Battered Pastors with Weary Souls

Rev. Dr. Alfred Poirier’s doctoral dissertation at Westminster Seminary was overseen by Rev. Dr. David Powlison and published by Baker as The Peacemaking Pastor. In it, Pastor Poirier speaks candidly about his exhaustion and frustration related to ongoing struggles with conflict in the church:

I did not plan to be a heretic. It just happened. I woke one day to find in the mirror a pastor with a tired face and a weary soul. I had entered the pastorate eager to walk in the footsteps of the pastorate and practice what the ancient church called the care of souls (cura animarum). But I woke that day frightened to find that I did not care anymore. I was tired of the conflicts, the sin, the gossip, the threats, the divisions, and the dissensions. You know what they look like … ” The Peacemaking Pastor

I thought of Pastor Poirier, and the many—MANY—other exhausted, hurt pastors I have served over the years as I read this blog series by Todd Pruitt:

Battered Pastors (Part 1 of 5)

Oh oh oh … how deeply I desire that we sheep would learn to protect and guard our leaders so that such resources would never be needed.

Posted in Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, HOPE in the midst of conflict, RedeemingLINKS | Leave a comment

What do pastors in conflicted churches need the most?

Q. When pastors in conflicted churches call you, what do they need the most? Is there a certain piece of advice or Scripture passage that you always end up giving them?

A. A pastor tensely (and loudly) said, “You just don’t understand, Dave; no one has ever faced a situation like this and many, many people are going to be hurt and the church will never recover!” On the phone this pastor, this under-shepherd of the Lord and King of Creation, was so distraught and overwhelmed by his church’s conflicts that there was simply no hope left in him. For him, the end of the world had truly arrived. But had it really?

One aspect of the account given to us in the opening verses of Acts 15 that always amazes and encourages me is the response that Paul and Barnabas displayed when traveling through the land to take a matter of church conflict back to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for counsel. The early church was facing a very serious doctrinal challenge to the Gospel’s message of free grace in Christ. Paul and Barnabas knew the stakes were high as evidenced by the fierce encounter they had with those demanding the addition of the works of the law. But we find them as they travel through Phoenicia and Samaria telling people how the powerful message of grace has led to the conversion of even the Gentiles (those considered by the “religious people” of the day as outcasts and “unclean”).  And, as Acts 15:3 goes on to tell us:

“This news made all the brothers very glad.”

The anxiety of conflict could have diverted Paul and Barnabas from the good news of the entrance of new believers into the eternal kingdom of God. Had this happened, we could well have had an account reporting that:

“The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how a great church conflict was raging in Antioch and many were leaving the church. This news made all the brothers very sad.”

But that was not how Paul and Barnabas acted and that is not what happened. Why?

Of course, it was because Paul and Barnabas knew and had seen the power of God’s grace in action. Just take a few minutes to read the chapters immediately preceding chapter 15 of Acts and imagine for a moment how you would react if someone then told you “No. God’s grace in Christ is not enough for your eternal salvation.” That would sound like rubbish and nonsense. But then what? Do you keep on joyously serving God’s people in truth or do you react in some other manner? Are you suddenly overwhelmed by discouragement, anxiety, and an end-of-the-world mentality? That was exactly where this pastor was during our phone call. (And exactly where many pastors have been during many phone calls I have had with them.)

A serious conflict had struck his church. What do I now say to bring him back to a perspective that serves up a large dose of the reality of grace?

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

That is the most important message—God’s message—that this pastor and every person in conflict needs to hear. It is the message of the reality of eternal grace that overcomes every distraction, even the distraction of conflict.  But to understand that message in context we need to understand and believe something more. These verses begin with the key word “Therefore” indicating that what came before establishes the basis from which the belief-action of change can follow. We see that before the “Therefore” of verse 16 come these powerful words of eternal truth:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:6

It is written: “I believed therefore I have spoken.” With that same spirit of faith we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. 2 Corinthians 4:13-14 (emphasis added)

When I responded to the pastor with the words of 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 I was not advocating some pie-in-the-sky mind game to try to manipulate him into feeling better. No. When I spoke of living consistently from an “eternal perspective,” I was reminding him of all of the truths he already believed; truths that would give him hope to courageously and joyfully face his conflicts. I gently encouraged him:

Pastor, your belief, your faith, in the risen Christ demands of you a new way of thinking and speaking. If you believe that God raised Christ from the dead and that he will also raise you then you have the present power of that faith to change and face every conflict with that same spirit. Our common faith is in a presently unseen reality that changes everything; it opens the door to hope and it means you never again have to be overwhelmed by anything in this life.”

