When the Church Hurts (part three)

This post is part three in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our first post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict. The second post began addressing practical ways to maturely deal with unresolved anger and conflict from a biblical place. In this post, we continue exploring ways to respond redemptively to conflict. Find the first three points in the second post

People come and go from churches, jobs and even their own homes for as many reasons as there are people. Some reasons are valid — a geographical move, or a family circumstance — but not all reasons are created equal. Some people simply misunderstand the nature of community or the work of the Body of Christ. Some of us are self-seeking and some of us are broken. We are easily wounded, easily distracted. Many of our decisions come not from what we know about ourselves, but from what we don’t know about ourselves.

The Church of Jesus Christ has a high bar to reach in its mission. It is here among us to offer the truth of Jesus Christ, freedom from sin and the fear of death, healing of wounds, and an authentic, loving, supportive community in which our new lives can be redeemed, healed, and shaped for significance.

Only in community can we become whole and healthy, everything we were designed to be. Christianity isn’t self-serving, nor can it happen in a vacuum. Community is essential, but communities are made of people — broken, wounded, in-process people — and because of that, conflict is inevitable. Hurt people hurt people. When that happens, the best recourse is repentance and reconciliation. The only way to learn how to live in healthy community is to live through the hard times.

But what about when leaving seems the healthiest option? In our last post, I offered three places to begin. Here are three more:

4. Offer peace.  “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Bitterness chokes the Holy Spirit’s ability to move, both in individuals and in the church. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt. If we explore every creative opportunity that might lead to healing, God will surely bless us.

Sometimes going back is the best way to move forward. If we are still angry with someone at another church, then perhaps God is calling us go back, offer forgiveness and get closure. Even if we don’t go back to stay, it is both wise and biblical to go back and make peace. In making amends, we discover that we don’t have to keep talking about the past because we’ve made peace with it. Take the challenge to make this step for the sake of the Body of Christ. Visit during the week or call. In some positive way, let the pastor and others know you are at peace so they can move on. Paul said this was the ministry of Jesus: “He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to you who were near, for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).

5. Write a note of blessing. After Paul split from Barnabas, he took time in another letter to defend the work of his brother in ministry. What a positive and grace-filled act! A written word of blessing can be such healing medicine. It can remind someone we’ve loved of the good times and of the ways they contributed to our faith. When we offer grace-filled and hopeful words in an email, text or note, we create open doors for future opportunities. After all, they may need us again one day … or we may need them!

Once we’ve learned to speak positively about the congregations we leave behind, we’ve prayed through our disappointments, we’ve offered forgiveness where it was needed and extended the hand of peace, now – and only now! – we are ready to commit fully to the ministry of a new congregation.

6. Make a solid commitment to your new church. Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful.

Let me say that again: Partial or uncommitted attendance in church is not healthy or helpful. It misses the point of authentic community, which is what the Body of Christ is designed to be. Simply put, you can’t be part of a community you’re not part of.

Likewise, bouncing between churches can send negative signals and create unneeded tension. Doing so implies that my feelings are the ones that matter most and that simply isn’t part of a healthy Christian worldview. We find healing in stepping outside ourselves and becoming fully a part of the work going on around us.

So dig in. Invest in the time it takes to understand the vision of a new community of faith. Every church is unique and has a unique place in the community. We recognize that what worked in another church may not be right for this new mission. God delights in doing new things, so we want to be open to new ideas and to discovering new spiritual gifts. We must bloom where we are planted. Then when we are given a place to serve, we can support that work wholeheartedly — with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness.

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When the Church Hurts (part two)

This post is part two in a three-part series of thoughts about dealing with conflict in the church.  In our last post, we looked at biblical stories that model healthy and redemptive responses to conflict.  In this post, we address some practical ways we, too, can respond redemptively to conflict.

Back in my college days, I had a professor who was convinced that the concept of community was at the root of all other philosophical discussions around building healthy societies. When I was in seminary, I visited The Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C. and heard Gordon Cosby talk eloquently about the the central role of community in all Kingdom-advancing work. Those two voices in my life have deeply shaped what I believe about the nature and role of the Church. I believe the Church plays a key role in the reclamation of the world. By promoting healthy, committed communities that follow Jesus faithfully, we model his life and become an answer to his prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth …”

Modeling healthy communities depends on mastering healthy conflict. Until a community of faith learns to deal constructively (redemptively, graciously, maturely) with its differences, it will not be able to move forward with spiritual and emotional maturity. The first option ought always to be for those with issues to lean in and work it out. In this post, we will think practically about how Jesus’ people ought to act when working it out doesn’t work.

