Lecture 18: Pastoral Leadership and Conflict (Part 2)
I. Respond to Conflict with Wisdom
Let me shift and talk about the ways of dealing with conflict. Notice I said, “dealing with” not “ending” conflict. That would be pretty unrealistic. How do we manage conflicting crises? It sometimes can just start with little things like coming to a place where I remember telling my congregation, “I know that there are going to be things you disagree, or expectations are not met; and you are going to want to sometimes send me a note, which you have every right to do and I encourage that. I want to hear. But I’m going to let you know right up front, just so you are not offended, I will not read one unsigned note. I don’t read unsigned notes. If you are not brave enough, courageous enough, authentic enough to sign your name; and sometimes when we don’t sign, we are freer to say maybe things that are unhelpful. I have instructed my administrative assistant that anything that comes to me without your signature, I will not read. Just as, I will not send a sermon or anything to you anonymously.”
I can’t tell you how that actually changed a lot. People just knew they can’t do those things that often are just more intended to hurt and wound than to actually get into a constructive dialogue. When I see that Anne _____?1:43.8 wants to talk about my preaching, at least then Anne?_____ and I can sit down and have a conversation that hopefully will be civil.
Let me go back to some of these issues we just talked about and at least I’m going to try to address them somewhat from largely out of my pastoral experience.
A. Concerning change
Build capital before you make changes. Here is certainly one of the first lessons I learned and that is to build a certain amount of capital before you make change because change will always cost. Someone once put it this way: “It is splashing cold water on one’s complacency.” I like that image. I think that is what change is. We need to work at deposits. What are some of those? Any way we demonstrate skill and competency and effectiveness in our ministry, any time we show compassion and feeling and sensitivity, whenever we are consistent, predictable in the sense that, I know I can always count on this pastor. These are all deposits. Certainly, visiting someone going through death or deep issues with physical issues of healing or estrangement, parents who can’t fill a _____? 3:09.2 and their children are no longer talking. You come in and you help them navigate through these very painful issues. These are all deposits.
This is what I think happens that can lead especially to early conflict in the church, is that pastors haven’t made the necessary deposits, until they are bringing changes that are always withdrawals, then they over-extend themselves and they are now in the red. It is like playing Monopoly. When you play Monopoly - at least the way we played Monopoly - everybody gets a certain amount of money to start the game. Usually you pad it with a couple of $500 bills. You roll the dice and you go around the board and you have some money and you start making acquisitions. You haven’t earned that money, but it is just how the game starts. If you are not careful, you can overextend yourself; and by the time you have gotten all the way around, you have no money left.
I think sometimes what pastors do is, they start the game – let’s call it a game for a moment, though we know it is not a game – of pastoral ministry. You are given a little bit of cash up front, we call it the “honeymoon stage.” You haven’t really earned anything because you haven’t really done anything, but people want to extend a certain amount of good will. What happens, I think, is a pastor early on goes, Wow, I’m pretty rich. We need to make this change. I’m going to change the way the sanctuary looks, or whatever. They start changing things that are like major withdrawals because they think they have the money in the bank. But they really don’t. It is certainly not the amount they think. So, if you are doing ministry in the red for an extended amount of time, that has a bad ending, it just does with finances.
So, concerning change, build some capital. As much as you want to change things that first year, just work on relationships. Love people. Preach the Word. Work hard. Establish trust. Don’t assume people trust you, especially if you have had a bad predecessor. A lot of pastors don’t come into an environment of trust. People will call you “pastor.” They will say these kind of wonderful things about you because you are members of the clergy. It does not mean they necessarily respect you. It does not mean they trust you. I have discovered with some people, it is not days or weeks or months, it is years, because maybe there was a moral failure with another pastor, it could be a lot of things. So, don’t assume trust and don’t assume you have very much capital.
Be patient. Part of concerning change is, be patient. If things have been the same way for a long time, it is not going to change overnight. So slow down. What you want to help people do is to become dissatisfied like you are. Sometimes you have to point out the stains on the carpet or the marks on the walls, until they begin to see the things that they have become blind to. They need to begin to feel the pain that you feel, that we are not reaching lost people. Some people, though they’d never say this, might be fine that we are not reaching lost people. They would actually kind of mess things up here. We have a pretty nice, cozy, comfortable thing.
