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Lecture 17: Pastoral Leadership and Conflict (Part 1)
We are talking about conflict and conflict is – I don’t need to tell you – in pastoral ministry, it comes part and parcel with it.
A. Eugene Peterson, description of a “bandlands” time in his life
One of my favorite people that I have read over the years – I think I have read every book he has written – is Eugene Peterson. He has been a mentor source to me. One of the great privileges I had about two years ago was to drive over from our cabin up in northeast Washington to Flathead Lake and spend a couple of hours with him. I will never forget that.
One of his very wonderful books in my life is “The Pastor,” his memoir he wrote near the end of his life. He talks about conflict throughout the book because he spent many, many years as a pastor. He has one particular chapter in which he talks about going to the monasteries; and how, of course being the contemplative he was, he often found it healing for him.
He tells one humorous story. As he was going through what he called “the badlands,” just making the point that every pastor goes through the badlands, he was at this monastery, this particular one with nuns, being ministered to and going through reflection and healing and all. I will probably get in trouble for reading this, but I do think it is funny.
“In one of our conversations a sister must have detected in my language that betrayed a certain romanticizing notion I had developed regarding her convent of nuns. Vowed to a life of prayer, protected from the noise and interruptions of the outside world, a holy community and a holy place. Of course, pastors sometimes, especially when you are dealing with congregations and the messiness, would just love to go to a community of healing and a holy place and live the rest of your life there. She said to me, ‘Eugene, is it difficult to be married?’ I replied, ‘Well, yes, it is the hardest thing I have ever done. I lived 25 years as the center of my universe and then suddenly I was no longer the center. There was another, Jan, who had been accustomed to being the center. It took us both by surprise. You can’t have two centers. Yes, it is difficult, why do you ask?’” She asked, “Well, how would you like to be married to 13 women? Some of these nuns can be real bitches.” So much for the romanticizing of the co
I think he was using some humor to make the point that there is going to be conflict wherever we go, whether it is in our marriages or whether it is in our convent, or whether it is in churches. He spends quite a bit of time reflecting on the badlands period of his ministry. He planted this church in Bel Air?_____03:21.8 Maryland and they finally built a building. All through this and after building the building that, as he put it, “the badlands” occurred, that lasted six years. He writes later to say, “The badlands, this desert time, for probing the interior of my pastoral vocation, continued to do its work. I was getting into the guts of who I was as a person. I was leaving the performance mode in which I had done pretty well up until then.”
I think we can identify with that. We all go through the badlands. That is important to say because I think when we are in the badlands, when we are in conflict, we can feel like “it is just me.” No, it is us. It is all of us. But it can be a time of great introspection, which we will talk about a little bit later.
B. The reality of conflict we face
I want to first of all talk about the reality of conflict that we face. It was Alan Redpath who once said, “Struggle, discord, infighting, is just part of ministry.” You are a minister. You are always in a crisis. You are either in the middle of one, you’re coming out of one, or you are about to enter into one. In fact, a Fuller Seminary study noted that 75% of pastors described a significant stress-related crisis in ministry. I am assuming the other 25% are dishonest, or not so transparent.
We know we are in good company, not only because we can get together with pastors and we will all end up sharing our war stories from time to time. We also know we are in good company because when we look into Scripture, there is conflict from the very beginning: From Adam and Eve, to Cain and Abel, to Esau and Jacob, then Jacob and Laban, and Moses and Miriam, and David and Saul, and Nehemiah and his enemies, and Paul and Barnabas. Everybody, it almost seems. Paul dealt with conflict in almost every church. You see this especially in the Corinthian correspondence and the Philippian correspondence.
C. Conflicts we remember
I stopped for a moment, and I think in my three churches there were various conflicts; but then I think we can all probably point to “the conflict.” In each of my three churches there was “the conflict.” In my first church I call it “the Philippine crisis.” I’m not going to go into a long story, but my predecessor left to go to the mission field; found a child for a family in my church who were childless, could not have children. It was wonderful. They brought this orphan over; and in the process of the transition, they had gotten very close to this orphan and decided they would adopt the child, rather than give it to this family in my church. Now I was dealing with this family and this former pastor. I call that the Philippine crisis. It was very difficult. I was really in a no-win situation because the church was perfectly split between those who still wanted whatever the pastor wanted, and those who were with the family that felt betrayed. That was tough.
