By Scott McConnell
As a ministry leader, there may be other things in your job description, but the bottom line is ministry is about people.
But you don’t have to be in ministry to know people don’t always get along.
So, how can leaders be ready for the people problems and the hurts that will come from the church?
When we read Scripture, we see how God’s grace incarnate in Jesus Christ unites us and has saved all believers from inescapable demise. That puts believers in the same boat with the same leader. If that were the only reality alive in your local church, believers would always get along.
In contrast, pastors reveal that in their “previous” church (we knew it would be hard for pastors to feel safe talking about conflict in their current church) almost two-thirds of pastors experienced conflict.
The numbers might be a little different for other ministry leaders, but conflict should not surprise us, and honestly conflict should be expected and not avoided.
Some of our differences in church are literally differences of opinion. There are many things that a local body of believers does that aren’t right or wrong.
Leaders (depending on polity and organization) select methods, systems, programs, and wording to assist with the essential work of the church. Members and other church leaders have a choice of whether they follow that lead, resist it, or ignore it.
A recent Lifeway Research study found that 38% of pastors describe the conflict in their previous church as conflict over changes the pastor had proposed and 38% say there was conflict with lay leaders.
Healthy debate and respectful argument are helpful when done in the right settings and in the right ways. But God designed the local church to have leadership with the intention that the body would function as one. That doesn’t happen when we always fight for our own preferences.
For many ministry leaders, the conflict experienced is really hurtful. Among the senior pastors we surveyed, 34% say the conflict in their previous church included a significant personal attack.
Knowing that this crosses the line—demonstrating disrespect rather than the honor that Scripture says leaders deserve—isn’t very comforting for the ministry leader who experiences it.
Three of the factors research has shown to help pastors stay in ministry relate to how one deals with difficulties. We haven’t had the opportunity to test this among other ministers, but we expect these truths would persist in other leadership roles as well.
God designed our spouses to be partners. Pastors who share their struggles with their spouse regularly are more likely to stay in ministry.
A related truth is the value of investing in this mutually enjoyable relationship, so these conversations are even possible.
God intended for us to follow Him with other believers. Pastors who share their struggles with a Bible study group at church are more likely to stay in ministry.
God gave genuine value to every part of the local body of Christ. Pastors who avoid the attitude of, “This church would not have achieved the progress it has without me,” are more likely to stay in ministry.
From Scripture, we see another pattern that can be helpful in dealing with these hurts: We can’t read the book of Psalms without seeing the real struggles, betrayals, emotional devastation, depression, and despair that followers of God can experience.
In most of those chapters that express such conflict, we at least see one glimmer of hope. Often it isn’t a resolution to the problem or poetic justice.
The glimmer is that the writer, in the midst of the storm, still acknowledges God and His promises, His presence, and/or His plan for something eventually better than this.
That larger picture is essential. Without it, the pain remains the focus.
With a little glimpse from God’s perspective, we can trust that the protagonist is a bit player in a much larger narrative.
For years I was convinced that everywhere in Scripture where the question arose of whether God cared about what his followers were experiencing that the answer was a resounding yes.
God describes His compassion for His enslaved people to Moses at the burning bush. Jesus calmed the storm from the boat when his disciples asked if He cared they were about to drown.
These encounters leave no question that God cares, even if Jesus rebuked his disciples for their lack of faith.
I recently came across a passage in which the response from Jesus didn’t feel as supportive and wasn’t the type of care we may want when we make a similar appeal to Him.
When Jesus visited Martha and Mary, Martha asked him, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” We have all felt that same abandonment by those we lead in church whether it is through their inactivity or their resistance.
Jesus’ response was not to quickly take Martha’s side. Instead He said, “Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.”
When we find ourselves questioning if God cares about the resistance we experience in ministry (or the loneliness), are we willing to ask Him if we have made the right choice? Are we willing to consider if others have a better perspective?
Resolving the Hurt
When ministers and missionaries of retirement age look back on the churches or mission field where they served and describe their feelings toward those people, the memories are revealing.
Those who feel rewarded for having known and worked with those people have higher levels of well-being today. Those who feel betrayed by those where they served have lower levels of well-being today.
In other words, unresolved ministry hurts will deliver permanent pain.
As you look back on the first conflicts you encountered in ministry, how did you respond? How do you feel about those moments today?
It’s not helpful to say personal attacks, betrayal, or deception didn’t occur. Nor is it helpful to deny the pain those caused.
Have you dealt with the spiritual need to forgive those with whom you’ve had conflict?
Have you dealt with the mental need to have healthier ways of responding to these realities?
If not, you’re not alone. And you can be helped.
Christian counselors can help you see how you process hurts and stress. They can help identify exactly what is unresolved. They can help you find new patterns of thinking, and healthier responses to conflict that are more God honoring.
Here are several places to start if you are ready to loosen this burden and find healing from past hurts.
- Visit the same counselor you refer church members to. They are bound by professional confidentiality. Your references to them in the future will have more integrity when you have used their services.
- Seek a counselor who regularly works with ministers such as City of Refuge or the Focus on the Family Pastoral Care Line.
- Look into retreats for ministers. There is a great list that Shepherd’s Fold Ministry maintains. You can specifically look for retreats that specifically equip you for challenges such as Galatians 6:6 Marriage Retreats.
Nahum 1:7 The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of distress; he cares for those who take refuge in him.
SCOTT MCCONNELL (@smcconn) is the executive director of Lifeway Research.