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One third of the congregation vigorously defended their pastor. Another third felt he should be removed immediately. The last third didn't even know what the conflict was about. And Pastor Ron requested that the district president place his name on a call list.
That's what I learned after interviewing most of the members of a congregation where I was appointed to be a reconciler.
Disagreements over Pastor's ministry style seemed irreconcilable to many. Differing opinions on his responsibilities split elders and council members. Some labeled the problem as "incompatible personalities." One member began to tape Pastor's sermons, threatening to send the tapes to the seminary for doctrinal review. Worship attendance dropped, and offerings fell off. The council balanced the budget by cutting the largest expense, the pastor's salary.
Self-righteous attitudes replaced humility, gentleness and kindness. Blaming others replaced getting the log out of one's own eye. Gossip and slander replaced confronting others in love.
While many factors contribute to our church-worker shortage, we often overlook one of the most critical - unresolved conflict. Both the "Clergy Shortage Study" and a recently released survey of Lutheran teachers point to conflict-related issues of broken relations, bitterness, deep hurts, unforgiveness and anger.
Conflict can be caused by misunderstandings, differences in opinion or purpose, and competition over limited resources. However, Scripture identifies another cause:
"What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:1 - 3).
Sinful desires that lead to sinful words and actions cause conflict. Even when sin is not the initiating cause, it does not take long before two people react to their differences with sinful responses. The consequences can be severe: relationships are broken, careers suffer, and the witness of the church is weakened. In The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, unresolved conflicts have exacerbated our church-worker shortage.
Is there any hope for a church body that suffers from unresolved conflict caused or aggravated by sin?
Thanks be to God, who sent His only Son into the world to reconcile us to Himself while we were still His enemies. Our iniquity separated us from our God, but God resolved our most serious conflict. He reached out to us before we were even born! Jesus took the full punishment of our sins on the cross to restore our relationship to Him. Through Christ, God committed to us the message of reconciliation, appointing us to be ambassadors of this good news (2 Cor. 5:11-21).
Though we confess this message of reconciliation, we often fail to live out our faith in our daily relationships - even in the church. Many respond with denial: "Our problems aren't that bad!" Some recognize the problem, but flee: "I'll find a good church where they don't have these kind of problems." Some self-justify "Something had to be done - I was just protecting our doctrine!" Others attack through blame-shifting and labeling: "It's the pastor's fault"; "Those people are alligators."
Many disputes involve substantive issues of doctrine, ministry style, worship and others. While some differences, notably doctrinal differences, cannot be negotiated and people may need to go separate ways, the manner in which we approach disagreements matters deeply to our God.
Jesus said, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34 - 35).
Paul wrote, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." (Rom. 12:17 - 18).
Loving one another does not mean ignoring serious issues. Living at peace with everyone does not mean condoning sin or false doctrine. In fact, godly love requires us to hold one another accountable in love (see Matthew 18; Gal. 6:1 - 2; Col. 3:16; Heb. 12:1 - 14).
Reflecting on the "Clergy Shortage Study," we need to do more than just increase recruiting. We lose good pastors who resign due to unresolved conflicts. Some who remain in ministry, but feel burned out or depressed from fighting, discourage others from considering calls into ministry. Without addressing how conflict contributes to the problem, we are likely to continue to lose good people and struggle to recruit replacements.
Some question, though, whether our clergy shortage can be helped through reconciliation, and others doubt it is possible.
In the congregation I described above, many doubted that reconciliation was possible. After all, too many in the church had "irreconcilable differences" with the pastor. Scores of people already were leaving the church. "If only the pastor would leave, everything would be okay."
Over the past few decades in our Synod, flight became the easy way out. Church and church worker separated without making every effort to reconcile. Get rid of the "problem" (the pastor, the congregation, whoever is handy to blame) so that we can move on in ministry.
This has backfired. The untreated wounds of past conflicts infected new relationships. A hurting congregation mistrusted its new pastors. A burnt church worker suspects members in his new call who reach out personally. New disagreements erupt that oddly resemble old battles.
In the congregation I described, the pastor and members overcame the temptation to run away. Together they studied God's Word on peacemaking. God's Law confronted them with the sin they denied, and His Gospel comforted them with a hope born of a peace that passes all understanding. Each member was challenged to remove the log from his own eye.
Their pastor led by example. Although much of what he had done was right, and he desired to serve God faithfully, Pastor Ron's zeal for ministry was intertwined with "desires that battled within" him. With counsel, he was able to distinguish his sinful desires from godly desires, his sinful words and actions from godly words and actions. He privately confessed his sins to God and was comforted with the announcement of forgiveness. He publicly confessed sins against the congregation to its members, and they proclaimed God's forgiveness to him. His example inspired others to confess their sins to Pastor and to each other. Individuals who had not spoken to one another for many months now spoke words of forgiveness to each other.
The elders began the tedious task of facilitating meetings between Pastor and those who had left the church. Over several months, all but three families were reconciled to Pastor. Six months later, with the strong support of the congregation, Pastor Ron turned down a new call to a larger congregation. The Christians in that church resisted running away from conflict and learned how to live together as God's children.
Over the last several years, I have assisted many congregations who had various complaints and struggles with their church leaders. Churches that refused to work toward reconciliation still suffer today, even if the targeted leaders are no longer there. A few of the churches that experienced an emotional reconciliation event but failed to continually live as reconciled people of God also continue to flounder.
Reconciliation is not just a healing event - it is a way of life for the believer. Today, many churches enjoy the full benefits of seeds sown in reconciliation. Their members learned that although they still sin in their work together at church, they have been given a heavenly gift to overcome sin and heal hurts. They share the Good News about Jesus' forgiveness with each other, even when they disagree. They experience the truth that "peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (James 3:18).
A spirit born of peace produces fruit. Humility, gentleness and kindness replace self-righteous attitudes. Getting the log out of one's own eye replaces blaming others. Confronting others in love replaces gossip and slander. Peacemaking replaces peace-breaking.
Our church-worker shortage challenges us to reexamine our work together. This complex, multifaceted problem will require Synod leaders to pull together for solutions. But each of us, lay person or professional church worker, can help meet this challenge by applying the Gospel to our conflicts.
May the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, as we find hope through reconciliation.
Ted Kober is director of leadership training for Peacemaker Ministries, Billings, Montana, and is a member of the Missouri Synod Board of Directors.
1. 2 Cor. 5:11-21 - Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2. Matthew 18 - At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. "Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
"See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. "What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
"I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. "Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
3. Gal. 6:1 - 2 - Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
4. Col. 3:16 - Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
5. Heb. 12:1 - 14 - Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son." Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
6. James 3:18 - Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.
Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness, January 2003. You can subscribe to The Lutheran Witness by calling 1-800-325-3381.
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