Like a woman in my first church. We began to grow and I remember one day, we were about two months in, she came up to me after the service and she said, “Pastor, I’m really afraid.” I said, “Virginia, what are you afraid of?” She pointed and said, “Them. There was this time we all knew each other and you have changed that.” I have a lot of stories from my first church because change was so counter intuitive for them. There was an usher in the foyer, I think about my third week there. I said to him, “Can you point out where the restrooms are?” He said, “You go right down, go up the stairs, take a left, go around, wind around and you will see the doors right there.” I said, “Thank you. It might be helpful if we put signs here in the foyer, pointing to where the restrooms are.” I remember, he looked at me, kind of mystified, and he said, “But we know where they are.” That says a lot about the mentality, doesn’t it? I remember saying, Whoa. We have to make some big changes here, but I also have to build some
capital with these people.
Create a culture of change. So be patient. Create a culture for change. Help people see the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, as we know that saying. Help people see. This is a little bit of a mantra I would say often to my churches: “What got us here won’t get us there. What got us here won’t get us there.” You have to remember that. It got you here; but what got you here is not going to get you there. Because people think, It got us here, it will get us there. No, it won’t. Sometimes people will say inane things like - you’ve heard this, right? - Hey, if it aint broke, don’t fix it. What you have to kind of lovingly say is, Maybe it is not broke, but it will be broke. It seems to me we would be wise to try to put things in motion before it breaks.
Respect the past. Concerning change, those are a few things. Let me add maybe one or two more. It really is important if you are going to bring change, that people know you respect the past. Let people know that you are a proponent of their history, their stories we talked about in another lecture. Respect the past. Let them know that you are not coming in with a scorched earth policy, to just change everything. That actually there are some things you want to, with them say, This is great. I love who you are. I love what you have done. Respect something of the past. Leave some things the same. Don’t try to change everything. Those are some ways to deal with conflict that comes out of change.
B. Concerning leadership style
Secondly, regarding leadership style. What do we do there? That is a lot harder. We can’t just change our style to accommodate. Again, I’m back to at least providing some comfort. Just realize that many have faced this. Like who? Like Moses. They didn’t seem to like his style. Or Paul. Certainly the Corinthians didn’t like the way he spoke, didn’t like the way he carried himself. They wanted someone that looked more like Saul than David. Make sure we become the best we can, experts on pastoral ministry, on leadership, making it our lifelong passion. That will shape us and change us. Help people to accept our strengths. Ask people gently to be patient with our weaknesses. Let people over time get to know us. Open up our lives and then they will start to realize that you know, the style is not so important, because I know the man’s heart, the woman’s heart.
C. Concerning worship
I don’t want to sound simplistic here, but here is what I have learned. Maybe it is because for several years I taught a course entitled “The Theology of Worship.” Here is what I have learned teaching a course in “The Theology of Worship.” If I can get our people to go back to a correct theology of worship, it can begin to reduce the temperature and the wars, I think a lot. We have a lot of worship wars because it is like the identity of a pastor. People have never been trained. They don’t know. Why do I hold so dearly to this? Because it is the way we’ve done it. But nobody has ever sat down to teach.
I remember, as I was learning that worship is response to revelation, I think that is my favorite definition. Worship is response to revelation. I stood up one day at my first church and I said, “We are doing it all backwards. We put everything in front of the message, in front of the revelation. We close, maybe not even with a song, depending upon the time. There is no time for response. I should be preaching here maybe within 15 minutes of our gathering. We should be responding for 15 to 20 minutes on other side of the preaching, if worship is by definition response to revelation, because I believe it is.” In fact, I believe our best music should flow out of what we have just heard from God. I don’t think we should be praying before so much as after. I don’t believe we should be giving our offering before, but after we have allowed God to do his work in our hearts. So if we have preached repentance, what a great time to sing songs of repentance. If we have called for deep commitment, then what a great t
ime to sing songs that call us forth. I have preached on gratitude, it takes me 15 to 20 minutes to just thank God. We have allowed the Word to work in our hearts and then we respond.
