy. But when James started introducing changes to boost the church’s outreach, an unseen fault line under Christ Church burst wide open. “We tried to change the culture of the church and it couldn’t be done,” James told me. “It created inherent tension in the body.” Overnight, it seemed, Christ Church took on the air of an intense presidential debate, and James was the political football. The rift unfortunately coincided with the resignations of all five of James’s elders. One elder was having marital problems. Another felt he was too old to continue serving. Another resigned to take care of her ailing husband. A fourth elder was diagnosed with bipolar disease and needed hospitalization. The fifth could not abide the changes James was making. So when things were at their most desperate, James had only one person on the governing board besides himself: his assistant pastor.

An influential family in the church agreed with James that the church needed to turn its focus outward. For too long, they said, Christ Church had ignored the needs of the community. But when they saw a church fight looming, they wanted no part of it; they’d been through that before in another church. So they told James they were leaving. Problem was, that family contributed nearly a third of Christ Church’s offerings. So now, James had not only a congregation in turmoil, but little money. The budget had to be slashed; the assistant pastor had to go.

The tension took its toll on James, emotionally and physically. He caught a cold that he could not shake. His teenage daughter said, “Dad, you’re under stress!” James knew it but didn’t know what to do about it. He managed to recruit three new elders from the congregation. They agreed with James theologically but not philosophically. Every board meeting pitted James on one side against the three elders on the other.

“You’re taking Christ Church in the wrong direction,” they told him.

“You’re not listening to the gospel,” he replied. It was a stalemate.

Finally James told his elders what he’d been thinking for months. “We’re not a team. It’s not good for any of us, and it’s not good for the church. Either you need to step down or I need to. If we stay together things are only going to get worse.” The elders took offense, as though James was accusing them of fomenting division.

“We’re not going anywhere,” they told him. So the following Sunday, James announced his resignation.

Three months later, despite their promise to stay, the three elders also left. Absent leadership and with declining membership, Christ Church fell apart and was dissolved by its denomination.

When Confronting a Dragon…

A book that has helped me survive in ministry is Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church, by Marshall Shelley. It was written over 20 years ago, but it’s a timeless read–especially if you’re in the early stages of your ministry.

fire-spitting-dragon-1920x1080-e1421151913451Well-intentioned dragons are often “pillars of the community—talented, strong personalities, deservingly respected—but for some reason, they undermine the ministry of the church.”⁠1 All the dragons have one thing in common: power—power to destroy enthusiasm, shift responsibility away from themselves, and make you (the pastor) crazy. Some wield their power subtly, through flattery, gifts, promises, and sob stories. Other dragons are more openly hostile, critical, and divisive. Regardless, you must confront them.⁠ This is part of your job “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). You cannot ignore the situation and just hope things will get better. You must let God use you to help these people change. Not to do so may spare you a painful conversation but will hurt your congregation and make life more difficult for you in the long run.

Here are seven steps I recommend you take before you confront someone who is causing problems:

1. Pray both for yourself and the person who needs confronting. Ask God to give you a love for that individual and a genuine desire for his or her welfare.

2. Repent of your own sin. Take the log out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck of sawdust out of the other person’s eye.⁠ Identify ways you are like that person. Confess your uncharitable thoughts of him or her.

3. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” Even your worst critic is telling you something that is true. How might he or she, with a little help, actually benefit you and the church?

4. Write out what you should say. Begin by asking for permission to speak honestly and openly. Consider opening with “May I speak from the heart about something that’s been bothering me?” or “Do you agree that one of my roles as a pastor is to bring things to people’s attention—sometimes hard things?” Also think of how you can begin on a positive note instead of immediately telling the person where he or she is wrong.

5. Identify and write out the specific changes you expect the person to make. What will repentance look like?

6. Plan out next steps. What will happen if the person refuses to repent? What consequences should he or she expect? What will you do next to assist the person in his or her growth?

7. Call the person and set up a meeting. The sooner the better. Do not put it off or make excuses. The Holy Spirit is prompting you; he will help you. Don’t keep him waiting.

What other tips for confronting dragons have you picked up over the years?

1 Marshall Shelley, “Identifying a Dragon,” in Leading Your Church through Conflict and Reconciliation. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997, p. 60.

