I had the great privilege of pastoring one church for more than four decades. I began to preach for them when they were a mission work and today sit in the same congregation as the pastor emeritus. Thankfully, my tenure was mostly peaceful, but I don’t know of any pastor who can remain long in one place and not face conflict. Some conflicts are well worth having, and some you cannot avoid. I have also learned that the way you fight is as important as whether you win or lose.
In fact, a pastor might win a fight and eventually lose his church, or his reputation, or even lose his own spiritual battle.
There are certain issues for which a pastor should be willing to lose his job, if his conscience and integrity mean anything. Unfortunately, some pastors seem ready to fight over the most obscure and insignificant matters, “making mountains out of molehills.” All of us in the ministry need to be careful that we are not at either extreme of the “conflict scale,” from being contentious to being a flatterer. If by personality we have a “contentious spirit” we probably should not be in any kind of spiritual leadership. Paul makes this clear in 2 Timothy 2:23-26 (NIV):
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
The other end of the scale is the “people pleaser,” the glad-hander, the pastor with the plastic smile who is always testing to see which way the wind is blowing and works to make sure the boat is never rocked. This is the pastor who avoids all conflict and inevitably backs into them, usually angering people because he simply won’t take a stand on anything. Some people might think you are holy for not fighting; others will think you a coward. Again the apostle Paul has something to say about this in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6 (NIV):
We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men, not from you or anyone else.
Fear God, Not Sheep
As a pastor you are an under-shepherd of Jesus Christ, but you must actively shepherd. We have to fear God more than sheep; if you live in fear of sheep, you don’t know your mission or calling. Some sheep have more “fleece” than others, as in wealthy tithers and donors. Some people have influence and they know it, and God help you if you make them angry. Loving sheep means you have to lead them through rough places to get them where they need to be, and they might not like it. For the sake of the flock, you have to be willing to lose some people, and you will lose some no matter what you do.
Choose your fights carefully and look to your own soul and behavior. You should seek to honor Christ as you stand on issues; make sure you always fight according to biblical principles. We can be angry, and sometimes things are so bad and evil that we have a right to be angry. But we never have a right to sin.
If you preach the Bible honestly and faithfully, it is going to cut to the heart of some of your listeners. If they have been comforted in their sin, then expect some reaction. The reaction we all want is repentance, but sometimes it seems they want to kill the messenger. If you have not read into the text, if you are not preaching out of grievance or being manipulative so as to attack individuals, then you can stand with integrity behind the Word of God. Your sincerity might not matter to the person who is angry with you, but it should matter to you.
Gameplan for Conflict
Some people will be angry with you for no reason other than the fact you represent authority, and they will transfer their struggles against their parents to you. Some people in our congregations have mental problems, and there is almost nothing you can do to prevent them from bringing drama into your counseling office. They will want to make their problems personal with you and even create conflict to make you out as the problem. If you tend to be a co-dependent personality this will be difficult for you, but none of us can help everybody, and all of us need to remember there is only one Jesus who can save people. You aren’t him.
Here are some suggestions for dealing with church conflict:
- Remember, we are always in a spiritual battle. Make sure you are wearing God’s armor and using spiritual weapons, not fleshly ones.
- Make sure you fight to love God’s people.
- Build your leaders and your relationships with them so they will have your back.
- Be humble before them and admit when you blow it or fail.
- Confront gossip quickly. Don’t allow an atmosphere of backbiting and slander, and take no part in it.
- Keep your conflicts off email and social media. Deal personally and up front with individuals.
- Try to protect your wife by not bringing every issue home with you. Don’t let her feel she has to defend or protect you.
Ultimately, we all need to dwell in the shelter of the Most High so we can rest in the shadow of the Almighty (Ps. 91:1).