I must tell you, when we did this – remember, this is the church that hated change – the people, oh, did they hate this! They said to me, Pastor, why are you doing this? You have changed everything up. When you finish, we are supposed to just go out with your words on our hearts. People can say amazing things to manipulate. I wanted to say, No, you won’t. I know exactly what you do. You go in the foyer and you talked about the Blazers last night. So let’s be honest.
What I did was to say, You may think I’m just making change for change sake. If that is the case, you have every reason to get really angry with me. But actually, what I’m trying to do is recover the nature of worship; and worship is response to revelation. Oh, where did you get that from? Let’s look in Scripture. Every time there were great movements and great occasions of worship, it came on the heels of God revealing Himself. The people crossed the Red Sea, what have they just seen? God’s revelation of his redemption. What was the first thing they did when they crossed the river. Miriam got up and said, “We have to worship.” You can see, in almost every case where there is great worship, there has been first of all, great revealing. So why do we put the preaching at the end of the service?
Now, I have done this for almost all of my ministry, ever since. Now it feels so right. The worship pastor himself, I think, feels much more a part of at least now informed as to how to lead people, as opposed to just trying to pick a few songs we know before the service. Those songs should flow right out. When I worked with my worship pastor, in my last church in particular, we kind of huddled every Tuesday and I began to say, This is where I’m going, this is what I think God is saying. We would regroup around Wednesday, Thursday. By Friday he had real clarity. I would say, This is what I hear God saying, this is what I want to say to the church. Then we would work, and he in particular because of his giftedness and his role, would pick the songs that would enable the people to, I like to think of it, exhale. They had been inhaling. Music should be simply giving language to response. My worship pastor was so good at this. So many times I’d say, Wow, what we needed to say to God out of that text, that so
ng did in such an amazing way.
What I am illustrating here is this: If you can explain something theologically, as opposed to stylistically. A lot of the worship wars have been around people who are competing with stylistic issues, “I prefer this style, I prefer this style.” Who is going to win that? Nobody is really going to win. There is just going to be a lot of argument. But if you can say, “No, this is actually what our theology teaches us” and you can get people there so that they see it, I think that reduces a lot of the conflict.
So concerning worship, develop a clear theology of worship and teach that to people because, how would they know otherwise? Help them to see, by the way, not just theologically, but in worship go historically. Those great hymns, many of those were once bar songs too, so to speak, that we have elevated to hymns. Let’s remember, because Scripture tells us this, that God is always making new music. We don’t want to be behind that curve.
D. Concerning staff conflict
Concerning staff conflict. We talked about this in our last session, so I don’t want to go over this here; but again, some basic things. Never rush into hiring. Maintain careful records. Keep the board apprised. Give everyone a sense of involvement. Work at creating team. Maybe here is the stress. Part of reducing conflict at a staff level is, remind people we are on the same team.
Lencioni’s “ Five Dysfunctions of a Team” I think are required reading for every gathering of staff. They should work through that book maybe at least every two or three years. He points out the five major dysfunctions. This starts with absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.
What does that mean then? Part of avoiding conflict at a staff level is, let’s start with absence of trust, of building trust. Part of the way you build trust at a staff level is to be vulnerable. It is to come into working with your staff and letting them know it is safe because you’re willing to say, “Here is a failure I have had recently” or “I need to tell you that my sermon did not really go well last week. It didn’t go really well because I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I’m sorry for this.” It can be a lot of things and people begin to feel like, “I can open up too” and it begins to create a bond.
Dysfunctions that create conflicts at a staff level often come because we are not holding people accountable. We are inattentive to the details. We don’t have a clear idea of where we are going. And we are not providing occasions to just have fun.
There is nothing like building camaraderie. Once we took the staff up to Mt. Hood and we had a wonderful dinner and then we rented a Snow-Cat and we went on up to the top of the mountain. We had so much fun. We laughed together. Sometimes in avoiding conflict at a staff level, it is learning to just be with each other out of the church. We don’t always teach others just in the context of the church.
