Some amount of disagreement among church members is normal. But when the disagreement turns to isolation, exclusion and separation, it needs to be dealt with.  You can follow all the solutions in Hope for Struggling Churches, but if there is not agape, servant-style love in the body, the church will continue to struggle.

One approach to dealing with conflict is from Rev Speed Leas of the Alban Institute, where he separated it into 5 levels.  A good summary is available from the Committee on Ministry office, a ministry of the General Assembly Council, National Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Find it here.

In short, the five levels are:

At level 1,  people talk about issues and differences of opinion.  They don’t generally perceive this as conflict.

At level 2,  people get defensive.  It’s recognized as a problem, and they start to choose sides based on personal self-interest.  Trust is low.  The job of a pastor in these situations is to keep people talking to one another about issues.

At level 3,  people start to talk about “winning”.  The perceived solution is for the other people, clearly in the wrong, to change and get on board.  Factions form, but peace can still be obtained by listening to the concerns of each camp and reframing the issues in terms that can be dealt with.

At level 4,  people start talking about forcing out the other side.  There are clear leaders.  This is a church split in the making.  This usually takes a skilled pastor or outside intervention, but I’ve seen a deacon body move decisively to put the sides back together.

At level 5,  people are past being hurt, and now want revenge.  They want to make sure the church leaders who let this happen never serve in a leadership position in any church ever again.  Some have been known to give bad references, even call the committee of a church considering hiring one of these staff and warning them.  They see their mission as to protect the kingdom. This is where we do things that hurt the witness of the church to the world.

If there is conflict in your congregation, check where it is.  If it’s level 3 or above, seek outside help.  We are supposed to leave a legacy of love, not of failure and acrimony.

source:  The Alban Institute

Interesting post over at United Methodeviations

Much of what we love doing we love because it is easy and familiar, not because it works.  Recently, I visited a church where the long-time, older members held a fund-raising dinner and made almost $3,000.  Not bad.  They had eighteen people working all of two days to prepare, but had been planning and advertising for weeks.  The same day as the dinner, three boys from the youth group took coolers of Red Bull to a college campus and each sold over 200 cans at $4.00.  They were there for about four hours and raised over $2,500.  Now, this was not a large church, so it is a good tale of fund-raising for ministry, but that’s not the point.  The point is that the dinner — a tradition — raises very little for all the time, effort, and energy it requires.

Read that first line again:  “Much of what we love doing we love because it is easy and familiar. ”

Dean Kelly noted that small churches often remain small churches because they are comfortable doing the things small churches do, and are unwilling to make the kinds of changes needed to keep the church from dying off.

“Having once succumbed to debility, a church is unlikely to recover, not because measures leading to recovery could not be prescribed and instituted … but because the persons who now occupy positions of leadership and followership in the church will not find them congenial and will not want to institute them.  They prefer a church which is not to strenuous or demanding – a church, in fact, which is dying.” (Dean M Kelley,  Why Conservative Churches are Growing (NY:  Harper & Row, 1972)

Not that you want to change what is good and essential.  We don’t compromise on scripture reading and prayer, but the style and format and peripheral activities need to be looked at from time to time.  To not regularly re-examine why you do what you do is to risk failure as an organization.  Rememer, “a grave is a rut with an end point.”

I was in a committee meeting for a social cause I’m starting, and oen of the members started talking about her church.  She’s part of one of the ministries that’s trying to do more than the church is comfortable doing.  I think she’s honoring the Gospel with the activity, but it’s at cross purposes with the overall strategy of the pastoral staff.  It’s fine to do so long as it doesn’t interfere or take attention away from what the they have planned to do.

So why doesn’t she get on their agenda and show the value?  Seems that church is run by paid staff and self-elected deacon board.  The only whole-church meetings are tightly scripted without option for questions in the open forum.  Votes are taking in the middle of the sermon, where peer pressure gains the assent from the majority comfortable to “sit and soak”.

The frustration for that one activity is poisoning her response to the rest of the church’s activities.  She’s not coming to church as often.  She’s more likely to miss the Sunday small group Bible study.  I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet she’s diverting at least some of her tithe to the outside ministry directly.

What can you do to first prevent this and second restore the one drifting away?

Start by having a culture of listening.  In my church, one of the largest in the area, the pastor makes an effort to circulate in the lobby after serices, and is one of the last to leave on Sunday.   He acts like the pastor of a church of 150 (rather than 3000).It doesn’t make the church less large, but makes it more personable.

Second, I feel that the job of a deacon includes listening to the congregation and hearing the grumblings, to deal with them before they get out of hand.  In one church, we had two strains of discontent circulating just under the surface.  Few knew of both, but they fed off the negative attitudes of the other.  When I discovered the first, adn then the second, I took action to hear the frustrations, and was able to diffuse the one, and then the second, and although the root problem (lack of a pastor) didn’t immediately go away, the congregational attitude shifted.

In most cases, it’s a misunderstanding, or someone didn’t get the word in time.  If you have active listening systems in place, those will be taken care of early before they discontent takes root and poisons the congregational atmosphere.