When the distraught pastor regained his perspective he began to change. He realized that the situation he faced may be out of his present control but that it wasn’t out of God’s control. He believed again that by faith he could see the situation anew. Even though the conflict was serious, it was not paralyzing. He could become the messenger of encouragement and hope that God had called him to be. With that renewed eternal perspective he began to understand what trust in God really looked like. And as he trusted in God, he lost his anxiety and began to lead. Under his leadership the church’s members responded in faith and hope and the conflict eventually became the message God was using to grow up his disciples.

Redeeming conflicts begins with faith, hope, and trust in the God Who raised the dead then and Who still raises the dead today. God is at work in every situation, even the excruciatingly painful fire of church conflict.

With man this is impossible, but not with God: all things are possible with God. Mark 10:27

The power making eternal salvation possible is also the power behind redeeming church conflicts. Believe it. Live it. Have hope.

-Dave Edling

P.S.
In our new book, Redeeming Church Conflicts, Tara and I unpack Acts 15 as one of God’s powerful demonstrations of the Gospel at work.  Look for it on May 1st or pre-order at Amazon.com today.

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, HOPE in the midst of conflict | 2 Comments

When Change Seems Unlikely in Church Conflicts

Tara has suggested to me that we present a short series of stories of hope—positive experiences we have had when working with churches in conflict. The aim of such a series, of course, would be to reveal God’s faithfulness to his people and the way that faithfulness has brought evidence of hope to difficult situations where change seemed unlikely. We both have witnessed people of faith change the desires of their hearts when it dawned on them that they were to be about building God’s kingdom and not just their own (“a kingdom of one” to use Paul Tripp’s phrase). How wonderful it is when people change because that truth is realized and embraced!

Tara’s first question to get us started was this:

“What is one of your all-time favorite memories in a church conflict (i.e., when did church leaders and members truly redeem their church’s conflict)?”

In our new book, Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care,  we tell many stories of churches in conflict to illustrate biblical principles, but one we don’t tell is of the response of a denominational synod (the national leadership of all churches of the denomination meeting together) when challenged with the message of biblical peacemaking. It is one of my favorite memories because it brought such an immediate and significant response that affected so many local congregations.

I had been engaged by the denomination to preach at the synod’s opening worship service and then, the next day, to teach a day-long seminar on conflict in the church and how best to respond. My sermon message centered on the text of 1 Corinthians 10:31:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

I was completely unaware as I began my engagement with these fellow Christians that a divisive case of church discipline (an appeal to the synod from a local church) had been festering at the national level for over twenty years! After my sermon and day of teaching on God’s wonderful grace to us and his standards for being peacemakers, I was utterly shocked to learn that in response, the Synod’s meeting agenda was being set aside for the next two days in favor of resolving this long outstanding case of conflict in the church.

This was shocking for many reasons, not the least of which was that these national-level gatherings are planned months, sometimes years, in advance. To scrap a highly orchestrated plan and come to a point where people agreed that they “must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) is a pretty big deal! This gathering of several hundred pastors and lay church leaders did just that, however, as they said, “We haven’t put God’s priority for relationships first in our church and it is high time that we did so.” They redeemed and resolved this festering case and I had the opportunity several months later to work with a Synod committee tasked with re-writing sections of the denomination’s Book of Church Order as they captured in a permanent manner the values they had re-captured from the Scriptures.

Why did they do this? God’s grace to them, of course, but also because their corporate spiritual maturity allowed them to embrace their task of becoming more and more a kingdom-focused church being built on God’s revealed will through his Word. I am not a great or powerful public speaker, but God used me on this occasion as a simple messenger to remind these godly and gifted leaders of his grace to them as it applies to church conflict.