E. Concerning Finances
Concerning finances. How do we avoid conflicts there? There are no simple answers. But I think the first fundamental rule is to keep people focused on the mission and the vision. Avoid individual-driven budgets. Maintain really good procedures. We stopped calling our annual meeting, budget meetings. We started calling it our missional meeting. It began to reduce a lot of conflict because what people get all upset with is, they are looking at numbers on a screen. They are looking at percentages. “We are going to increase the budget 5% this year” and people are going, “We didn’t make our budget last year, why are we increasing it 5%?” People start to argue, “Why are we putting money here? Why shouldn’t we put more money here? Why are we giving our pastor a salary raise?” It can be a lot of different things. People just looking at the screen.
A far better way is to say, “Tonight let’s celebrate. Let’s celebrate what God has done this last year.” That is where, if we have done our metrics well, you can say, You may not be aware of this, but I want to give you three or four metrics that have helped us to see that we are on a really good course looking backwards. Now I want to look forward. I want to remind you of the vision, the vision that flows out of our mission. This is where we have agreed as a church where we need to go. Hopefully you have built something of a unity around that. People are excited about the mission, the vision. And maybe you stand up and say in this annual meeting, “Here are a couple of strategies we are going to do this year. Here is our game plan. We think that this is going to really work well.” People see that you are intentional, you have thought this through. Then that leads to saying something like this: “Now, I hope you are all excited. This is what we as a community have prayed about. This is what you have brought
to staff and the board helped lead you. Let me close by saying, are we all together?” Hopefully, if people are all together, say, “Now here is what it will cost.” You have given a context. That reduces a lot of conflict, not all conflict; but it reduces a lot of conflict because you have set a context. I think a lot of financial conflict is because we don’t establish a context. All we do is argue over numbers.
F. Concerning general disagreements
How do we deal with just again, things that maybe don’t fit a certain category, but they are conflicts. Here are a few things I would just like to focus on that I think I’m learning and have learned from.
1. Avoid escape responses. The first one is, avoid escape responses like denial or slights. Don’t be afraid to confront. If you don’t, it does not mean the conflict goes away. Like in marriage, if you don’t address conflict, it is not that it will suddenly disappear. Sort of like mushrooms in the dark, they just grow to huge proportions. There is a reason Paul exhorted Timothy to “fight the good fight.” It will be a fight. It is a good fight in a way. We are hopefully all about trying to get to the same place.
2. Avoid attack responses to conflict like litigation, attack responses, assault, to exaggerate for a moment. Try to always stay somewhere on the path of reconciliation. Say, “I know we really disagree, I know we are hurting one another, but let’s stop hurting. Let’s try to move to some form of reconciliation. Let’s disagree, but let’s not attack.”
3.Avoid always insisting on unanimity. Thirdly, and this relates more to a board, avoid always insisting on unanimity, which we already talked about a bit. A lot of ministry and work in the church is about compromise. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a long conflict resolution letter in which Paul didn’t insist upon complete agreement. In Acts 15 we see a model of the church working through conflict and it is tense, but they are working to look at some kind of conciliation, not retaliation. Here is what I have discovered, sadly, in churches by and large, Christians don’t know how to disagree. I say this because they don’t know how to disagree without – and don’t misunderstand what I’m going to say – without bringing God into it. Sometimes I have had to say to people, “Can we just leave God out for a moment?” That might sound unspiritual. What I’m getting at is, here are some of the worst conflicts. “You know, Pastor, the Lord has just laid it on my heart…” or, “God has just really told us we need to….
” What people maybe either intentionally or unintentionally are doing are forcing you to argue with God. When this happens, it elevates the temperature really high. The problem is then, things become much more black and white and my will is associated with God’s will; and the issues become God’s side or the devil’s side. Maybe a lot of conflict could at least be tempered down by – you don’t have to look too hard for this – by taking a text, like if you are working through Philippians and you are in chapter 4 and we have these two women who are in conflict. So you say, “What we are dealing with here in our church is not so unique. The early church had conflict, so let’s talk about conflict for a moment. Let’s talk about how we do this.” Give some basic rules. Teach people how to have conflict; how to be careful how they bring God into the conversation; how they can tend to create triangular relationships; how to be civil.
I think we inherit a lot of issues because again, people just don’t know how to disagree. They get worked up and they become emotional and they are fighting out of tradition or out of a lot of things.
