It's been a year now since our congregation went through its most intense conflict in about 30 years. I haven't spoken much about it outside of our congregation, and I don't think I should. Those of you who are here know the details, and the tragedy of it all.
Now that we've had some time to "cool down" a bit, I thought I'd offer some reflections for the benefit of any others who go through such a fiasco. Some of these are quite obvious, some might not be. And some of these insights I knew in theory, but learned in a whole new way living through them - in much the same way I knew "lots about parenting" until I actually became a parent.
1) Always be faithful, no matter the cost. (Rev. 2:10)
There will be many competing interests and motivations in a church conflict, and temptations to take the easy way out. Remember you are called, above all, to be faithful. Seek God's will first in his revealed Word - and listen to it! The other voices, not so much. The worst thing that can happen in a church conflict is for the faithful to fold and cowardly back down.
Be sure, very sure, though, that if you are fighting this battle - the Lord is on your side. Don't fight a battle over opinions on which Scripture is silent, or worse, in which you are in the wrong. And if you are faithful, He will be with you no matter what comes of it.
2) Sometimes you have to choose sides. (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 4:1)
We'd all like to be everyone's friend, especially as pastor. But sometimes this is not possible. Sometimes both "sides" are wrong, but sometimes one side is right. Often times, those who seem to be causing the trouble are really the ones following scripture, and the "innocent victims" are the ones ignoring it - or even seeking to distort and destroy the Gospel.
3) Be prepared to suffer. (Acts 9:16)
Who said any of this would be easy? Certainly not Jesus, who taught us about carrying crosses - or Paul who was no stranger to suffering. Few things are as stressful for a pastor as church conflict. When the sheep "bite and devour" each other, and their undershepherd, it is not pleasant. But think of all the saints before you who have suffered for the Gospel. Think of the prophets and apostles, so many who met a martyr's death. If your chruch conflict gets this bad, then talk to me about suffering! Nonetheless, even then they remained faithful, for their God did not forsake them. Nor will he forsake you in your suffering.
Be prepared, pastor, to be called names. Be prepared to have your integrity and motives questioned. Be prepared for even your family to come under fire. Gossip, lies, and bitterness will bubble up and seethe against the one who speaks the truth that people don't want to hear. But be steadfast and immovable. Fear God more than those who would trouble his Gospel.
4) Be prepared to be surprised. (1 Peter 5:8)
You never know what will happen, but that doesn't mean you can't prepare. While we tried to prepare for all sorts of variables (and often times it was helpful), a conflict is like a battle - and subject to the same "fog of war". You can't be ready for everything. Sometimes you'll be taken off balance, with your guard down. So just be ready to think on your feet, remember people are both sinners and saints, and you don't always know which side you'll see! The Devil has many tricks up his sleeve and he's not ashamed to use them against God's people.
5) Be patient, but not too patient.
Here again a balance should be struck between forebearing patience and acting in accord with the Word. Sometimes the right amount of patience is a matter of applying Law and Gospel - and takes great wisdom. You can't allow some things to go unaddressed forever. Nor can you move with haste in every situation. Knowing when to act and when to wait is a delicate and difficult equation. One tip - if you are the kind of person who tends to act too soon - balance yourself with the counsel of a person who tends to wait too long - and vice versa.
6) Teach, teach, teach!
In a conflict situation that is clearly addressed in Scripture, we simply MUST teach what Scripture teaches about it. This is not 'brainwashing' people, but equipping the saints! It may be seen as a self-serving thing to study the Bible's teaching on the conflict in question - but only to those who have already determined you are the bad guy. Christians should never, even in a conflict, be afraid to study the Word. In fact, the worse the conflict, the more essential such study becomes. The more we need his clear teaching. And therefore the pastor must teach it.
This also means, "study, study, study!" I particularly appreciated Walther as a resource during the conflict - as applying Law and Gospel was at the center of the contraversy.
7) Trust God's promise to work for good. (Rom 8:28)
Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for our good. "All things" is a great promise. That would include your present suffering, any conflict or disaster you might go through. Somewhere, somehow, God is working for the good in the midst of it. That doesn't mean that God causes every conflict (certainly we are sinners enough to take credit), but it does remind us of the mystery behind what seems to be only trouble. I'm reminded of the words to the hymn, "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.... behind a frowning countenance faith sees a smiling face".
8) Be forthright and open, but careful not to say too much. (Eccl. 3)
Talk to people! Don't avoid communicating, especially with those who are confused and troubled by the conflict. Confusion and ignorance are no friends of the Gospel, but keep the truth under a bushel basket. Darkness hates the light - so speak up! Be honest, even if it's difficult to talk about.
But be careful. Speak lovingly. This is hard, very hard, when emotions are high. Sometimes even hard things (the Law) must be spoken - but keep your anger out of it, and let the word do its own work.
Also, be careful not to say too much. Of course, keep confidences. Don't break the seal of the confessional. But also remember the 8th commandment's instruction to speak well of your neighbor - even the one who is causing you grief at the moment. Sometimes it also takes great wisdom to know when we must speak and when we must remain silent - Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for both. Discern it well.
9) You will learn who your friends are.
Again, like a battlefield, nothing strengthens relationships more than people going through a difficult time together. With a church conflict, you will find out who your friends are. Those who wish to remain faithful, as you do, who treasure God's word, as you do, will become all the more precious to you. And you, as their pastor, will grow in their favor as well. You may also be surprised who turns up to stab you in the back or spit in your face. But even Jesus was denied and betrayed by those close to him - so should we be any better?
While conflict usually means a minor or major exodus from the congregation - and we had our share leave as well - it also can mean a deeper committment of those who remain. I've heard of other congregations which, after a similar conflict, and losing many members, actually saw an increase in offerings!
And who knows, maybe your reputation for faithfulness will draw even more souls searching for such steadfastness in the midst of the great American buffet of spineless Christianity. Perhaps, after a time of pruning, you will even see new growth, God willing.
10) There is calm after the storm.
More than anything, remember that no such suffering lasts forever - at least not for the child of God. You may even lose the battle, lose your call, your livelihood, many friends, reputation, whatever.... but you cannot lose the kingdom. A mighty fortress is our God, take they our life, goods, fame child and wife - the kingdom ours remaineth!
The conflict will end. There is calm after the storm. It may or may not be the kind of calm you are praying for, but peace will come.
11) Get on your knees, confess your sins, pray like crazy.
A time of conflict can be, and should be, a time of great spiritual growth - especially for the pastor! He should take it as an opportunity to repent, for he will surely sin in the midst of it in many ways. He should take it as an opportunity to pray - even more - and trust in God for rich supply. He should see it as a blessed time to receive forgiveness and preach it to all who would hear - but first to hear it himself. For that's what this is all about, right? Sinners forgiven by Christ crucified? Lose sight of him at your own peril. Instead, even in conflict, fix your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). Laser beam focus. Jesus is everything, even in the worst of the worst.
I'm sure I'm forgetting many things. These couple of years have been a roller-coaster, and we're still figuring out what it all means. But the worst is now over, and with hindsight I can see the hand of God in it all that much clearer. He has been good to me and to our congregation. He is always good to his people.
I pray you find these reflections useful, too.