At the core of that message is the call to “do it all for the glory of God.” Matthew 5:23 and 24 communicate one way how we glorify God in conflict—those key interrelated principles of urgency, relationships, and worship:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the alter and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the alter. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

God is essentially telling us we can’t worship in a right manner, with a right heart, if we are living under the cloud of conflict, a broken relationship with a sibling in Christ. Indeed, we are showing ourselves as hypocrites when we try to do so. Acts of worship are meaningless to God if conflict goes unredeemed and unresolved. God’s demand for right relationships among his people, peaceful relationships, is paramount. The leaders of this denomination were given “ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15; Hebrews 3:7-8) and acted in faith because they knew God’s priorities surpassed any other consideration. It was a privilege for me to be associated with such a group of devoted Christians. God brought evidence of his faithfulness as his people were faithful. That is building a kingdom that will last … and a lasting wonderful memory for me, as well.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. 1 John 2:9-11

I pray for many “ears to hear.”

– Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Church discipline, Conflicts involving church leaders, HOPE in the midst of conflict

Leader Conflicts: Opportunities to Model Holiness

Q. My question is about conflicts between leaders. For example: (1) Some of the elders want to use a different English translation of the Bible in worship than what we have been using and others don’t; (2) Some of the deacons want to financially support on a regular basis a single mother in the church while others think this would just enable her not to work hard. These kinds of leader conflicts are threatening our church.

A. Disputable matters will always be surfacing in the church. Such matters are opportunities to remember that even though we are “one in Christ” (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:10) we retain different personalities, preferences, and opinions. These differences are not to be condemned but embraced and stewarded for God’s glory. Both examples of the kinds of leader disputes you describe are over “material” issues, that is, questions of a material substance rather than questions of personal behavior, sin, etc. Substantive questions like these not involving the need for repentance, confession, and forgiveness are the daily fare of most churches.

The Bible says some very practical things about resolving disputable matters:

  • “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Romans 14:1).
  • “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out” (Proverbs 17:14).
  • “Casting the lot settles disputes and keeps strong opponents apart” (Proverbs 18:18).
  • “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1Timothy 2:8).
  • “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” (1 Corinthians 6:1).

Several principles surface from these verses:

First, accept the fact that disputable matters will arise. Don’t be surprised or taken aback simply because such matters come up as part of God’s plan for building mature Christians.

Second, keep a material issue a material issue and don’t allow it to become a personal issue. Too often when church leaders don’t immediately see eye-to-eye over something like a favored translation or providing financial support the conflict becomes personal… “Because you won’t agree with me you are now my enemy!” That is a sure sign of spiritual immaturity that will lead to sinful responses unworthy of any church leader. Church leaders have no excuse for such immaturity since they have been (hopefully) character qualified and called to be models of holiness among God’s people.

Third, a solid decision-making process within the church must be established and followed. Most well organized churches by way of their polity structure have dispute resolution practices built into their governing documents be they corporate bylaws or other written policies. Those provisions may call for a vote among leaders, decision by some other final authority, appeal to a higher organizational entity, or final decision by the whole congregation by vote. Whatever mechanism for final decision-making exists, leaders must be willing to accept, follow, and support that decision even if they don’t personally agree with it. That is what it means to be in “subjection to the brethren,” a common vow that church leaders make before they are placed in a position of leadership and authority (see Ephesians 5:21; Hebrews 13:17; and 1 Peter 2:13-18).

Matters to be resolved by leaders are excellent opportunities to model holiness. They can become so when leaders remember that that priority outweighs any other consideration. Any material issue in the church will never be important enough to trump the interests of Christ which are spiritual and about men’s holy character. Pray for and encourage your leaders to be wise, but mostly to never lose sight of their real shepherding goal.

– Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor

When Friends Talk About Us Behind Our Backs

(A re-post from Easter 2014)

It is always such a shock to discover friends (real friends!) are talking about us (critically) behind our backs. Sometimes, their motivations really are loving and God-honoring—they are seeking counsel, prayer, and encouragement for how to face a difficult situation. Sometimes, they are just speaking ill of us to others or sharing publicly something we entrusted to them in private.

