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As a teen during World War II, I kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings recounting the battles raging in Europe and the Pacific. Every evening at 6:00, I tuned in to Gabriel Heater on WOR in New York, wondering whether he'd open his radio newscast with "Ah yes, there's good news tonight" or "There's bad news tonight."
After World War II, we knew that wars could be just, and they were winnable.
I felt drawn to the military. I enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean conflict, and in 1965 I almost went to Viet Nam. I seriously considered a commission as an Army chaplain. A retired colonel in our church talked me out of it, though, arguing that the congregation needed me.
The Viet Nam war, however, taught us all a bitter lesson: some wars are unwinnable.
During my years as a pastor, I experienced both kinds of wars within the church. Sometimes church wars are winnable; sometimes they aren't.
In 1950 my wife, Fay, accepted Christ as her Savior in response to my testimony. We married a year later and planned for me to go to college and seminary and into the pastoral ministry.
From the start we agreed on our roles. I would be husband, father, and pastor. She would be wife, mother, and ordinary church member. I didn't expect her to do any more in the church than any other Christian woman. And that's how she wanted it.
The arrangement worked well in my first pastorate. The people loved us, we loved them, and Fay felt like she fit in. She could be herself and still be the pastor's wife.
The church board was spiritually mature. These individuals shared the responsibility of leading the church. They were the seasoned veterans, essential to the church's operational success.
And we were tested in battle. The congregation voted to relocate and build, but a faction fought it. The board and I stood our ground, letting them know the congregation had spoken. We expected them to cooperate with the program, to cease and desist from further factionalism. At the board's request, our district superintendent spoke at a church meeting, bluntly telling the faction to shape up or ship out.
The opposition had voiced its disapproval but followed the rules of engagement and refrained from further action.
This was my first experience with church discord, and the solution seemed so simple. From the battle-scarred district superintendent to the youngest member on the board, we moved as a team, quickly and decisively. The church grew, and though Fay hated conflict, she, like me, was encouraged by its outcome.
In 1967 a California church invited me to candidate. It was a larger church with multiple staff. Fay and I spent a week with them discussing their needs and ours.
I made it clear that I based my philosophy of ministry on Ephesians 4:11-13. I would bring God's people to maturity; they would do the work of the ministry.
Both Fay and I told them she was not my pastoral associate but my wife and the mother of my children. They should expect her to do no more in the church than any other member.
They accepted our terms, but I should have known something was wrong.
The board of deacons told me, "The previous pastor resigned largely because of opposition from the director of Christian education. He couldn't work with her, didn't get rid of her, and couldn't do anything about the faction supporting her."
That's strange, I thought. Baptist polity gives the congregation power to remove her. If this was what they wanted, all the deacons had to do was call a business meeting, let them vote, and fire her.
As I was to find out later, it was not that simple. Like Viet Nam or Afghanistan, the elected leaders held office, but they weren't able to control the countryside.
The deacons had little power. This church, a split from another church, didn't want a strong board of deacons. They felt the deacons in the previous church had too much power, and they weren't going to let that happen again.
Only after I was involved did I discover the real situation. On paper, the church's government was congregationally ruled and pastor/deacon led. In reality, the church countryside was controlled by a cadre of charter members, who used their money and power of intimidation to thwart the elected leadership.
The victory in my first church still fresh in my mind, I assumed success was possible here.
I knew that if the church called me, we'd need to face the problem of the divisive director of Christian education. I told the deacons that the solution was simple. One of my terms of call would be the right to select my own pastoral staff. I would retain everyone except the DCE.
I was much like the naive Americans who thought they could do in Viet Nam what the French couldn't. I would put this faction in its place.
The church called us by a sizable vote, and Fay and I and our four boys moved to California. The DCE did not submit her resignation prior to my arrival (though the other staff had submitted theirs). So in my first week at work, when I found her in her office doing business as usual, I went in and told her I was exercising the terms of my call and was letting her go.