What happens when it is time to leave?

1. If you can’t say something nice …  The first step toward reconciliation is learning how to speak graciously. We serve no positive purpose by talking negatively about another church – even those of which we’ve been part. Our negative comments about the Body of Christ can hurt others. 

If the conflict in a previous church is significant, then many folks who are still there are still hurting. Some of them are also innocent by-standers – people who did nothing to cause conflict. When we make negative comments about their church we can cause great harm.

Likewise, we must be sensitive to those in our present Christian circles. We must be sensitive especially to the members of our new church family by not involving them in the conflict of another church. Strongly resist sharing negative stories or comparing churches. To do so only plants seeds of bitterness in a fresh field. What our mothers said really is true: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. 

Better yet, find something nice to say. Kindness is a wonderful antidote to bitterness.  As Paul said to the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable, whatever is pure and pleasing, if there is anything of excellence or anything worthy of praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

2. Keep praying. Pray, and pray some more. Nothing else will do more to create a healing environment in your soul. Keep the prayer lines open but understand that reconciliation is a process, not an event. Healing doesn’t happen overnight.  In fact, you may need to talk not just to God but to a human being in order to heal. If that is the case, then seek out the listening ear and prayer support of a trusted friend who can help to process the thoughts. Be honest with them and ask them to walk with you spiritually through this time. Ask them to pray for you and hold you accountable until you reach a place of peace and reconciliation with all parties involved.

3. If you can’t say something nice (part two) … “Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).

While it is always better to stay quiet if we can’t say something nice, God will usually challenge us to go a step further. After all, even if we manage to keep quiet about our pain and anger, our inability to think positively about the church we’ve left likely indicates a deeper brokenness that needs to be acknowledged and explored. If we can’t seem to think kind thoughts or say nice things about the people of another church or group, then why is that? What is the real source of that anger, that pain? 

To answer that question for yourself, set aside time to be with the Lord. Ask for his insight.  Rarely if ever will God allow us to simply bury our pain and move on. When we seek him in prayer and ask for the mind of Christ, he will show us where we have failed as well as where we have been wounded by others. When we ask, he will show us a path to forgiveness that likely includes praying God’s best over those with whom we are in conflict. Journaling may help in that process. Again, the help of a trusted friend and a strong prayer partner is invaluable. The pastor or perhaps even an outside counselor may be a good step at this point.

Churches are made of people, and wounded people can do painful things to one another. Our responses to others’ brokenness says a lot more about us than them. Learning to respond to pain with grace is a gift to the Church and a strike against the darkness.

Find part three in this series of posts here

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When the Church Hurts (part one)

“Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result?” said Abner to Joab, as the sun went down. (from the battlefield at Gibeon, 2 Samuel 2:26)

We are people. And people, by definition, are broken. If we are followers of Jesus, we are saved by grace but we are broken, just the same.

The church, then, is nothing more than a collection of broken-but-redeemed people. Many of us come through the door of the church hurting, not yet sanctified. We bump into one another and create friction. It seems almost inevitable that in the church, just as in the world, there is conflict. As they say, hurt people hurt people.

Since the very beginning, conflict in the church has been part of the Christian experience. Surely God would prefer if it wasn’t that way, but that fact doesn’t erase reality. The early church understood this fact all too well. The letter Paul wrote to the people of Corinth was sent to one of the most divided, dysfunctional churches of the first century. Even Paul himself was not immune. When Paul and Barnabas made plans to go out on a second missionary journey (Acts 15), Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along. Paul was bitterly opposed. John Mark was the one who deserted them in Pamphylia on the first trip; if he was not able to withstand the pressures of real ministry, why rely on him again? Barnabas wanted to extend grace, but Paul dug his feet in. By the time their conflict reached its peak, they’d split. Barnabas and Mark set off in one direction, while Paul and his team went off in another.

How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

Later on in another letter Paul would speak in defense of Barnabas (1 Corinthians 9:6) and he would work again with John Mark (2 Timothy 4:11). As a result (Acts 16:5), “the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”

Because they were willing to handle conflict creatively and gracefully, God was able to continue to work through them. It is likely that if Paul and Barnabas had separated bitterly and continued to backbite and harbor anger toward one another, neither of them would have been much use for God’s kingdom. But as it was, they were able to double their effectiveness while presenting a positive and mature approach to conflict within community.