Whatever the situation, it hurts. It can feel like betrayal and sometimes it is betrayal. There is a reason that James 3 describes the tongue with such strong language as “a world of unrighteousness,” “staining the whole body,” “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” This is not hyperbole! As anyone who as ever been gossiped about and slandered knows full well.

Thus, I appreciated the reminders in this article by Matt Mitchell from EFCA Now and hope you do too:

Whisperings

Plus, of course, there is nothing like meditating on the most evil acts in all of history—the painful and shameful sufferings of the Son of God during Easter week—to help us to forgive friends who abandon and betray us, attacks we do not deserve, and unjust suffering.

The Perfect Lamb of God knows our sorrow. He is the Suffering Servant! And He knows pain we will never know because He has secured the fait accompli that God the Father will never turn His face away from us. We will never taste death or Hell. And in the face of these glorious truths? Comforted under His wing? We can turn again to our brother or sister with forgiveness and restoration. We can risk again. Maybe be hurt again, sure. But maybe, experience the sweetness of deep friendship and abiding love—a foretaste of Heaven.

May God help us to forgive our friends who hurt us! And May God help them to forgive us too.

For the glory of the Lamb,
Tara B.

PS
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.

Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.

The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3 ESV)

Posted in Authentic Relationships in the Church, Biblical peacemaking in the church | Leave a comment

When (Differently) Gifted Pastors Destroy the Church (Rather Than Build it Up)

This was a church conflict that never should have happened.

One man was excellent at vision casting, capturing the excitement and motivating people for great things in the name of the Lord. The other was an excellent teacher. Working in harmony they could have accomplished so much for the Kingdom. Instead, frustration and anger plagued the work of the church. Staff members quit their jobs; members left; blame-casting began; and soon both of the pastors were looking for new calls.

The use and misuse of spiritual gifts are major causes of conflicts in the church. Paul seeks to bring some order to our understanding of the use of gifts in the church as he corrects the Corinthians and urges them with these memorable words:

“Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” 1 Corinthians 14:12 (emphasis added)

There are four main reasons why church conflicts often emerge due to the misuse of spiritual gifts:

  1. Jealously
  2. Criticism
  3. Blindness
  4. Lack of Appreciation

Consider how jealousy destroyed the relationship between these two gifted pastors. Rather than rejoice in God’s gracious provision of gifting for His glory and the benefit of His work, these men competed with one another and envied the “advantages” of the other. Their jealousy lead to critical judgments of one another whenever they perceived a lack of support or excitement for “their” passion and vision (and gifting). Of course, foundationally, they both had extreme cases of spiritual blindness (a topic that Tara and I tackle at depth in Chapter 8 of Redeeming Church Conflicts). Rather than see and humbly acknowledge their weaknesses (and then compensate for their weaknesses by enjoying the strengths of one another), they tried to be fruitful in areas where their particular gifts were lacking. And all of these conflicts were fueled by a consistent failure to appreciate and encourage one another.

Rather than working within their areas of giftedness and appreciating the unique contributions each man was making for the advancement of the Kingdom, these leaders misused their gifts. Their relationship was doomed as a result and their church was terribly damaged. This could have been avoided if they had heeded the counsel of the Apostle Paul to “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Yes, the specific context of this argument applies directly to a distinction between prophesy and tongues as gifts, but earlier in Chapter 14, Paul provides the direction and goal for the use of all spiritual gifts:

“…for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3) …so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:5).

All appropriate uses of spiritual gifts have these common goals:

  • Strengthen the believers,
  • Encourage the believers,
  • Comfort the believers, and
  • Edify the believers

No gift is superior to another; no gift is to be overlooked because all spiritual gifts are for the edification of the church. As one body, united in Christ, we share one calling: Build up the church! We do that best when we build up each other. That is why the Spirit has poured out his gifts upon living stones…we, the church. There is no room for jealously, criticism, blindness, and lack of appreciation when it comes to our mutual joy of unleashing the gifts of the Spirit that have been poured out for the sole reason of building up the church. Such foolishness and sin is immature and destructive and we ought to pray that our churches would never have conflict due to the misuse of the abundant spiritual gifts God has given his people.