She left in a huff. It didn't matter that this was one of the terms of my call and that the church had voted to accept it. I tried to get on with my work. But the guerrilla war began.
I first realized the type of conflict we'd be facing when the women asked Fay to speak at a church banquet and to become president of the women's group. Fay declined and offered to do work more suited to her gifts. One of the women (one of those appalled by how I handled the DCE) told Fay, "When Shirley (the former pastor's wife) was here, she was the president of the women's group. And she didn't turn down speaking engagements."
Shirley was a gifted, energetic woman, and she had endeared herself to the women's group. The exchange made Fay feel like a failure. These women pressed the attack.
Another time, one woman said to another, while looking at Fay, "If Shirley were here, she'd know what needs to be done."
The attacks began to feel like terrorist bombs. We never knew when the next would detonate. Once when the women's group was discussing the need for someone to lead a church delegation to a large meeting of church women, someone said, "What about Fay?"
In front of the whole group, another woman blurted, "Fay doesn't do things like that. Maybe we can get Shirley to come back and do it."
Fay came home in tears.
I was furious and personally spoke to the women involved.
"You agreed to the terms of my call, which in part said that Fay would find her own place of service in the church and would not be another Shirley," I said, gritting my teeth. "I expect you to honor that commitment."
Experienced guerrillas know how to handle this kind of confrontation. My behavior, rather than the rudeness of the women, became the issue. Not only was I to blame for removing the DCE, now I was "opposed to the women's group." The faction spread word throughout our community and denomination that I was an "abrasive person with a bad attitude, particularly toward women."
Like political terrorists, these guerrillas use noncombatants as pawns and justify it on the grounds they are an oppressed people.
In response, conventional strategy dictates that pastors must forbear, and when they act, be beyond reproach. I was not about to forbear attacks against my wife. They were right. I did have a bad attitude. I was angry. They're not going to take advantage of my wife's gentle spirit.
But like government troops, my efforts couldn't prevent the guerrilla strikes.
Fay attended a women's banquet, and several of the factious women sat at the next table.
"Well, did you hear about the pastor's latest stunt?" one of them said, loudly enough for Fay to hear. "He had the nerve to come to my home and tell me that I owed his wife an apology for the way I treated her. I told him that I owed no apology. What I said was the truth. The women's group needs Shirley."
"That man has serious problems," another chimed in. "I hear that his former church had problems with him, too-and now we're stuck with him."
Again, Fay came home in tears.
"It's bad enough that I'm no Shirley," she said. "But when they talk about my husband as though I'm not there, they're communicating that not only am I a failure as a pastor's wife but also that I'm a non-person! What did I do to deserve this?"
Her pain broke my heart. I had introduced her to Christ. But in so doing had also introduced her to the hardships of ministry: the pain of being told your husband's a failure and, as his wife, you're a failure as well.
Many years passed before Fay could attend church without dissolving in tears. Even today-some twenty years later-church is not an enriching experience for her.
It was only a matter of time before they struck my children. My oldest son, in high school at the time, was dating a girl in the church. I was concerned that she was manipulating their relationship. He was afraid even to go out with the guys before checking in with her.
Not wanting his social development crippled, I relayed my concerns to him, reminding him that he wasn't married to this girl, that she had no right to constrict his social life.
"I'd like to see you date other girls," I said.
Soon a story was circulating around the church that my son was planning to run away from home. Another story had me angry and abusive toward the girl and her parents.
Then our youngest son, who attended school where a woman from the church volunteered as a playground supervisor, had a dispute with another child.
This woman dragged the boys to the principal. Someone in the school office told me later that she had said to the principal, "Don't be hard on the boy. His father is the pastor of my church, and I can tell you he's a very troubled man."
Though the terrorism against my family continued, I was the main target. They accused me of not being a caring pastor. This certainly was understandable given that the former pastor was a gentle spirit, patient with the people, and avoided challenging the power politics. Yes, by comparison, I was a bull in a china shop.
