When the teachers in our village went on strike last year, it nearly tore our congregation apart.
Our congregation includes many teachers and a number of administrators and board of education members. Other church members work as librarians, nurses, and secretaries in the local schools. Naturally, the strike pitted teachers against the administration and the board of education.
During that time, each side sought to outmaneuver, undermine, and discredit the other. Some of our members were crossing picket lines in which other members were marching.
A teachers' strike isn't the only community event that can threaten a church's unity, of course. Political campaigns, zoning variances, and business deals can all put parishioners from the same church on different sides.
As pastor to people on both sides, how can we keep the peace in the church? In our teachers' strike, I learned some valuable lessons that I present here in the hope you'll never have to use them.
When it became obvious a strike was imminent, I did some careful thinking. I wrote down and then vowed to abide by these simple rules.
Rule 1: Don't take sides. In some cases when issues are of a clear moral nature, neutrality is improper for a Christian. But in this case neutrality was both possible and necessary. It allowed me to speak about faith and conduct without being put in either camp, but it wasn't easy.
About three months before the strike, the superintendent of schools gave me a tour of the schools in the system. Along the way he complained about the unreasonableness of the teachers, many of whom were in my congregation. Some of what he said offended me, but I said nothing.
Later, when some of these teachers criticized the unreasonableness of the administration and board, I felt ready to chime in.
I realized, however, that my people were on "the other side," too. To take sides would severely undercut my pastoral ministry and authority in this congregation and village. I needed to minister to everyone involved.
So I refrained from making comments about labor issues. Consequently, I was free to point out that no matter which side of the issue our members found themselves on, they must act like Christians, especially in forgiving those who sin against them.
Rule 2: Stay calm. Any crisis situation initially appears worse than it is. Some people actually benefit from making the crisis loom frighteningly large, and I didn't want to help them.
During the strike, several people expressed deep concern about the continued unity of the congregation. Some worried that friendships would sever, others that attendance would drop markedly, others that our congregation's warmth would turn cold. One person seemed convinced the congregation would dissolve in a cloud of bickering.
Troublesome comments such as these tempted me to worry. Yet people were counting on me, their pastor, to demonstrate leadership in the time of crisis. It was not a time to panic. I recalled the simple truth of faith-that Jesus is Lord. I needed to trust that the Lord would preserve the unity of this congregation for his glory.
Rule 3: Don't act alone. A few days after my tour with the superintendent, the teachers' chief negotiator, anticipating a strike, asked permission for the teachers to use the church to hold a public-information meeting if, in fact, a strike developed. I took the issue to Session, the congregation's governing board of elders that technically approves all such requests. Although many routine requests for building use are handled in the office, this one, I felt, was different and needed to go to the Session.