Paul ends chapter 14 with this warning (verse 20):

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

How do we think (and live) as adults? We avoid the works of the flesh as listed in Galatians 5 (including, of course, enmity, strife, jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, divisions and envy) and we manifest the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control).

“If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” Galatians 5:25

For the Glory of the Lord and His Church,
-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Causes of Church Conflict, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor, Spiritual Blindness | 2 Comments

When “Peacemaking” Causes Even More Conflicts

Q. I am afraid to go directly to the person who has seriously sinned against me as it says I should do in Matthew 18:15. I am afraid because I think by going it would make matters worse between us. What should I do because I want to follow the Bible and be reconciled?

A. Thank you for respecting the authority of God’s Word. That, I believe, is the core issue confronting Christianity: Is God’s Holy Word as found in the Holy Bible worthy of absolute authority because it is our Creator’s binding revelation to us? You seem to have settled that question in your own mind by how you have asked your question. You indicate that it is binding on you and you do want to obey it. Again, I commend you for this view. And because you desire to honor God by following his principles laid down on the pages of Scripture I will attempt to do the same by speaking truth in love to you.

“Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace” (Amelia Earhart, Aviator). I am quite sure that Miss Earhart, not especially known for her theological acumen, did not write those words in the context of your question. She was, however, an extremely confident and brave person. Her words capture an important biblical principle central to an answer to your question. That principle is that the fear of man (the controlling power of the opinion or actions of others) cannot be allowed to override your holy and awe invoking fear of God.

Psalm 27:1 asks rhetorically, “Whom shall I fear?” “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?” All of Psalm 27 calls us back to that eternal perspective that frees us to be confident and courageous, with the hope of encouraging peace.

The prophet Isaiah, called to serve God as a covenant prosecutor bringing God’s charges and his condemnation against a people who had turned from him, issues the same call as Psalm 27 to people of enduring faith; those needing hope and encouragement as the faithful remnant who would survive God’s judgment: “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you’” (Isaiah 35:4). Verse 51:7 also seems appropriate because you have God’s law in your heart: “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults.”

One thing that we can certainly say of the Christian faith is that it is not a faith for the timid or cowardly; the Lord changes such people into confident warriors by placing in their hearts an awesome and rejoicing fear of God that dwarfs the fear of any man. You can be strong and courageous because you are “in Christ,” the spiritual reality of your faith given to you through grace, so that you can know for certain the source of all strength.

At the same time, however, God calls us to be wise. It is right for you to carefully examine the reasons why you are fearful of this confrontation. Is this person in a position of authority over you; are they socially more powerful? Is that other person known for anger, violence, or irrational behavior? By pinpointing exactly what you fear (loss of the relationship, tainting of your own reputation, your physical safety or the physical safety of others, etc.), you can make a decision that both honors God and displays wisdom.

For example, taking another person with you to fulfill Matthew 18:15 does not necessarily mean you have overlooked the requirement to go personally to the one who has sinned against you. Taking another person along for this first encounter not as a “witness” as used in the sense of Matthew 18:16 but for wisdom’s sake does not violate the spirit of the biblical process. We must remember that that process is designed to reclaim the one whose sin has hurt you and broken fellowship with you and with God.

(And a note from Tara … We must also remember that there are limits to what we can accomplish in the peacemaking process. Romans 12:18 states that, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This means that we cannot “make peace.” All we can do, and all the Lord requires of us, is to do what is possible, so far as it depends on us. When teaching on this topic, I like to use a phrase that one of my blog readers gave me when I asked a similar question to yours:

“How far should I go in this peacemaking process? I want to be reconciled, to be sure. But I don’t want to be a reconciliation stalker.”

God will honor your efforts to boldly speak the truth in love and you never know how your courage to confront in love may be used by God to deeply affect others. But you never want to be a reconciliation stalker.)

Instead, remember what Ken Sande has so cogently stated in The Peacemaker: “Our only job is to be faithfully obedient; God’s job is to bring the result. Keeping those responsibilities separate and clearly before you will lead you to a right and God-honoring action, even if things get a little “messier” in the short-run.

Blessings to you—
Dave Edling & Tara Barthel

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church, Confrontation | 3 Comments

What Rules Govern Your Interactions with Others (Especially in Your Church Conflict)?