At my second church I will call it the Ecclesiastes crisis. Everything was going pretty well until I preached the Book of Ecclesiastes. There were a number of Europeans that never forgave me for preaching a book by some hedonist, narcissist. What am I doing preaching out of Ecclesiastes? I should be preaching Jesus.
In my last church I will call it the former pastor crisis, in that I was the pastor who came on the heels of my predecessor, who was sort of what you might call an interim. It was not supposed to be that way, but actually a lot of times after a long, long pastorate, the next pastor ends up being sort of an interim. That left quite a mess. When I came, I had to deal with a lot of people who were in conflict.
The point is, conflict just comes with the territory. I think it was Gary Will?_____(07:56.8) who said, “Leadership is a feud.” It is always a feud. We find ourselves in a contest of wills. Ruth Haley Barden?_____(08:05.0) said, “The leader always gets voted off the island.” That is just the way it is.
II. Reasons for Conflict
I have listed six, at least to start with, at least to get us warmed up to this. Why is there so much conflict?
A. It’s part of life
It is part of life, for one. We know this. Galations 5:17, “The flesh sets itself against the Spirit.” Secondly, it is part of our twisted desires, our self-centeredness. Third, we are in a war, so we shouldn’t be surprised. It is a little bit like someone from Westmont College who wrote an article some years ago in which he talked about conflict and pastors and reminded them, “We are in a war. When you are in the trenches and people are shooting, you don’t step out and go, ‘Hey, that is hurting my feelings.’ It’s part of being in the war.”
B. Because of your leadership role
Some will come because of maybe our style or a leadership approach, our role, if you will. I have discovered, people don’t like people out in front sometimes. It just comes with it. We step in and realize we have stepped into someone’s turf. That happens. It happens because we are confronting people. We have to do this. We have to admonish, as we talked about earlier. That comes with conflict.
Sometimes we have brought it on ourselves. We do stupid things. We mismanage our time, or we don’t work really well with the board, or we bring change for change sake. You want to get people angry? Just change things up just to be change agents.
C. God allows it for our personal growth
Here is a big reason I think why we are in conflict. God is shaping us and refining us. I hate the conflict but I must say, I like what it does for me.
I was in my second church recently and came face to face with one of my real nemesis. I think I can say, he was probably the most difficult man in my life. There he was, sitting there in church. I had come back after years, and I was preaching. Actually , he came up and we had a very pleasant conversation. Part of me wanted to say, “Do you realize what havoc and hell you created in my life?” But the other part of me wanted to say, “Thank you.” I became a different pastor. I did. God used that struggle. Scripture tells us that this is what God does, he refines us and He is maturing us. So, that is part of the reason.
III. The Need to Address Conflict
There are these reasons for conflict. That leads to what I want to talk about for a just a couple of moments, and that is the need to address conflict. We can’t sweep it under the rug. We can’t be avoiders. Some of us tend to.
A. Conflict can deplete you if it’s not resolved
The point, is conflict can deplete us if it is not resolved. It can wear us out. It can really wear us out. ?Fleming_____(11:43.9) once said, “Energy is the leader’s currency.” That is an interesting statement. I think he is right. Energy is the leader’s currency. If conflict depletes us and sucks away our energy, it sucks away our leadership.
B. Conflict can distract us
Conflict can also distract us and that is why we need to address it. It can turn us inward. It can distort reality. It can cause us to fail to see the really good things. We begin to turn in. I remember on some of my harder days, my wife would say, “John, you’re not the fun person you used to be.” I wasn’t. I became very serious, sometimes morose, certainly distracted.
C. Conflict can derail you if not resolved
Here is the third reason we need to address it, it can just derail us. It is like hitting black ice. It can keep us from fulfilling our calling.
I remember a pastor once, I asked him how his ministry was going and he said, “You know, I think for the most part it is going really well, except for three people in my church, and they keep me up at night.” It doesn’t take very much and then we get derailed if we’re not careful.
IV. Respond to Conflict with Wisdom
Here is the fourth thing in your notes. I want to talk a little bit about some of these issues that lead to conflict and go a little bit deeper. Why do we face conflict in the church? What is it with pastors and congregations?
