Sunday, December 19, 2010

Church Conflict

Write me with your anonymous stories of the most awful stories about church conflict you can remember. e mail is on web page.

I was asked to leave a church in 1969. The Pastor and Deacons called me into a "meeting" with them to discuss certain allegations of my bad behavior. When I got there I was confronted with a list of bad behavior that, in my view, was not bad at all. In fact, I was rather happy with what I did and they agreed with me that I did what they said but it was "splitting the church".

Karen and I were Sunday school teachers of the College and Career Class in a church on the far west side of Cincinnati. Can you imagine what I was doing that they disliked and I was very happy about? This behavior was so bad, in their view, that they wanted me to leave the church.

My behavior would be considered to be positive today but back then it was thought to be terrible. Want to guess what it was? Write your comments here or on Face Book.


Pay said...

MY guess would be that you were doing home visits with Black people and incouraging there attendance to your Church, this was Martin Luther King time or shortly after,I can't remember when he was killed but about that time. I think it was 68.

Gary Sweeten said...

Carl, Interesting insight about the era and the tensions. I worked closely with several Black Leaders at the University of Cincinnati but my friendship was not a problem with the church. Integration was a hot topic in many places but not my church.

Jodee said...

I can't imagine but I KNOW from experience that there is no shortage of conflict within the church and what is REALLY telling about each of us is our response to it. So I'd be really interested in how you responded.

Anonymous said...

Gary, when I was young we attended a Baptist church that went through some kind of big split. I was young enough at the time that I have no idea what caused the split.

What I do remember is men fist fighting in the middle of a Sunday morning service!

My sister was so traumatized that it totally turned her off church for a long time.

Anonymous said...

A friend wrote to me personally so I will comment anonymously for him. He may wish to write another comment publicly.

Great topic!

I think the spirit of control is a main culprit.

Pastors and church staff are essentially paid CEO, management and worker-bees. But they use different terms for these jobs, and invoke a a mantle of spiritual authority (whether true or not).

Let's say it looks approximately, but loosely, like this:
* Pastor/CEO
* Elders/shareholders
* Ministers/managers of... [various departments]
* Staff/worker bees
* Busy volunteers/interns
* General parishioners/consumers

No one on a lower rung of the org-chart is permitted to raise spiritual questions that differ from the organization's goals. This bothers the lower rungs, because they don't think that the church is a corporation. So they argue. The higher rungs exert control to retain authority. The lower rungs throw up their hands, and go off to start a new organization where they get to be in charge of others. And so it goes.

Jesus wants me to love the Lord and love my neighbor. Until I have those tasks down cold, anything else is distraction. Somehow we Christians have become a religion of pharisees. We ignore those two main directives, and bicker over organizational issues while running rough-shod over our brothers.

As long as the people inside the church industry continue to jockey for control of the corporation, I believe there will be conflict. I'm not insisting that all church organizations are inherently bad; just that there is, by design, a conflict of interest that will almost inevitably cause distraction, and this quickly escalates to personal conflict. That personal conflict leads to control as an attempt to resolve it.

Control and authority become more important than pursuit of a healthy body of Christ. Disagreement is allowed to flourish into opposition. I think churches have fostered a culture of trying to be "right," instead of being whole. Being "right" requires exerting control until the other party yields, and maintaining control so that the other party doesn't contest our sovereign human agenda.

Being whole looks a lot like Jesus washing his disciples feet, or Paul teaching us to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols if it causes our weaker brother to stumble. I'd sure like to see more pastors, elders and ministers lead by example in this regard. Seems like most of the time there is an insistence to get the "weaker brothers" [read: lower on the org-chart] to serve their needs.

Gary Sweeten said...

This topic is garnering quite a bit of interaction. Keep on commenting. I love it.

dle said...

This kind of thing happens mostly in the West. Our affluence affords us the ability to break away from support groups and go our own way.

This is not true in most other places in the world. As a result, you don't see as many splits because churches work harder to keep everything working smoothly. But not here.

I remember David Wayne at Jollyblogger interviewing a pastor from Georgia (former Soviet state), who was aghast that churches split over here or congregations stew because of dissatisfied members. He said that never happens in his country. People don't church hop. Instead, they work through their differences like adults.

Full-time, paid clergy help contribute to the Us vs. Them mentality that pits the "all-wise" clergy professional against the people in the seats. That most pastoral leaders are not raised up from within the local congregation (but hired from outside) also contributes to the animosity that may simmer.

The American Church has lost its intellectuals and artisans because Church leaders cannot deal with the differentness of those groups and find them threatening. Only in Western Evangelicalism is this a rampant problem. Having lost those groups, we've also lost the ability to navigate through the thorniest questions of our day. We've lost our ability to direct the flow of culture rather than be cast adrift in its currents. The upshot is we stone the very people most gifted to help us provide answers and beauty to a world desperate for both.

If we continue to stone our brightest and best, we will continue to fall into a lowest common denominator state. That we seem to already be well into that state should shame us all.

Gary Sweeten said...

So many good comments here. I wish I had the time to interact with you in depth on them. One small point, I have ministered in many other parts of the world and there is a lot of conflict but they handle it differently according to the culture. Since I teach on resolving conflicts in all those cultures I do get to hear a lot of stories about what works and does not work. Go to my web page at and click to the downloads section. Download the paper written by a missionary friend on Resolving Conflicts.