12 burdens pastors most frequently carry

Chuck Lawless, Professor of Evangelism and Missions, and Dean of the Graduate School at Southeastern Seminary, says pastors are most often weighed down by the following twelve things:

  1. Declining church growth
  2. Losing the support of friendsCarrying-Burden-e1377548159656
  3. Grieving a fall
  4. Sensing that the sermon went nowhere
  5. Losing vision
  6. Being lonely
  7. Dealing with unsupportive staff
  8. Remembering failures
  9. Dealing with death recurrently
  10. Facing personal jealousies
  11. Balancing family and ministry priorities
  12. Responding to criticism

Yep, twelve for twelve. I’ve experienced all of these things in my 30 years of pastoral ministry. Fortunately, not all at once.

The question is, how do we deal with these burdens?

I’m in the process of writing a book on that very topic. Tentatively titled Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, I will share stories and practical, Biblical wisdom for pastors in the trenches. I’d love to hear from you. What have been your greatest struggles as a pastor? What have you learned about God, yourself, the church, and the ministry from those struggles? A personal story illustrating the risks, wounds, and rewards of ministry would be most helpful. Write me at meoupc@gmail.com. I’ll keep your information confidential and change names to protect privacy.

Tony’s Story

(The following is based on an interview with a former pastor I’ll call Tony. While the story is true, the names of people have been changed.)

“Tony, you’re a liar. You’re going to have to leave the church.”

Pastor Tony heard the words, but they made no sense. It felt like he’d just been tackled by a 300-lb. linebacker—speared, more like it—and hammered into the ground. The eyes of six deacons seated grimly around the conference table stared blankly at their pastor. Tony grabbed a gulp of air and said, “Excuse me?”

images“You have a pattern of deception in your life, Tony,” said the chairman of the deacon board. “You’re a liar. You’ll need to resign.”

Tony Kendall had been at his church for just three years. The congregation had embraced Tony and his wife Emily with enthusiasm. They loved Pastor Tony’s passion in the pulpit and his knack at connecting Scripture with life. He had hit the ground running. He got the staff pulling in the same direction and sparked renewed vision among the people for blessing the city.

But before long, Tony knew there were problems. In fact, the first sign of an approaching storm appeared the first week he was at the church. One of the trustees took Tony out to lunch and told him the deacons and trustees weren’t on speaking terms. Tony was shocked. This had certainly not come up in the interview process. How could the spiritual leaders of the church allow such a thing?

When the deacons asked Tony to start a contemporary worship service, Tony accepted the challenge but warned them it would not be easy. And Tony was right. It was not easy. Beliefs about worship are about as hard to change as a Long Islander’s accent. But as it turned out, the contemporary worship service was the least of Tony’s problems.

Tony butted heads often with Matthew, his assistant pastor. Matt knew he was on the way out, and made plans to start a church elsewhere in the community. But he would not go quietly. Matt had an ally on the deacon board who was also the board chairman. Matt had often run to Steve whenever he didn’t like something Tony had done or said. Now Matt told him the content of his latest conversation with Tony. He had even recorded the conversation and sent Steve a copy. So several weeks later, at the next board meeting, the chairman asked Tony about something he had told Matt.

“Did you say that or not?”

Tony honestly couldn’t remember. The conversation was several weeks old. “No, I don’t think so. I certainly don’t remember it.”

Steve slammed his fists on the conference table. “Tony, you’re a liar!” He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and played the recorded conversation for all to hear.

“Well, I guess you’re right. I did say that.”

“You’re going to have to leave the church, Tony,” the deacon said. “There’s a pattern of deception in your life. You can either resign now or we’re going to vote to kick you out of the church.”

Tony was speechless. Yes, he was wrong. He didn’t have his facts straight about a conversation with his assistant pastor. But did this rise to the level of an irreparable breach of trust, a sin that merited dismissal?

What Tony knew that the other deacons sitting around the table that night did not, was that Steve had had a long-running dislike for Tony. He didn’t care for Tony’s preaching. He questioned Tony’s motives for ministry. Whenever Tony looked down at Steve from the pulpit, he would scowl back at him. Matt, the assistant pastor, had totally convinced this fellow leader that Tony was a fraud.

Tony knew it was over. He could fight to stay, but Steve held all the cards. Tony slumped in his chair and said hardly a word the rest of the meeting. His brain was pounding with questions. “What will I do? Where will I go? What will I tell Emily and the kids? How will we sell our home? It’s underwater. How can this be happening?”

As he started his car and pulled out of the church parking lot, Tony knew many tears would fall in the Kendall home that night.