A. Aversion to change
The first one is, aversion to change. Let’s think about leaders. Leaders by nature, or at least by definition, should be missional, they should be visionary, and they should be strategic, and they should be tactical. If they are all of those things, then there is going to be change. Change and leadership are a mutual journey together. The problem is, where there is change, there is conflict. Because I have found that people do not like change.
My first church, I will always remember this, a couple came up to me – actually he was on the search committee – an older, seasoned, Godly leader in the church. He was on the board. He said to me, “Pastor, it is your two-year anniversary tonight. Did you realize, it has been two years today you came to our church. My wife and I want you to know tonight, we have forgiven you.” I said, “I’m sorry.” “Yes, we decided, it has been two years, it has been long enough. Remember when you took the Power Magazine out of the worship folder? We used to love to read that magazine. You remember when you took it away.” I said, “No, Carl, actually, you remember, I didn’t take it away. I just simply set it aside so you could read it after the service was over.” I remember thinking afterwards, “It took two years to forgive me for simply putting a Power Magazine aside so people could focus on worship.” It seems now really quite petty.
The reality is, it was change. People in this particular church did not like change at all. The problem is, you see, it is the perfect storm because leaders by definition are transformational. If we are leaders, we don’t come in to maintain the status quo, that is not what leaders do. In fact, true leaders have an aversion to stale air. They come in and they sniff and go, It’s musty in this place. We need to open the windows. This is what transformational leaders do. They come into these institutions and people want them just to maintain things and turn on the lights and turn them off, but please turn them on and off the same way; when the reality is, we’ve been called to kind of mess with people’s routines.
So, we start changing up things. We realize we have to change the staff. We have to change the worship order of things. We need to change these procedures. We need to give a different emphasis to the ministry. This is what leaders do and they take risks and they brave the black ghosts of the unfamiliar. They do this because they recognize the perils of stagnancy and redundancy and institutionalization.
What happens in churches? They are supposed to be movements, right? You come, especially out of seminary, I was fairly fresh out of seminary. I wanted to grab a tiger by the tail, I wanted to be part of a movement. I came in so excited, ready to change the world; and I hit this wall of resistance to change, even as I say, to worship folders. I realized, if people can’t handle a change in worship folders, I’ve got a long road ahead, because I see things that are a lot more serious that have to be changed. But change has this potential to create crisis.
B. Style of leadership
Here is the second thing that is behind why there is conflict, as I go a little bit deeper, it is just the style of leadership. Sometimes it is our style people begin to push back. They have been used to someone else, maybe someone who has a different temperament, a different approach, a different pulpit style, different mannerisms, a different approach to leadership, a type of personality. Often it is not about personality, it is about power. Some will prefer a leader that fits into the temperament they have been used to.
It is like a man when I was candidating in my first church. This big German man grabbed my hand and he said, “I want to know just one thing, are you going to be a leader?” I remember thinking, yes? Here is what I learned over the years with people like that. They want to know, are you going to take the bull by the horns? Are you going to lead with passion and courage, to fulfill their agenda? That is really what is behind that a lot of times.
C. Style of worship
Obviously one of the issues is the style of worship. It probably provokes as much conflict as anything I know in the church. Traditionalists versus the emerging; choruses versus hymns; contemporary versus traditional; drums versus organ; status quo versus imaginative change.
My first church was sort of blended. It sounds nice. Let’s just bring this mix. I discovered after 10 years of leading a church with blended music, everybody is unhappy. You can’t satisfy everyone. I had people – and I’m sure it was not unique to my church – that would actually count every Sunday, how many verses. I remember a man – in fact, I can still remember his first name, Harry. I can almost say he accosted me one Sunday morning. He pinned me literally against the back wall of the sanctuary with his long, bony finger and he pressed it into my sternum, though it almost felt like it was coming out my back. He said, “There were three more choruses, stanzas, than hymns. That has to change.” I thought, these guys are bringing their calculators and keeping track. These worship wars that people get into. I think it has provoked as much conflict as anything I’ve seen in the church.
I am telling you things that you know. I am not informing you, but just letting you know that as I think about what is behind this, I’ve been there too.
D. Staffing issues
Sometimes it is with people who have problems with the staff you are building, or your own staff, it is themselves with whom you have conflict. A staff who becomes disloyal. Maybe it is staff you have inherited, who you are not sure they are going to really be there with you; people outside who want a more controlling say in who should be your staff.