4.Ask the critical questions like, What is the aim in all of this? Why are we having this conflict? What are we missing? There is something we must be missing because I think you and I, we both love Jesus, we both want the best for the church, I think we both want to advance the Kingdom of God. So, what is missing here? What is it about me that is making you react this way? What am I doing?
My church chairman in my second church marched up to my office one day and he said, “You are the most autocratic man I’ve ever met.” No-one has ever said that to me. But I had to stop and ask myself, What is it I’m doing that is making him feel this way? Are we dealing with the real issue? That is another big question. A lot of times we are not dealing with the real issue.
There is a book entitled “The Thing in the Bushes.” It is more of a business book, but it talks about how corporations often have conflict around the table, conflict that really isn’t the real issue. It’s the thing in the bushes, so to speak. So, part of discernment is to say, We are talking about this and we’re conflicted over this, but is this about something else? Yes, it is really about the fact that you didn’t see my wife when she was in the hospital. Maybe we are arguing about something else over here.
Here is another really important question to ask , What is the adversary doing? Let’s be sure we are looking for fingerprints of his. He loves to exploit. He loves this, doesn’t he? I mean, the adversary loves to exploit. Don’t you know, haven’t you experienced it? I’m sure you have, like me. Sometimes out of a deep fight, I step back and I go, “I’m sure the devil enjoyed that.” He enjoyed that because he largely was behind it. We need to sometimes step back and ask the question, What is really going on here?
My wife and I, there was a season – I think it was several months – you could almost time it. Saturday night, right after dinner, we would get into these petty, stupid arguments. There was a day I said to Heather, “Do you see a pattern?” “Yes.” You know, Saturday night is when I’m trying to bring it all together. I’m trying to get my soul together. I’m trying to get my heart right. I don’t know about you, but nothing screws me up more in preaching than if I’m in a fight with my wife. I have sometimes said to Heather on Sunday morning at church, “We need to go to the furnace room a minute and talk because I’m going to be preaching here in 15 minutes; and I can tell you, if I am in a fight with you, I’m going to be a mess in the pulpit.” Some people can file these things, but I can’t.
Part of it is just watching patterns. My wife and I made a pact. We said, We may disagree, we may be really upset with one another, but we are not going to talk about it on Saturday night. We discovered how many things that we would have talked about Saturday night never were issues. We did this; and from that moment on, if we started, we would go, Stop, wait a minute, it’s Saturday night. We can’t do this now. I’m sure, I’m convinced that behind it was the adversary that would use stupid, stupid things. Watch for patterns the adversary has put here.
5. Know the history. What is the history of the church in handling conflict and crisis? Is there a good pattern? What have I inherited? Maybe they have had a terrible way of handling conflict. It helps to know that.
6. Respect the time. What I mean by respect the time is, know when you are vulnerable and not equipped to deal with conflict. I would tell our people, If you really are upset with me, don’t call me on Monday. Not because it is my day off – I did not take my day off on Monday – but it is because Monday is when I’m most vulnerable. I am emotionally tired, I am spent out basically spiritually; and it is not a good time to get into conflict. I’m not at my best. Know when you need to call a time-out. Know when to say, Let me think this through.
I had a friend who was an attorney with the Postal Union. You want to talk about conflict, he was right in the center of conflict all of the time. I asked him what he learned from it. One day he said, “Here is what I learned. I learned this, that when people come and attack me, I say something like this…’”
Let’s go back to my elder chair who came up there. A proper response would be to say something like this: “I don’t know if you are right, I don’t know if you are wrong. Actually, I need a time-out to think about what you have said and I need to go to those people who know me the best and ask them, Am I autocratic? What does that look like? Then let’s get back together and talk.” Obviously, that takes a lot of discipline and self control, but it is part of respecting the time. I think we typically need to feel like we have to respond to someone in the heat of the moment, instead of just saying, I have to really think that through. I want to respect your feelings here, but I cannot respond to them right now because I don’t know for sure. So, respect the time.
7.Keep the response proportional to the conflict. Sometimes we can way over respond to something that is really minimal, where maybe somebody is saying, No, we are making this bigger than it really needs to be. I was just talking about this. We have to stop and ask, Is this in proportion?