In an earlier post, called “Complainers Care“, I dealt with the issue of a pastor ousting a member who won’t “fall in line” with their “spiritual authority.” I suggested the church should have a method for hearing the input of the members.  Not that the church needs to follow everything suggested, but there needs to be a process that those with honest suggestions are listened to.

(more…)

Although baby boomers and GenX often rejected church, today’s teens want more of it.  According to a survey by the Gallup Institute and reported by D. Michael Lindsay, today’s teens are lonely and spiritually hungry, and two thirds are involved in some kind of faith-based youth group.

The Gallup survey showed that 92 percent of teens consider their religious beliefs important to them. A third say faith is the most important influence in their lives. That number goes up to 52 percent for African-American teens. Close to four in ten say they pray alone frequently (42 percent) and read the Bible at least weekly (36 percent).

Teens report a higher or comparable degree of Christian orthodoxy and confidence in the church when compared to their parents or other adults. Ninety-five percent express belief in God, and 67 percent have confidence in organized religion. Over half (55 percent) call themselves “religious,” with an additional 39 percent referring to themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”

If you want a vibrant church, find a way to get the teens involved.  A young man in one of my study groups came to faith because our church sponsored a “tough man” demonstration – breaking bricks and boards, bending bars of rebar and living large weights while they shared their faith in Jesus.

That church is now seeking permits to build a skate part as part of a new youth center, in an area where there are no skate parks.

You don’t have to copy those ideas exactly, but you should give accomodation to those who live near your building but don’t yet attend your fellowship.  Some have great passion waiting to be channeled.  You just have to make room.

I was referred to a post from Feb 2 about whether a church should ordain women, and what a denomination should do when one of the members does.

Its writer Matt Svoboda makes the distinction between second tier and third tier issues.  I’m no theologian, but I’d guess the difference is that a first tier is what makes us Christian and not Hindu, a second tier is what makes us Baptist, Presbyterian or Nazarene.  A third tier issue helps us choose between denominational choices in the same town.

Some in the Denomination have come out in favor of removing churches from the rolls that violate the understanding that only men can pastor.  (If a woman wants to lead a ministry area in those churches, she must work “under the authority” of a male pastor, and is called “director of” instead of “pastor for”.)  Given the increasingly gender-neutral society we minister in, maintenance of a patriarchal hierarchy becomes harder to sell.

Svoboda notes that even – especially? – Baptists don’t always agree even on the supposed core statements of faith.  (We used to say that where 2 or 3 were gathered, there were 4 opinions!)  Southern Baptist Churches in good standing will sometimes violate the Baptist Faith and Message – the unifying document – on this point or that, but what causes problems in the denomination is over which point.

This discussion rang a chord because I had just read Seth Godin’s discussion on the dangers of trying to maintain status quo instead of using it to stay relevant to your customers. Godin says “You don’t have to like change to take advantage of it.”

The question is not really whether you think women belong in the pastorate.  It’s more about how you decide what you believe, and how you define what is core and what is cultural.  And even if you decide an issue is core, you might have to change how it’s presented from time to time.

Some churches are still fighting the music wars.  Are we going to use hymns or choruses?  Meanwhile, the more adaptable churches have left choruses for worship songs and even hymns.  Which ones are culturally relevant?  The ones singing hymns to worship band accompaniment.

As Godin puts it,

“Instead of spending time and insight and effort reinventing what they do and organizing for a better future, the members are lulled into a sense of security that somehow, somehow, the future will be just like today.”

Small, struggling churches are vulnerable to hostile takeovers, just like small, struggling companies.

With companies, the stronger company will pay off the target company’s debts and may give some cash to the owner in return for not starting a competing company right away. The deal is done and everyone leaves satisfied.

With churches, someone moves in and quickly volunteers their substantial Bible knowledge and shows a great willingness to help. Next, they bring a couple of friends “from the other church.” Sometimes they are single and sometimes they come with a family. Often, they are a bit more fundamentalist than the existing congregation, but they have the time to do the jobs that have not been done in a while – like working in the nursery, cleaning and waxing the floor, decorating the children’s wing.

Then the first all-church business meeting. The new members outnumber the old-timers, and begin to make changes. Within a few months, they begin to act like Absolam, undermining the authority of the pastor, and soon they suggest the pastor should be asked to leave, and to put one of their number in his place to “grow the church” and “preach the authentic Gospel.”

Shortly, the pastorship becomes formal and the church votes to end their former denominational affiliation. From struggling church to stolen church in less than a year. Often as not, the new church is a cult, needing space to grow.

Not all new workers are there to steal your church. I myself have come into a struggling church, full of passion and energy, but always taking pains to submit myself to the authority of the pastor and the deacons. I do not suggest any changes in structure that have not been addressed by the pastor first. You need people like that, who move into the congregation as a gift from God to help restore its vibrancy.

But you need to be aware of the presence of destructive cults. If you need to learn more, surf on over to the F.A.C.T net (for Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network).

(Thank you to Tracy at the After Cult Life blog for the link!)