E. Budget issues
Certainly, budget issues is another. There will always be a crisis with budgets because in most churches, at least in churches I have pastored, there are always too many competing voices and needs versus the actual resources we have. Tight budgets can become conflict based and they can drain you and wear you out, like a grain of sand in the sole of a shoe. Sometimes dealing with perpetual deficits and trying to keep everyone happy here, who are all competing for the resources can create a certain amount of conflict.
Preaching certainly has its own conflicts. The expectations of how one should preach, how someone should approach the text, how long someone should preach, the selection of the text, the use of humor.
I will list one more, the unimpressive metrics than can lead to conflict. The lack of growth, the plateau, the decline. You did not intend for that to be so.
Maybe I could summarize it this way: The pain of expectations that are not met. Of course, when it comes to expectations, the expectation of a pastor’s identity, everybody has their own image of who a pastor should be, or what a pastor should do. It is really difficult. This is one of the things I teach in another course. You have to theologically make sure you have become clear in your heart and mind with the nature of who a pastor is called to be. If you don’t have a clear theological identity, you will tend to try to meet people’s expectations. What you have to do is have a clear sense of who you are, so you can say to people, “That is not who I am. I’m sorry, I’m not a therapist. I’m not a peace officer. I’m not an arbiter. I’m not a judge. I’m not a coach.” You could go down a long list.
I remember, after my tenth year of ministry, I was moving into my second church. I had moved to Europe and all of the things we owned had not gotten across the ocean yet, my books or anything. I sat in this empty office in this old Dutch Reformed Church. There was nothing I could point to that would identify me because it was a barren office. For the first time in my life I sat down and I thought to myself, I have no idea who I am. I have let people for10 years define me and I have tried to please them and meet their expectations. I was there and sat down and over the next year I wrote an article that was published on the identity of a pastor. It became the grid I used from that point on to filter every expectation through. Part of our conflict comes with trying to please people.
In our next session we are going to talk about how we start to deal with these conflicts.
G. Questions about expecting and knowing how to deal with conflict
Question: It is not so much a question. It is that it would be interesting just to poll pastors on the kinds of conflict they have had. You can tell stories and especially seminarians would probably think, No, that will never happen to me. The list can be so long.
Emily and I go to the same church. She is involved in worship and we have some _____25:31.5 versus choruses, and reports to the board.
I had a man in my church who, if the song only had three musical keys, I got an earful. I would tell him that I don’t even know what a key is. He would go on and on, “It only has three keys.” I had a gal come up, she had been in the church three weeks. I was preaching on the Sermon on the Mount and she grabbed me between services and said, “You need to be preaching Romans.” I said, “I think Jesus is enough.”
I don’t think that seminarians grasp the fact that this is what life is. When I taught at Gordon-Conwell, I used to play basketball with some students and some pastors in the area. One of them was the pastor where Haddon Robinson was in his church. Haddon is one of the top homiletics experts in the world, he was. I asked him one day, “What is your distribution of time?” I assumed with Haddon there, this guy was going to have to really be working on his sermons. Not that Haddon would be critical, or anything, but it is just like you, you are talking to the man. He said, “I spend about 75% of my time in conflict resolution.” In a church of 150 people, and he spends most of his time dealing with people who are unhappy with other people.
I wish there was a way that in our seminaries at least, we could really convince our students that this is the reality of life, and you are probably not ever going to get fired if you can’t parse a Greek word, but you will get fired if you don’t handle conflict. I don’t know if there is a way to do that in our educational system.
Dr. Johnson: I think all you can do is talk about the badlands and help people see that it is not isolated, you are in good company and help them with some basic skills of dealing with conflict.
This is going to sound like a simplistic answer, and I don’t mean for it to sound this way, but I have a certain optimism that if we can keep people focused on the right things and trained to do the right things, it does not guarantee that there won’t be conflict, but I think that a lot of conflict could be minimized if the people were more skilled and trained, for example, on the essentials of theology. To say, let’s get beyond our practice here. Let’s try to see this from maybe a greater angle, looking at it from God’s. That is where at least we can establish common ground a lot of times. Because I think a lot of people, certainly not all, but a lot of people want to feel like, “Let’s see if we can go back more to the headwaters. If we can agree there, then that can settle a lot of things.” I just think we end up fighting a lot down here. What I want to do is get people back here. I will illustrate that a little bit in this next session.