Avoid the Top Five Reasons for Pastoral Terminations, Part 1: Church Already in Conflict

Many pastors arrive at a new church to find a lot of unresolved and deeply emotional conflict beneath the surface. Here are three important but often overlooked facts about this type of destructive church conflict.

In a series of five articles, I will give the top five causes of forced terminations (from the 2006 Forced Termination survey conducted by the Church Minister Relation's Directors network in cooperation with Lifeway Christian Resources) and offer several prevention strategies for each. While I cannot give you a guarantee that reading these articles and following the guidelines will prevent all forced terminations, I do believe these will help. We will begin with number five.

Cause 5: The church was already in conflict when the pastor arrived

Many pastors arrive at a new church to find a lot of unresolved and deeply emotional conflict beneath the surface. Here are three important but often overlooked facts about this type of destructive church conflict.

Fact # 1: These conflicts do not end when a pastor, leader, or group declares that the conflict is over.

Fact # 2: Church conflicts, which have resulted in strong emotional differences of opinions, are not resolved in a majority church vote.

In a majority vote situation, the majority voters may leave the meeting declaring, "We won!" The minority voters may leave with a feeling of, "we lost ... but we will get them next time." The next time may be a month, a year, or longer. As a result of this type of "win-lose" vote, I have observed church families with long standing distrust and built up resentment. When this happens, every vote, no matter how insignificant, becomes a "win-lose" vote.

A pastor who is unaware of this underlying and unresolved conflict may be unknowingly caught in the middle.

Fact # 3: Conflicts end when overwhelming majority of the people involved in the conflict permit them to end.

What does a pastor or staff member do to help prevent this type of forced termination from happening?

1. Take time to investigate and evaluate the church before you go

  • Research the church and ask probing questions of the search committee, other pastors in the community, as well as denominational leaders. Depending on your affiliation, these may include directors of missions, state convention leaders, or other denomination leaders.
  • Ask about prior forced terminations and the reasons for them.
    Read the church's constitution and note when the church made changes to the by-laws.

2. Evaluate yourself to see if you are prepared to help a church in conflict

  • Are you prepared spiritually, emotionally, and physically to come to the aid of a church which has unresolved conflict?
  • Do you have training, spiritual gifts, skills, or experience in conflict management?
  • Will you have access to someone who can mediate the conflict?
  • Are you willing to commit to the length of time it will take to see this through to resolution?
  • Do you have a strong base of support (family, mentors, and colleagues) to pray with you and to listen to you? You will need to vent and seek wisdom from time to time.

3. Seek and depend on the power of God's Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and power beyond yourself

Bob Sheffield served as a pastoral ministries specialist in the pastoral ministries area of LifeWay until 2007. In this role, he frequently consulted with churches on a number of staffing issues. Prior to coming to LifeWay in 1985, Sheffield served as a pastor of churches in Mississippi and Texas for 25 years. He has also served as an interim pastor at numerous Nashville-area churches.
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