In the October 16, 2012, Wall Street Journal there was an article titled Big Explosions, Small Reasons.  The article reports recent research on “Why Social Rule Breakers Spark Angry Outbursts.”  I have written previously on this site about how secular research in the behavioral sciences can contribute significantly to our understanding of one another if we remember that any findings must be set within a context that accounts for God. Our Creator made a universe filled with creatures of both complexity and order. Because of that amazing order secular researchers can make faithful observations; what they typically don’t do is set such observations in the larger perspective that recognizes God’s sovereignty and creative orderliness: the bigger picture.

After recounting several stories of sad but common interactions of conflict with strangers over relatively minor matters (the delivery of a wrong restaurant meal order, being cut-off in traffic, an annoying noise emanating from a fellow bus passenger’s I-phone, etc.),  the article asks,

“Why do adults throw tantrums over seemingly trivial provocations?”

The answer given:

“Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: ‘It’s not fair!’”

Breaking “social exchange rules” (unwritten laws of behavior), one researcher explains, leads to major social consequences:

“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules. And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”

“There must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one.”

Then comes the most insightful comment that summarizes why this occurs. It is not the specific, frequently trivial incident itself that leads to the angry outburst:

“It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”

As a Christian, what are the rules that govern your interactions with others–especially your interactions in your church conflict? Merely the unwritten rules of general “fairness?” Or should there be something else in your life as a believer in Christ that mediates your behavior when you feel someone hasn’t “played by the rules?” I am sad to say that in most cases of church conflict that I have observed that what is at work is nothing different from what these secular researchers report. That means that people who have been called out of the world to be part of a holy kingdom have usually been unintentional about their behavior. They react no differently than other human creatures and that is not the plan God reveals:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” 1 Peter 2:9-12

This passage is our call to be intentionally different. How is your church doing to make sure that this message is part of the life you share together in the church? If we are not intentional about the commitments of our faith then what is the point? Even common wisdom from secular research reveals the obvious truth that we feel bad about ourselves when we lose our temper:

“The feelings that linger after an angry outburst usually make the person who exploded feel worse.”

If your goal is to simply not feel so bad about yourself following your behavior the researchers have some good coping tips for you:

  • Picture a scenario that is likely to trigger your anger, and imagine a calm response. Think about the consequences of your anger. Anger can make you feel bad.
  • Ask your spouse or significant other to help you calm down in the heat of the moment. Create a password—a hand on your arm, a funny look—that will diffuse your tension, not escalate it.
  • Empathize. Remember a time when you inconvenienced someone. What’s wrong with being nice?
  • Talk yourself down in the heat of the moment. Tell yourself a coping statement, like “It’s not the end of the world.” It’s important to decatastrophize the incident.
  • Don’t react to rude or inconsiderate behavior. If someone cuts in front of you at the grocery it’s not about you.

But, if your goal is to represent the King of Kings as his new creature, then you are called to go beyond those surface-level, behavioral changes and live in line with the new heart you have been given as a forgiven, adopted, child of God.  As you intentionally remember your Lord, your identity in Him, the brevity of this life, and your future home with your eternal family in Heaven to come, your interactions with others will change at a heart-level. You will glorify God through your unity:

“For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Romans 15:3-6

For the glory of God’s intentional church,
-Dave Edling

Posted in Biblical peacemaking in the church

Every time I think about my church conflict, all I feel is hopelessness. I just don’t see anything at all to hope in!

Q: Every time I think about my church conflict, all I feel is hopelessness. I just don’t see anything at all to hope in!

A. Hope in this: The longest part of our most “real” lives will be lived for eons to come in the perfection of Heaven where Christ rules in glory.

One of the most common emotions people feel when facing serious church conflict is hopelessness. This is often because conflict puts blinders on our eyes and tempts us to isolate ourselves into self-protective groups who agree with us. In our passion to defend our positions, we develop tunnel-vision that clouds our judgment as we focus our time, energy, and emotions almost exclusively on temporal matters. Things of heaven, theological truths about God and his Church, even a passion for bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the unsaved, all begin to fade from focus as positions become entrenched in daily battles and we begin to despair. When we are in a conflicted church, our emotions are often similar to those of the psalmist:

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught. My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. Psalm 55:2, 4–5

Strong feelings. Much suffering. Tempted to despair. Church conflict often robs us of an accurate, hopeful, God-centered perspective. Rather than confidently living with the hope of the resurrected Christ always before us, rather than being guided and ruled by God’s Word, many Christians in conflicted churches begin to act in accordance with their emotions … But we are called to live from an eternal perspective—interpreting all of life in this world through the lens of one fact: the longest part of our most “real” lives will be lived for eons to come in the perfection of Heaven where Christ rules in glory. Right now we live in the in-between; the “already but not yet.” But one day we will go home to our Heavenly Father’s mansion. The way we live intentionally and consistently with our profession of faith now is to live with the hope and confidence of this eternal perspective. Otherwise, when suffering and trials come, when we don’t get our way, when we are called to bear up under the pain associated with church conflicts, we will not persevere in loving God and loving our neighbor.

This eternal perspective enables us to forgive one another because we remember how great and glorious God is to wretched sinners like us. We marvel at how great a debt we owe and how great a price Christ paid for our salvation. Rather than “biting and devouring” one another (Galatians 5:15), we will remember that the other person involved in this church conflict needs Christ at this time just as much as we do. We are utterly dependent on his grace. And daily we can repent, believe, and rejoice because he has saved us and adopted us as his own. His kingdom will come. He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. This is guaranteed! So we can have great hope, even in devastating church conflict, as we begin to interpret everything that is happening from the perspective of eternity. We rejoice that even though we may face conflicts now, one day, all of God’s children will be perfectly united forever.

(c) Tara Barthel & David Edling, “Redeeming Church Conflicts” (Baker Books, 2012)

Posted in Excerpts from "Redeeming Church Conflicts"

One Reason Why Your Church is Losing Its Youth: Look at How (Gracelessly!) You Treat One Another

Just as I was posting Dave’s most recent article on “preserving your pastor,” my friend Melodee posted a link to this article on Facebook and I was struck by how much the two overlapped:

Reaching Our Young People

The article makes many excellent points about why young people “de-church in droves” (60 to 85 percent of our youth leave the church once they are 18 years old) and why even those who remain in church have “serious doubts about what the Bible says about Jesus.”

But the quote that struck me the hardest was from a pastor’s son. Listen to the echoes of (the opposite of!) John 17:20-23 (what Francis Schaeffer called “the final apologetic”) in what this young man reports about relationships in the church. Is our unity  showing the world that the Father sent the Son and that the Father loves them? Far from it!

“Beginning around the age of eleven, Matt writes, “I would read about Jesus, and how he treated people, then I’d look at Christians, and the two just didn’t match up.” Matt goes on to say: “Sometimes we’d go by the church to surprise my dad in the middle of a work day, and there’d be someone in his office yelling at him for changing the carpet, or not using the choir robes. We would receive threatening anonymous letters at our house . . . certain church members would interrupt the service to call meetings. They wanted to edit sermon content. They hated the music. They controlled the finances. They cursed. They slandered. They schemed.”

Not wanting to “end up looking like those people,” Matt said “[he] washed [his] hands of the church.” And who can blame him?

Oh. Oh. Oh. Rev. Dr. Philip Ryken was right:

“The Devil has many other plans for running your church, all of them equally insidious. He wants you to get so distracted by internal disputes that you hardly have time to go out and meet people with the Gospel.”

May it STOP being so. Please, God, please cause us to stop being so duplicitous and sinful in our relationships in the church. Please help us to preserve our pastors and redeem our conflicts for your glory—confessing, confronting, forgiving one another “just as in Christ we have been forgiven” (Col. 3:13).

And may our youth see authentic faith in and dependence on Christ alone! May we actually live as the Church. One family. One body. With One Head. Loving one another so that we will show ourselves to be disciples of Jesus (John 13:35).

SDG,
Tara B.

Posted in Authentic Relationships in the Church, Biblical peacemaking in the church, Conflicts involving church leaders, Conflicts with our youth pastor | 1 Comment