More Pastors Are Leaving Ministry Over Church Conflict…… | News & Reporting

Conflict had become the norm at Trinity Church in Redlands, California.

The lead pastor left in 2022 amid a wave of disgruntled attendees. Following his departure, some church members remained upset at the congregation’s elders. In all, there had been at least a dozen situations that came up over a 14-year period.

When Doug Baker arrived as interim pastor, he knew the conflict had to be addressed. Trinity called in Peacemaker Ministries, a group that mediates conflicts from a biblical perspective. Over a weekend in March 2023, Peacemaker held 15 meetings with people embroiled in the church conflict, put together a plan, and peace began to emerge.

Healing started. Many conflicts were resolved. Some people forgave. Some left the church. Trinity, which now averages 500 attendees in Sunday worship, began to change.

The conflict resolution process revealed that the congregation didn’t feel as if the elders valued their opinions. The elders began to listen humbly, and they have kept listening. Two elders stand at the welcome booth each Sunday to hear people’s opinions about church matters. According to Baker, “conversations have opened back up.”

The situation at Trinity has “been better—much, much better,” he said. “There is a peace. There is a graciousness, a unity, a love for each other and for the lost. People are reengaging with ministry. We are seeing specific ministries thriving a whole lot better because people are not worried about the struggle. They are more concerned about the kingdom.”

According to church conflict researchers, Trinity illustrates some broader trends. Conflict often provokes pastors to leave their churches or at least consider leaving, researchers at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research found. Yet, conflict experts also say, that doesn’t have to be the result of conflict. Rather than provoking departures, conflict should be viewed as an opportunity for personal and congregational growth.

“All conflict produces friction, and friction will always produce heat,” said Tony Rose, a longtime Southern Baptist pastor who holds a master’s degree in conflict management and now consults with churches in conflict. “But the one who manages conflict properly turns that friction into traction, not heat.”

Church conflict is on the rise, according to a Hartford report released earlier this year titled “‘I’m Exhausted All the Time’: Exploring the Factors Contributing to Growing Clergy Discontentment.” The research was based on a survey of about 1,700 religious leaders in the fall of 2023. At that time, nearly three-quarters (72%) of US churches reported some kind of disagreement or conflict. That’s up from 61 percent in early 2023 and 64 percent in 2020, according to previous reports.

That conflict impacts pastors. More conflict in a church increases the pastor’s likelihood of leaving. Nearly 40 percent of pastors who have never considered leaving their present congregation reported no conflict in their churches. Yet only 5 percent of pastors who “fairly often” or “often” consider leaving say their churches are conflict-free.

Conflict in the church is not the only reason pastors reported thoughts of departure. Congregational unwillingness to meet new challenges, diminished congregational vitality, and attendance of 50 people or less also correlated with increased thoughts of leaving the congregation.

“However, these dynamics were less influential on thoughts of leaving one’s current congregation than the presence of conflict and poor congregational relationship quality,” the report stated.

Church conflict also increases a pastor’s chances of leaving ministry altogether. Ninety-one percent of pastors who think about leaving pastoral ministry “fairly often” or “very often” serve in churches reporting conflict. And 77 percent of pastors who have considered leaving pastoral ministry “once,” “twice,” or “a few times” report conflict in their churches. Of those who never consider leaving pastoral ministry, 63 percent serve in churches with conflict.

“What is positively associated with fewer thoughts of leaving,” the report concluded, is “being in a church with a bright outlook for the future, one that has less conflict, is more open to change and adaptation, and cultivates good, healthy relationships between the members and pastor.”

Peacemaker Ministries CEO Laurie Stewart said the research coincides with her experience in churches. “It does seem like church conflict has been increasing over the past few years,” she said.

Yet with proper strategy for managing conflict, Stewart said, it can be harnessed for good.

“Conflict is an opportunity for us to share the gospel,” she said. “The gospel isn’t just a one-time event where you pray a prayer and now you’re secured in heaven. It’s more than that. It’s meant to transform our lives while we are still on this side of eternity. One of the ways God gets our attention to help us realize our need for transformation by the Holy Spirit is through conflict.”

Careful listening is one of the most important strategies for managing conflict, Stewart said. So is avoiding the urges to divide, blame, and run away. Rather, tension should drive Christians to take responsibility for hurt they have caused and seek forgiveness. It’s not a quick process.

“Even in those situations where I think I did everything right, if I have caused other people harm or hurt their feelings, I’m still responsible for the harm I have caused,” she said. Even if believers have not sinned, they should learn to say, “I’m really sorry I hurt you. I care about you. What can we do? Would you please forgive me?”

Peacemaker Ministries applied these principles in one situation where two pastors clashed within a congregation. The church was convinced one of the pastors had to go. But after a mediation process, they reconciled.

“Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ [Matt. 5:9]. So if we are already adopted into the kingdom,” Stewart said, “we are peacemakers. We just don’t know how to do it, so we really need to learn how to do peacemaking.”

Rose added some practical pointers for navigating church conflict:

  • Remember that church conflict is normal. Even Paul and Barnabas had trouble getting along when they clashed over whether to give John Mark a second chance as their missionary traveling companion (Acts 15:36–41).
  • Don’t try to win a conflict. Instead, seek a win-win solution for all parties involved and adopt a sympathetic perspective.
  • Never address topics of tension in an email or text. Make a phone call at the very least. Talk in person whenever possible.
  • During conflicts, focus more on being a godly person than on obtaining a specific outcome.
  • Realize it’s not always wrong for a pastor to depart a church amid conflict. “If you change churches simply because of problems, all you’re going to do is exchange sets of problems,” Rose said. Yet, “there are instances when it’s time to go. There’s no guilt in that. You just have to weigh it out.”

While not all conflicts have happy endings, some do. The likelihood for happy endings increases when all parties remember that Jesus has called them to be peacemakers. Baker and Trinity Church learned that firsthand. Baker’s message for other churches and pastors in conflict is simple: There’s hope.

“There is always hope if we will be the people that we need to be,” Baker said. “You can’t control your reputation, but you can control your character. You have to ask yourself: What kind of person do I want to be in this moment? Then act that way and leave the rest up to God.”

David Roach is a freelance reporter for CT and pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Saraland, Alabama.

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