Another criticism was my preaching. I had made a deliberate attempt to avoid harping on topics by preaching through the books of the Bible. Unpopular subjects such as predestination and election, however, couldn't be avoided when preaching through Romans and Ephesians.
The faction also took issue with slang expressions I used in sermons, such as "hang loose," "gut feeling," and "wearing masks."
But the problem was much larger than these issues. I had dared to challenge the power structure.
In one of their letters to the congregation, they said that I lacked "the confidence of a majority of the responsible leaders, as well as the working, supporting [emphasis theirs] members of the church. (Note-we are not necessarily referring to or implying a majority of the church membership as a whole)."
Translated: The war lords in the church wanted me out, though they admitted the majority of the board of deacons and the congregation supported me!
In spite of the tensions, our attendance grew. We went to two Sunday morning services. The church had plans to build a new sanctuary, and now seemed to be the time. We launched a bond program, with the trustees responsible for its execution.
The people of the church quickly raised the money, which was put in escrow. Though the trustees told us we had reached our goal, they never closed escrow. When we began to talk about actually building the church, we discovered three trustees had returned their bonds and withdrawn their money. This precipitated a raid on the escrow by the disaffected members of the church.
We never pursued the legality of the escrow raid. One church member was an officer of the bank holding the escrow, and I didn't want the church to get a black eye for suggesting legal action. Legitimate government must behave nobly on the field of battle in spite of guerrilla tactics.
We also had a practical reason for not pursuing legal action. The unrest in the church didn't bode well for a building program. Enemies in the countryside was one thing, but having them within your own administration was another.
I felt the three trustees who had violated their trust needed to be confronted. I met with the deacons and suggested calling a meeting of the congregation to remove the trustees from office.
The meeting was a fiasco. The trustees justified their behavior by saying, "The pastor is demoralizing and ruining the church" and "It is not a good time to build" and "The pastor doesn't care about the people's feelings."
They were partly right. I didn't care about the feelings of those I considered saboteurs. If they couldn't cooperate with the board of deacons and the 80 percent who supported the church's direction, I felt they ought to leave.
Though the faction tried to make me the issue, the congregation voted to remove the three trustees from office. The three responded by leaving the church. I was sorry it had come to this, but I hoped that a public victory would demoralize the guerillas and prevent further attacks. I should have known better.
After the church meeting, the stories, whispers, and undercurrents did diminish. But it was only a lull before the next offensive. Within a few months, they began circulating a petition for my resignation.
One Sunday morning, as I walked into the sanctuary to prepare for the worship service, I saw several individuals welcoming the arriving congregation by handing out flyers, urging them to sign the petition. I went out and said to one of them, "How can you do this to people who are coming here to worship and hear God's Word?"
"This is our church, not yours," one of them replied, "and it's about time you realized it!"
One of the deacons was making friendly small talk with those handing out flyers. I took him aside. "Do you expect me to lead worship and preach with this going on?"
The deacon, who loathed confrontation, replied, "Pastor, you have to understand these people . . ."
I was devastated. The guerrillas were attacking our most sacred event, and one of my officers tells me I need to understand these people! My anger got the best of me.
"You'll have to lead the service," I said, "because I'm going home."
I gathered my family, and we left town for the day.
Fay feared the future. "What are you going to do?" she asked. "We can't keep going on like this." My boys, in the back seat of the car, were silent. I'm sure they wondered what the future held for them, too.
That week I asked the deacons to call a congregational meeting to vote on my tenure. Though the constitution called for a two-thirds majority to remove the pastor, I told them I would resign if a simple majority wanted me out.
Previous church meetings had been about specific controversies, not my leadership per se. Perhaps by making my leadership the issue, we could finally settle the conflict. I still thought this was a winnable war.
The opposition beat the bushes and handed out absentee ballots to those who'd left the church but hadn't transferred their membership. Yet with all their effort, 80 percent voted in my favor.
After the vote, however, the war continued. I still didn't get it. It didn't matter what the congregation wanted. The opposition would have their way, even if it meant scorched earth.
While the deacons supported my leadership, many of the trustees did not. With their power over the purse strings, the trustees progressively demoralized the church by thwarting programs the congregation had voted into the budget. They would claim the bids for goods or services from outside vendors were unsatisfactory. As they waited for "satisfactory bids," enthusiasm for the programs died.
Another dodge was budget priority. Money budgeted for programs they didn't like wasn't available because, they said, other priorities (what they wanted to spend money on) came first.
One of the trustees made no secret about how he felt.
"I started this church and paid for it," he told me. "If you think I'm going to let you tell me what we're going to spend money on, you are mistaken!"
The deacons, realizing that nothing had changed since the vote on my tenure, tried to correct the situation by sending a letter to all the officers, committee members, teachers, and workers in the church. It said, in part: "When the church was given the opportunity to vote on the Pastor's tenure, the Board of Deacons announced 'that once the vote is taken, we expect all to cooperate with the majority vote and to seek the Lord's highest plane of outreach for this local assembly.' "
They attached to the letter a statement for all workers to sign. It was a pledge to support the leadership of the pastor and deacons, to attend church and Communion regularly, and to refrain from public and private criticism of the church, its pastor, and leadership.
But the faction fought back. When the deacons took their request for a pledge of allegiance to the congregation, the meeting quickly got ugly.
The moderator struggled to maintain control. He reminded the dissenters repeatedly, "You will address the moderator and stop your direct verbal attacks on other members."
Ignoring him, an angry member shouted at a deacon who had just spoken. "You don't deserve to be a deacon," he snarled. "You're just one of the pastor's pawns. You've forgotten your friends who've sacrificed to build this church. The pastor didn't build this church. We did."
Something happened inside of me. It had been coming for several months. As a result of marriage counseling, I had come to realize something important about myself. Sometimes I would fight for things, not because the cause was noble and just, but because I had to win.
I had often said to my wife, "It's a good thing that I was never a professional soldier because I would be either very decorated or very dead."
But now I had begun to change. I silently prayed, "Lord, I don't want people to be bloodied because I have to win." In my mind's eye, I saw God smile, and I knew what I had to do.
I asked the moderator for a recess to meet with the deacons. We went to my office, where I told them, "I don't want any more fighting, but I don't want you to feel I'm pulling the rug out from under you by resigning. I'm ready to leave the field of battle if you are."
We prayed, and to a man, they were ready, too.
After the recess I was given the floor, and I announced my resignation, stunning the congregation. My supporters knew that surrender was the only way out-for me and for them. Church history already had a Thirty Years' War. Two years was enough for me.
A few days later, a group of church members asked if I'd start a new church.
"I don't want any part of a church split," I replied. "The reason I resigned was to stop the fighting."
"Church split?" replied one of the delegation. "That's a joke. Whether you stay in town or leave, there's going to be a mass exodus. Many are disgusted and want nothing to do with this church. Others, like us, want to start again with you."
Given this argument and the practical reality that I needed a job, I stayed.
The new church blossomed, but I soon discovered that as long as I lived anywhere near my detractors, I would never be at peace.
One day a neighbor stopped me in the grocery store and said, "I'm sorry to hear about your son David" (who was away in the army).
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"His arrest for doing drugs and selling them."
"Where did you hear this?"
"A member of your old church told me."
I couldn't believe it. The war was continuing even though I'd surrendered. I didn't tell Fay because she had been battered enough.
But the stories continued. Another time I saw a friend as I walked in the park.
"It's good to see you're doing better," he said.
"What do you mean?"
"You were in the hospital under suicide watch, weren't you?"
Old friends and colleagues would see me in public and be surprised that I seemed to be functioning like a normal human being. Fay ran into old neighbors who expressed concern over something that was supposed to have happened to her-like her husband leaving her for another woman.
Fay often wept, saying, "Will we never get away from this?" After six months, I couldn't take it any longer. I finally resigned my new church. I told the elders what was happening, and they understood. They gave us a lovely send off.
Our plan was for me to take all of our household goods back to Washington, D.C. in a moving truck, then to work a secular job while I built a counseling practice. When school was out, Fay would come with the kids. In the meantime, she functioned with "survival gear" (bedding, but no beds, a few cooking pots and dishes).
After I left, friends told us that the faction was saying that I had left my wife and children and that I was so mean I didn't even leave a stick of furniture behind for them.
I remember crying all the way across the country, feeling such a terrible sense of failure. My seminary professors once thought of me as a promising pastor. What would they think of me now?
I wish my training had taught me how to avoid no-win wars and recognize when I was in one. What I didn't learn in seminary, however, I learned in jungle combat. Here are a few factors to consider when deciding whether or not you are in a no-win war:
Is there a history of factionalism? All pastors experience conflict. Some conflict is healthy; it can be a signal that the church is moving ahead. But a church that has a history of driving pastors away is probably a political quagmire, unlikely to turn in your direction once they've decided you are the enemy. Tragically, too many pastors, like myself, discover the church's sordid history only after they've accepted the position.
Are your peace initiatives having no effect? In a winnable war, when you make repeated constructive efforts at peacemaking, there is some positive response. When peace overtures are rejected outright, however, you may be in an Afghanistan-like conflict. Peace is unlikely; the only question is whether or not you and your family will get out alive.
Are the leaders willing to pay the price to win the war? Look at the battle-readiness of your leaders (the elders, deacons, or "official board"). Leaders who've never been through church conflict may be disillusioned and devastated by it. They may be unwilling or unable to take the heat.
When trouble breaks out, veteran noncoms and lieutenants are priceless. Without them, you can't survive. By the time my board of deacons became seasoned veterans, the war was out of control.
Your leaders must be willing to make decisions that will result in casualties. They must have the resolve to continue despite losses and discouragement. They must have the ability to prevail. Above all, they must be able to maintain their humble dependence upon the Lord amid a hostile climate.
Is there enough popular support to continue the war? There will always be some who advocate "peace at any price" and refuse to stand up to opposition. But you need a critical mass of congregational support. Without that, you're in a no-win war.
Is the opposition willing to negotiate, or do they demand unconditional surrender? A determined faction is all but impossible to defeat. Guerrillas can commit atrocities, but the actions of legitimate government must be beyond reproach. If the opposition is willing to sit down and work on the issues, the war can be settled. But if they refuse to settle for anything less than unconditional surrender (or your resignation), the chances of winning are remote.
Are you unable to protect your own family? You may be willing to endure a no-win church war, but what about your family? I thought my wife and children were safe because they were noncombatants. But they weren't. Not only can family members be wounded in battle, but they can carry scars for life. Having a spouse become bitter toward the church or a child reject the faith because of a church conflict is a price I'm not willing to pay.
Do you know why you're fighting? Are the objectives clear? Are the reasons becoming more personal? Do you have a need to win? Because militaristic themes enamored me and I had a personality that needed to win, I saw things through the lenses of scriptural phrases, such as "fight the good fight."
What is more, my first experience with conflict, which resulted in the growth of the church, gave me a false sense of competence. I didn't know how vicious a church war could be. In my first church, the conflict was different. The opposition did not act like terrorists. They followed the Geneva Convention.
I have come to believe that there are times when we should turn over scorched earth to determined terrorists. Yes, you will feel a sense of defeat. I did. In those dark days, ironically, the reality of God's sovereignty sustained me. The sermons I preached from Romans came home, and I was able to pray, "God, I don't know what you're doing but I believe you do, and that's good enough for me."
As I look back on this some twenty years later, I recognize that God did not abandon me. He has blessed me beyond anything I could have imagined. I have a solid marriage and a satisfying counseling practice.
Though this episode of my life was painful, if I could write the finale, it would read as Job's: "The Lord blessed the latter part of [his] life more than the first."
Copyright © 1993 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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