8. Look for every opportunity to use truth. Certainly not using the Bible like a club, but to just say, Let’s go back to what truth is telling us here. Power with power never works, venom with venom. There is a reason that Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” So in a sense we have to fight the good fight with truth. Is this actually what God is calling the Church to do? Are we sure? Is this actually reflective of what God’s will is?
9. Avoid pulpit abuse. I will add one more here and that is, avoid pulpit abuse. Maybe another phrase here is, avoid pulpit revenge. A public forum is not the place to confront a critic. It is easy to do and I have fallen prey to this.
I had this man whose name was Harold. Harold and I met in my first congregational meeting. I remember Harold because he and the moderator got into a real tiff. In fact, he stood up and he pointed to the moderator. I remember this, and it was just like junior high days. He said, “You and me, out in the parking lot.” I thought, wow, it sounds junior highish. Are they going to have a fist fight? I think they were. In the process, I called Harold into my office the next week. I said, “Harold, I’m new, I’m young; but I view the worship service and a business meeting in the same way. They are God’s. This is about God, so we handle ourselves in a Godly way.” I remember, Harold looked at me and he said, “Well, Pastor, I’ll do whatever I damn well please.” In fact, he went on to use just about every cuss word I knew at that time, to just frankly go off. Harold’s heart was a heart of stone. In fact, he took advantage of the next church meeting to stand up and go, “Well, I’m resigning from the church and I’m resignin
g from the church because the pastor said I can only say things that agree with him.” Of course it was a lie and Harold was just using every way to manipulate. I have to tell you, Harold was someone obviously I came to very much dislike. I remember, he would position himself, he would sit right in the center, in my line. The unfortunate thing was, there are some times that if as I was preparing the sermon, I was thinking, “This will get Harold, this is exactly what Harold needs to hear.” I look back now sadly and realize, there were some Sundays I preached to Harold and I didn’t preach to my church.
So conflict. There are a lot of reasons behind it and there are a lot of wrong ways to deal with it, and there are a lot of right ways. In that case, it was learning to repent and say, “God, don’t let me ever preach to one person or a tribe, but preach to the whole congregation.”
There are necessary capital for sure, aimed to turn adversaries into allies. Be strong in grace. There is a reason. There is a reason Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:1, “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” Because it will take a lot of effort to be strong in grace. “Whatever we do, do all for the glory of God.”
A. Who makes the final decision on the budget, the elders or the congregation?
Question: As a couple, you raise the issue of conflict over a budget. Who makes the final decision on budget in your mind, is it the elders or is it the congregation?
Dr. Johnson: In kind of a mix like we had, it is the elders and the leaders who made the final decision on what budget we should bring. That comes out of involving the congregation early on in the process. The mistake sometimes that can be made is to say, “Here is the budget we are going to bring, but we welcome your input” and people feel like it is already settled, so why do you need my input? So we started moving the budget process back a couple of months, saying “We’re still working at it. We would love your input. We haven’t sorted this out completely.” People would say, ”I’d like to see maybe a little more over here to missions or whatever.” Then we would take that, not to say we will do that, but they knew that we took their opinions and desires seriously. So when we came to the annual meeting, we would say, “As a staff and a board, we have worked all of this through with our finance group. This is what we believe we can do this year.” Let me go back. We would say, “We feel so excited about the miss
ion and vision and we believe this is what it is going to cost us, and we believe we can do it.” But the congregation made the final decision. So they could reject it or accept it. I think in all the years we did it like this, they always voted yes. Generally it was a pretty high percentage. That is the good news. The bad news is that we had to remind the congregation often of the commitment they made, that they did not live up to.
So part of that sometimes is to say, “This means our budget is going to increase 6.3%. We need all of you to increase your giving 6.3%. So don’t vote “yes” unless you are willing to increase your giving 6.3%. At least some of you that can, increase it 12% and some know you can only do 2%.
B. How do you deal with someone who causes a conflict publicly in the congregation?
Question: Listening to you talk, it would be interesting if you had a forum and have people share horror studies because I’m sure there have been conflict that is so bad, you look at it and go, How could that ever happen between two Christians? The struggle is always how to handle it in the right way that is redemptive.
