“So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” Nehemiah 6:3
Every pastor no doubt begins the ministry with the ideal in mind. He will spend his life doing what God called him to do. His days will be spent reading his Bible, praying, telling people about Jesus, and ministering to his church and community. He will go off to the office in the morning and spend peaceful nights at home with his family. Everybody will love him and look up to him. Then, he’s called to his first church, calls to order his first business meeting, or hears of meetings held in the homes of the power brokers in the church. And he realizes his dream has turned into a nightmare.
Like so many young preacher boys, I began my first church with such naive notions. I was so excited about how God was moving. People were being saved, baptized, and joining the church. We were beginning to make a difference in our community. The church had voted to build a new building to prepare for the current and coming growth. It was a dream come true.
Then, I begin to pick up on comments and put together developing alliances within the church. The Chairman of the Personnel Committee stopped me one day to ask a few odd questions about my schooling and leadership. I noticed two Sunday school teachers huddled up after service one morning, whispering in a back corner. I remember standing on the stage with the Music Minister and commenting that something was wrong. Their actions were out of place, and it smelled like trouble. I’ll never forget him asking with a shocked tone, “How did you notice that?” I said, “It’s my job to notice that.”
Sadly, I noticed it too late to try to avert the coming conflict.
I was informed of a meeting with the Personnel Committee the next Saturday morning. During that eight-hour meeting, I became aware of their months of meeting with another local pastor, their quest for control and the division that they had sown in our growing, young church. I was devastated.
After a fender-bender on the way home, and some tear-soaked minutes with my young wife telling her what was going on, I called my dad. He’d been a pastor for decades. Surely, he would have just the word, a plan, for what to do to help heal the hurt in my young pastor’s heart and the division that was our young church.
My father told me that sadly this wasn’t unusual. “Growing churches represent a threat to carnal, power-hungry church members.” He told me how “every pastor will probably be a sacrificial lamb at some point in his ministry.” He shared how this Jezebel spirit is more common than not in churches and that a wise pastor will learn how to develop a tough skin if he’s to make it in the ministry. “People are people,” he said, “and many times church members can act more like the world than the world.”
What he shared next was leadership gold for pastors leading a church during a time of crisis: “Spend the evening praying, get a good night’s sleep, and then get up and preach like a prophet tomorrow morning.”
The Lord brought me through that difficult time, and I learned a great deal about myself and leading the local church during that first church conflict. I’ve learned even more in the churches and years I’ve served since. Some are “bought” lessons; other lessons I’ve learned by just watching and crying with other brother pastors.
My model of ministry for these types of difficult days comes from the example of Nehemiah. You know the story, so I won’t recount it here, but you can read about it in Nehemiah chapters two through six. Let me point to a few principles that have guided my preaching and pastoral ministry during times of church conflict.
1. Lead by example. Nehemiah worked right alongside the people. He set the pace and direction. He rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty doing the work. You will gain a lot of rapport with your people by saying, “Let’s go!” instead of “You go!”
2. Don’t stop working to start fussing. This is a key and vitally important principle. When you’re busy building and God is blessing, those who told you it couldn’t be done will want you to stop, come down, and “talk.” Don’t. Keep working and building.
3. Focus on the vision, not the division. It was obvious that there was a group out to sidetrack Nehemiah and hinder the work. Nehemiah didn’t fall for it. He stayed committed to the task and didn’t listen to the naysayers.
4. Listen to the “One” instead of the “many.” Nehemiah had a vision from God, but he also had a vocal minority that told him it couldn’t be done and that what he had done wouldn’t last. He stayed close to the Lord and didn’t listen to the voices that would discourage his heart or derail his work.
5. Be aware of, but not overwhelmed by your opposition. Negative voices are naturally louder than supportive voices. You will hear that “they” are many, but that’s normally not true. Keep an open line of communication with your leadership and trust them to keep you aware of the reality of the situation.
6. Focus on building, not maintaining. Another key principle in church conflict is to simply outgrow the opposition. When you focus on placating the vocal, negative minority instead of seeking to bring more people to Jesus and into the church you’re undermining the mission. Keep bringing, building, and winning people for Jesus.
7. Brag on God and the people for the work that is done. Although we focus on Nehemiah and his leadership, a great work for God isn’t done by any one person. It takes a great God and faithful, committed, and sacrificial people to accomplish any great, lasting work. When you look around and the walls are up, and the critics are dispersing, brag on God and tell the people how much you appreciate them. In fact, it’s helpful to do that even in the midst of the conflict. It’s amazing how the devil hates anybody bragging on God. Thanking the people for their faithfulness has a way of bonding your heart with theirs and of strengthening the team to accomplish the mission.
I can’t promise that if you follow these principles you’ll make it out of every single church conflict completely unscathed. I can, however, say that these principles have served me and the churches I’ve led well because they will keep you close, clean, and faithful to the Lord and your people. When it comes to the pulpit and the mission of the Lord’s church, we can’t be anything less.
Brad Whitt is the Pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia.