Conflict and a Parting of Ways in the Church

By Joe LaGuardia

Being Christ’s Church is no easy task.  As far back as the New Testament, churches have been dealing with weighty matters from Bible interpretation to theological wrangling so much that we should not be surprised when some churches fight and split.

Scripture provides us with a blueprint for how to manage conflicts in church.  The question of gentile inclusion in Acts 15, for instance, reveals a process of discernment that promoted communication, testimonies, Bible interpretation, and compromise that produced healthy church growth.

A later incident in Acts 15 describes what happens when people in churches have irreconcilable differences that discernment cannot overcome.  What happens when the only solution to disagreement is a parting of ways?

Acts 15:36-41 recalls a sharp disagreement between Barnabas and Paul on whether to bring John Mark on a second missionary journey.   They did not come to a compromise and they arrived at an impasse.  Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

A close reading of the text reveals four effective strategies in managing a church conflict in which irreconcilable disagreements did not spell the end of friendships but exposed a new season of ministry inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The first strategy is that Paul and Barnabas keep their focus on God’s mission and don’t make the conflict personal.  The Bible clearly outlines that Barnabas and Paul had different personalities: Barnabas was a bridge-building who longed to keep everyone together.  Mark was family, so there was a willingness to give him a second chance.  Paul was all business.  He was not as forgiving, and God’s mission was at stake.

This strategy shows that when churches do conflict resolution well, they emphasize the mission of the church rather than resorting to personal attacks.

Second, Paul and Barnabas valued communication.  Paul could have easily went along with Barnabas only to flirt with resentment if things went sour later in the journey, but Paul was honest with his friend.  He trusted Barnabas with his concerns, and the “sharp disagreement” shows a deep sense of honor between the two men.  There was mutual respect, and in Paul’s later letter to the Corinthian churches (1 Cor. 9), Paul still considered Barnabas his peer and equal after the division–they may not have agreed, but they still affirmed each other’s mission.

What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel” – St. Crysostom.

A third strategy is to have an understanding of God’s sacred time: there is a season for everything.  What may appear to be discomfort, disagreement, or discord to us may simply be the Holy Spirit’s way of inspiring a new season of ministry.

In this season of ministry, Paul recognized that Mark was not the right guy for the job.  Later, after Mark matured in the faith, Paul recruited him to minister to churches in Colossae as Paul remained in prison (Colossians 4:10).

The focus remained on the mission and Mark was not necessarily the problem–sometimes the problem is with our sense of timing.  When seasons of ministry shift, change and discomfort result from that restless anxiety that tips our hat to the movement of the Spirit.

In times of discomfort or disagreement, we need to STOP, LISTEN, and ASSESS where the Holy Spirit may be at work to break us into a new level of revival, mission, zeal, or ministry.

Last, in parting ways not by discord but by effective conflict resolution, Paul and Barnabas expanded God’s mission.  God’s mission does not collapse or implode or falter.  When we resolve conflict by our own strength and design, churches split and bring some ministries to an end.  When God’s mission remains our focus and we make decisions because we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, God replicates and multiplies church communities.

As a result of their parting of ways, Barnabas and Mark ministered in Cyprus while Paul began a second missionary journey that ventured as far as Macedonia.  St. Crysostom wrote about this text, “What we should emphasize is not the conflict, but what Paul and Barnabas have in common–a zeal to share the Gospel.”

When conflicts arise, our first step as Christians should be to put in place a process of spiritual discernment that seeks to bring reconciliation and restoration in the church and the church’s mission.  When irreconcilable differences occur, however, we must put in place a process of a different kind; yet, our concern should always be the same: Are we living deeper into God’s holiness and are we proactively reaching the lost with every decision that is made?

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Ministry for the Sake of Christ and the World

By Joe LaGuardia

I had a conversation with a Navy veteran yesterday who served as a flight-deck officer for nearly 25 years.  I thanked him for his service and was grateful that he had sacrificed his safety in order to protect our freedom.

He reminded me of the time I wanted to serve in the armed forces too.

I was a senior in high school when recruiters visited our classes and encouraged us to make a sacrifice for our country.  They visited on behalf of the Marines, the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard.  My uncle had served in the Air Force, and I felt compelled to look into serving in that particular branch.  I am afraid of heights, but since I wore glasses I figured that they would not let me fly airplanes anyway.

When I came home to tell my father, he was not happy.  I did not understand why he was frustrated, and I began to explain all of the great things that can result from serving our country, and Uncle Joe served so why not?  Dad wanted me to go to college instead.

Although I trusted and followed my father’s advice, I still remember clearly–more clearly than ever when I spoke with that Navy vet yesterday–of the feelings I had in wanting to serve in something bigger than me, to make a sacrifice on behalf of a nation I loved and people that I longed to protect.

Since then, there were only two other times when I had that profound feeling of being called to something so profoundly inspiring.  One time was when I worked as a teacher assistant for an online college course through Ashford University.  It was a writing class, and many students I assisted were in the military or just released from the military.  Educating our troops and vets was my way of helping our nation yet again.

The second time came in college when I heard Christ calling me into the ministry.  I had gone through a litany of career options, praying for the right job that would allow me to serve others while supporting a family.  When it came down to either vocational ministry or practicing law, I met with my New Testament professor, and he gave me the lecture most of us ministry students receive.  Its the advice from the old Buechner adage that says that your calling is found where your deepest passion intersects with the world’s deepest needs.  I plunged headlong into ministry.  My father was happy.

Although I love church and ministry–I know I’m called to this because I cant’ do anything else–I often forget why I got into this business in the first place.  Yes, the Holy Spirit swayed my heart and Christ compelled me to serve His church as a full-time minister.  But there was also that profound feeling of serving others, the very same feelings I had when I spoke with those Air Force recruiters in the halls of Stoneman Douglas High School.