I had this one person in the church that just hated me. He used to sit about three rows back and make faces at me, stick his tongue out at me, do everything he could to throw me off my sermon. After about three or four months of that, he decided that did not work, so he would be in church until I got up to preach and then he would very slowly walk down the aisle and talk to people and try to disrupt as much as he could in order to emphasize how much he disliked me. I’m pretty sure I know what your answer is going to be, but how would you have handled that situation, that kind of really public conflict?
Dr. Johnson: I think if somebody did that, the very first time I would confront him. I would say to that kind of behavior, “We are here to maintain the unity of the Spirit. If you are not interested in unity of Spirit, you need to leave this church.” I would make sure that my board stands with me on that. I would not tolerate it for a day.
Question: Would you go to your board first for just conflict in general?
Dr. Johnson: I would probably think of it a little more along a Matthew 18 line. I might go to him, so he doesn’t feel like we are ganging up on him. But I would go to him and probably say, “You need to tell me why you are doing this. You need to help me Scripturally to see where there is spiritual legitimacy for what you are doing. Then, you need to understand that I won’t tolerate it another week. I’m kind of serving notice here. You may dislike me, you may not respect me. We can talk through those things and work them out. But in a public service, that is never allowed.” I wouldn’t say this, but somehow if this didn’t change, I would let him know early on, the board will be asking you to leave. If you don’t respond to that, the congregation will ask you to leave.
Paul is pretty firm in his language in the New Testament, you warn a divisive person once, twice and then kind of three strikes and you’re out. I think we have a tendency to just say again, Hopefully it will all work out, or I’ll just try to overlook it. You can’t do that, ever.
Question: I’ve just been observing all of this because conflict has just recently been a huge issue in my life. I hate conflict. I avoid it at all cost. But I have been forced to deal with it, so this has been very helpful in maintaining a perspective when you confront people or when they confront you, because it is really hard. It is especially for me if somebody were to confront me about something.
C. The importance of dealing firmly with ungodly behavior.
Dr. Johnson: Part of the challenge is that conflict can be overt and covert and the covert is far more difficult to handle than the overt. I think, looking back over the years, if I think about regrets, I think some of my pastoral regret was not being more firm and a little less tolerant of ungodly behavior, what we just talked about here. I think some people just go, I’ll just wait him out. That is no good for anybody. Somewhere I think we need to have the courage to say, “One of us needs to leave and it’s not me. I’ve been called here.” Of course you say that hopefully out of the fact that you believe before God you are doing the right thing. I think we have to be humble enough at times to say, “I understand why you are upset. I failed you and I am really sorry.”
This woman I talked about, married to this British scientist who died and I was not there. It did create conflict and I needed to own up and say, “I was not the pastor you needed me to be and I’m really sorry for that.” It does not mean everything is smoothed out, but at least you have done what you have to do.
Sometimes people say, “I hate conflict.” I know you understand this, but I’ll say it anyway. I do not know anyone who really likes conflict. We all hate conflict. The difference is, if we are willing to confront it. This is very simplistic. We tend to be largely two kinds of people, confronters and avoiders. A lot of marriages tend to be one who is a confronter, one who says, “Let’s just talk about it now, okay, I don’t want to go to sleep on this. It says in Ephesians 6, ‘Don’t let the sun go down on your anger’ so come on.” An avoider might say, “Let’s talk about it next week, I really need some time.” So you learn over the years of marriage to tone it down and temper it, to say, ”As much as I’d like to talk about this, I need to give space.” The other person has to begin to adapt, to go, “I can’t stew on this and settle this, I just need to talk. As difficult as this is, I need to talk this through.”
It is compromise. What is true in a marriage is true in a church. I think where we can help people a lot is to set some ground rules at the very beginning and acknowledge things at the very beginning. I am not going to be your perfect pastor. I will disappoint you. I will make some decisions that will frustrate you. But I will so appreciate if you would not go to anyone else but me. If you have a note for me, please sign it. I’m letting you know, if I don’t handle it well, you have permission to go to the board and speak with them.. I’m accountable to the board. But please come to me.
I am going to call you out sometimes from the pulpit, you as a congregation. I’m never going to do it to you as an individual. Because we are all about the same thing. We should be, right? We are trying to advance the Kingdom of God.