What about us? Many of us have moved from one community of faith to another. For some, this was an easy move and healing came quickly. For others of us, though, hurts from the past will take time (even years) to heal. And it might be easy to believe there is nothing to be done about that.

Yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose. Maybe conflict in church is inevitable (remember – we are all broken), but healing can happen when we react creatively and graciously. In fact, as we saw with Paul and Barnabas, God can use both conflict and healing to further the Kingdom.

There are Christ-centered ways to deal with brokenness in all its forms. We can participate with Christ in healing after conflict. What practical steps can we take to find peace with the church we’ve left so we can bring a healthy spirit to the church we are ready to serve? A few ideas taken from my own experience as a pastor will follow in the next two posts.

Meanwhile, maybe these questions will help you process your own experience. Learning to process conflict is ultimately about building a healthy church culture. How are you participating in that process?

  • Have you ever had a negative church experience? Are there any unresolved hurts from that experience that need to be acknowledged?
  • Are you at peace with everyone in your church? How about with everyone in the church you left? Do you need to extend a gesture of grace to anyone?
  • What are you doing in your current church or small group to promote mature, loving relationships?

This post is one of three in a series about how to navigate church relationships in the midst of conflict and change. Find part two here.

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Two Words for Healthy Community: Trust and Freedom

Reputable organizational developers agree on this: trust breeds organizational health; without it, an organization has nothing on which to build. Trust is the foundation on which sustainable strategies are built and the link to meaningful connection.

Trust begins with transparency. A colleague at 12Stone Church in Atlanta once said, “Trust requires shortcomings without secrets. You can’t be on the team and hide things.” This is why spiritual formation in community is so important. We learn to normalize conversations about the state of our souls. Put these conversations in the “wise as serpents” category. By spending time on relational connection and by challenging one another to accountability, we not only to grow spiritually but keep dysfunction from stunting Kingdom-minded initiatives and burning out good people.

Building dynamic, strategic teams and communities begins with trust and transparency. Time spent making sure this happens is never wasted time.

Sometime back, I was with someone who told me he was just “not feeling it” lately where his connection to his faith community is  concerned. He has felt disengaged spiritually from his faith community. I listened for a while, then asked a couple of strategic discipleship questions. I asked about his sin, and also about his spiritual disciplines. Turns out, he is dealing with chronic unresolved sin, and is not disciplined in his personal prayer and scripture time. He wanted to externalize his sense of disconnection, making it a church issue. It isn’t. His issue is on him. And because he is a ministry leader, his choices affect the health of his community. His sin isn’t really just his; it affects everything he is connected to.

Sin is always systemic. And sin always means to erode our trust in God and each other. And because trust requires healthy boundaries and mutual accountability, it is necessarily connected to freedom. This is counterintuitive but true: If trust requires accountability, then accountability breeds freedom.

In his book, Culture of Honor, Danny Silk writes, “At the heart of [a] culture [of honor] is a value for freedom. We don’t allow people to use this freedom to create chaos. We have boundaries, but we use these boundaries to make room for a level of personal expression that brings what is really inside of people to the surface. When people are given choices, it reveals the level of freedom they are prepared to handle.”

It is just so easy to forget we have a choice. This is an important principle to internalize. When both leaders and community members acknowledge that we are not victims, nor manipulators, we begin to make better decisions and hold more mature conversations.

Healthy, God-honoring cultures provide the kind of accountability that refuses room for a victim mentality.

We are not victims — in our work, in our relationships, in our choices. Isn’t that a glorious truth? We have the freedom and power to refuse shame, be honest, and make changes. As we learn the art of making holy choices, we become trustworthy people. As we build trust, we build community.

Ministry leaders, how are you building a culture of trust, honor, accountability and mature choice among your teams? It begins with you. How are you progressing spiritually? Which of your issues — that you are complaining about and blaming others for — are actually on you? As a leader in the church, you are expected to acknowledge that and make progress by dealing with sin and leaning into discipline.

If your frustrations are primarily rooted in your ministry, how are you actively addressing that? Is your face set enthusiastically and faithfully toward the work for which you’re paid? Where are you passively disappointed or frustrated? Remember: our work is not to “get things done.” Our work is to put people in position to get their lives transformed. Is your posture toward your people both trusting and trustworthy?

Sowing seeds of trust and freedom into our communities will produce a great harvest of Kingdom-minded churches and mature followers of Jesus. And because this is the desperate need of the world today, it worth our earnest pursuit.

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