I think that when we ministers forget the source of our inspiration and the emotional reasons why we responded to God’s call–logic aside!–we forget the joy and passion that we are to bring to our vocation in church.

And I wonder if one of the reasons why churches plateau or die is partly because of us: We somehow lose that feeling of joining God at work for the sake of the world, and we fail to inspire others as our own passion dies a slow death under the weight of sermon preparation, balancing a congregation’s expectations with being true to yourself, and doing the busy administrative work that churches require.

I figure that if you do not have a love for every aspect of church and forget to rely on Christ’s love to fill you–whether visiting someone in the hospital or making a copy of your time sheet for your church administrator–then you might as well close shop and go home.

I enjoyed my conversation with that old veteran yesterday, and together we enjoyed a good meal as we celebrated a newlywed couple whose wedding I had just performed.  More significantly, I enjoyed what the conversation reminded me of: That we who call Christ Lord are to give of ourselves, and that there is no higher calling than to serve Jesus…To give one’s life for the sake of others, for there is no greater honor and privilege.

4 Easy Ways to Support Your Church Staff

By Joe LaGuardia

In the mid-1990s, G. Lloyd Rediger published Clergy Killers, which argued that some churches are so destructive and dysfunctional that they have actually persuaded some staff to give up ministry altogether.   Churches not adept in conflict management or basic communication skills run the risk of abusing staff or, in the least, draining staff energy to the point of burn-out.

Sometimes this happens when congregations wield power over staff with little risk to the parishioners’ own well-being.  Unlike employers who have shareholders and CEOs to answer to, parishioners try to call the shots aggressively or passive-aggressively without having to risk their own financial or personal resources.  It is an unfair advantage that congregations have over the staff they employ.

Many churches, however, are wonderful congregations to call home.  Many treat staff fairly, have appropriate policies that protect all parties involved, and are intentional in building healthy communities that minimize dysfunction and distrust.  How to do that?  I’m glad you asked.  Here are four easy ways to support your staff at church:

Understand the job.  Jobs at church–from administrator or accompanist to pastor or pastoral counselor–are not the same as jobs in the secular world.  Every staff position in a church is designed to achieve specific goals while creating a sacred space for people to meet Christ while on campus.

Consider the average job–a mechanic, say.  What if you were a mechanic, and someone “dropped in” on you to chat with you about a concern every five minutes?  You would not be a productive mechanic.  Dropping in on staff at a church, however, is a regular part of our jobs.  We make time for it because we know that ministry takes place most often in the interruptions of life rather than in the daily routines.  A mechanic’s time is valuable, and problems can be handled in specific ways.  Church staff is no different!

Understanding the job also means knowing what it takes to do a particular job.  For instance, a pastor may “hide” in her office for ten hours a week and some parishioners may feel slighted, but how else might a pastor preach a great sermon if she does not have time to prepare and write one?  Do not use your own experiences to tell a staff person how to do his or her job.

Build trust.  Church leaders learn that building trust with a congregation is the first step in effective ministry.  Trust is the catalyst for growth and the linchpin for getting things done for the Kingdom of God.

Trust must be earned, and trust goes both ways!  Parishioners must behave and communicate in a way that builds trust with staff–to be people of their word, to keep confidences, to pray for staff.

Trust comes by being interested in staff personally.  You don’t have to be a staff member’s best friend, but why not ask how his child is doing in school or about any new movies he has watched lately?  Talk about something other than church, and listen intently.  Be concerned.  It builds trust, and when you have an issue, your ability to handle it with staff will go much more smoothly if your previous interactions were positive, personal ones.

Think like an employer.  For all practical purposes, congregations employ staff.  That means that the staff at a church–even the senior pastor–does not have a traditional employer that can help negotiate the rigors of the job.  If you were to think like an employer, what would change about how you treat your staff?  Let me give a few suggestions:

Employers lean on policies to protect employees.  For church staff, that means encouraging staff to take their vacations, find time to spend with family, but also be held accountable for punctuality, professionalism, and preparedness in their job.

Employers work with employees to maximize strengths and curb weaknesses.  Church staff is no different–members have strengths and weaknesses that define who they are and how they work.  Do not micromanage staff, but work with each one in order to encourage professional development by having room for people to be who they are in all of their idiosyncrasies.  Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Church staff are real people, not caricatures that fit your predisposed expectations.

Employers celebrate employees.  Form a staff support team that handles all of the special holidays and birthdays of your church’s staff.  Shower the church administrator when its Administrator Appreciation Week, for instance.  Collect a few gift cards, balloons, and cupcakes when a staff member has a birthday.  Write cards of encouragement and let your staff know that you are praying for them.  It makes a difference!

Stay invested.  The worst thing that can happen is that a parishioner goes to another church when that parishioner does not get her way.  If you have an issue with a staff member, deal with it directly, immediately, and honestly; but, be prepared for the response.  If you want a specific outcome to a problem, help the staff member address it, but know that you may not always get your way!

In fact, the church does not revolve around you, your expectations, or your personal preferences.  But you are a part of the discerning community that makes the church a part of the Body of Christ.  Discern and pray with staff as things arise, don’t be antagonistic or petty.  Be patient and have an openness of heart.  You and your staff are on the same team, there is no room for hostility or animosity.

At the end of the day, church is supposed to be a source of joy and comfort, of fulfilling the Great Commission and of ministry not misery.  If something is not going well, it is usually not because God is not present or the Spirit is not at work.  It is likely because we have done something to railroad the human relationships that keep the wheels of the church going in a forward, harmonious and productive direction.  I hope that these four tips will make a difference!