A few years ago I was engaged by a church to assist lay elders and church members work through the aftermath of a conflict which had led to the resignation of the church’s pastor. The elders admitted they had not handled things well and many of the church’s members were confused, angry, and beginning to scatter. But now there was a different attitude among these lay elder leaders as they now more seriously recognized that they had the responsibility to shepherd this pastor-less flock. This change was evident as the full consequence of their prior actions and decisions came to the forefront. They knew that the church was not yet ready to call a new pastor but they were ill equipped to provide the level of pastoral care and leadership needed to bind the wounds and heal the sheep (see Ezekiel 34) in the aftermath of conflicts. The need was apparent to them for a new way of thinking and governing God’s church. The reality of assuming eternal responsibility for souls can do that to you (see Hebrews 13:17)!
In my first meeting with the elders I was surprised and encouraged when one man spoke:
“I can see in hindsight that we did not consider all of the consequences when we took actions that led to our pastor’s resignation. At this point I cannot simply assume we are on the right track.”
The other elders quickly agreed. What this said to me was that these men were expressing humility and that they were ready to change both individually and the status quo of how things were being handled at the church.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. Proverbs 11:2
The Bible says a lot about the absolute necessity for humility as a prerequisite for right living, right discernment, and right action. It is from the Christian character of humility that wisdom and discernment flow. I have come to realize that people who have an attitude of humility as a result of their life in Christ are those who are prepared to ask the “best questions” when in conflict. They are moving away from themselves and solely what they want to the place where they truly can hear God’s Word in a personal way:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Philippians 2:3
Too often it is difficult for anyone in conflict to follow this biblical admonition, especially leaders who usually find themselves trying to defend their actions. But, as many who have experienced church conflict tell you, anyone vested in having “to be right” because their pride prevents them from admitting being wrong, can be endlessly trapped in the fruitless efforts of self-righteousness and self-justification.
These elders were ready to admit the ways they had been wrong. Their humility opened the door to now asking the “best questions” in order to become the shepherds God had called them to be. They appreciated the reality of their spiritual blindness and now they wanted to learn a new way … God’s way of shepherding His sheep. The questions they asked included:
- How can we confess to our members in a way that will serve them and not just our conscience? How can we take responsibility so they will trust us again?
- What should we do to give our people hope for the future of the church?
- How should we hold those who simply want to attack accountable in a gentle yet meaningful way?
- How do we prepare our members to think about life together without the visibility of a pastor during this time of transition?
- How can we help our members so they, too, will learn as much as we are about what it means to “call” a servant shepherd who will lead us?
These men were ready to do some very hard spiritual work because God had prepared their hearts to be humble and not to assume or presume on Him. They were redeeming the conflict they had contributed to by putting their church members first even as they took responsibility for continuing leadership.
Over the course of three separate visits to the church, I led these lay elders through a series of personal evaluations as well as corporate assessments that would equip them to make decisions that would have far reaching implications. As a result, they made a decision to call an experienced interim pastor who would continue to train them for shepherd work as lay elders, while simultaneously preparing the congregation for the calling of a permanent pastor who would take up the serious responsibility of pastoral leadership. The interim pastor was committed to this role knowing that his time at the church was to be limited and an equipping “bridge” until the man with the right spiritual gifts had been identified and called.
None of the process of redeeming this conflict for God’s glory would have happened had it not been for the way God had changed proud hearts to humble hearts. There was no “formula” followed or “managing church conflict” template—just honest heart change that led men to realize God’s grace to them by giving them new attitudes that killed pride and embraced humility.
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke 14:11
Years later, the lay elders of that church still serve as leaders in the church. The church has grown and their new pastor has told me that ministering alongside these men is the “dream job” he always wanted. His ministry has been a joy because the anguish of church conflict had been the training grounds from which real shepherd-elders had emerged. They asked “best questions” and came to real discernment after they realized the severity of leader responsibility in God’s church that led them to true humility.