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Home > 2012 > December Online Only > Anatomy of a Church Split

One of my favorite movies is The Perfect Storm, starring George Clooney as the captain of the Andrea Gail, a fishing boat that capsized in a violent storm in the Atlantic Ocean in 1991. The storm was a combination of three storms, and the Andrea Gail never had a chance of survival. Several storm warnings were issued before the boat departed. If the captain had heeded the warnings, the crew would have avoided the tragedy.

The same is true of church splits. Churches don't split suddenly and without warning. There are usually signs of impending disaster. The challenge is to recognize these warning signs, or storm conditions, early and then act with godly wisdom before a storm hits with devastating force.

I recently resigned from my position as senior pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Pennsylvania after several years of fruitful ministry. (All names are fictitious in order to protect the privacy of the individuals and the church involved.) My relationship with this church started out well, but things began to deteriorate in my fifth year and only got worse. Now that I'm no longer affiliated with the congregation, I've been able to reflect on the events that led to my resignation. One thing is clear: key leaders, including myself, should have seen the developing storm and should have taken the proper steps to protect the church.

Clouds on the horizon

I came to Grace Fellowship while pursuing a doctorate degree in theology at a local seminary. Shortly after my arrival, I was invited to join the church staff full-time as Christian Education Director. A few years later I became the senior pastor upon the retirement of Pastor Doug, the only other senior pastor Grace Fellowship had known. It seemed like a perfect transition. However, upon reflection, it was more like the quiet before a storm. Most of the congregants had appreciated my ministry over the years, and my installment as senior pastor generated incredible excitement over the future of our church. But early warning signs indicated that a violent storm could eventually hit with devastating, hurricane-like force unless we took corrective action immediately.

The biggest problem in our church was one that many churches face: one or more prominent members who are hungry for power. These people often feel their membership, relationship to the founder or financial means give them some sort of carte blanche in exerting control in the church. In this situation, the controlling members belonged to the former pastor's family. Pastor Doug's wife was particularly challenging. From day one, she saw my appointment as a threat to the status and control the "first family" had enjoyed. Teaming up with the former "first lady" was her influential and successful son-in-law, Deacon Hall. He believed his status, prominence and influence as a deacon was threatened by my new role. At first, the opposition was insignificant. But as time went on, it became more overt, and more people were slowly but methodically recruited to their cause. Though this was a major problem in itself, there were four other conditions that combined to make a perfect storm.

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Related Topics:ConflictCrisisCriticismEmotionsUnity
Posted: December 10, 2012

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Displaying 1–5 of 13 comments


November 04, 2014  5:41pm

Emmitt, excellent article and I really appreciate your wisdom on the issue. I'm currently seeing these things happen in the church I attend, where a group of folks have decided to criticize and judge the pastor. In observing the responses in this section, I can see why the church suffocated. Offense is a nasty thing, and many people in their pursuit of 'justice' (which is really just what is right in their own eyes) damage the God-appointed individual over that body. I'm sorry you had to deal with rebellion and offense. I hope the next church you're at flourishes and remembers that "What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth." 1 Cor 3. God Bless you.

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January 08, 2013  8:25am

What is wrong with tradition if it is rooted in Biblical principles and the "innovation" is not?

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V. Murdoch

January 08, 2013  8:02am

When articles like these are published, remember that there are usually 2 sides to every story. Remember that it is easy to comment on heresay alone when some individuals were not actually present when this conflict was going on. Clearly, EC did not learn the lesson that the Lord will take care of any injustices leveled at him as a result of this church split. Writing one-sided articles does NOT help in healing. Buyer Beware!

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Michelle C. Russell

January 07, 2013  10:30pm

Thank you for writing such a thorough article Pastor Emmitt. As a former member of GF who was gone before the church split, I was very disheartened by what I saw happen. Somehow I was raised in GF and saw many of the flaws that you have highlighted in the article. I think the shame comes in when Christians fail to embrace vision that is grounded in the mission and gospel message that Jesus preached which calls for perpetual growth and change to attract new believers to the church in the name of holding onto comfort and tradition. GF became a challenging place for me to worship when I found that other believers were placing legalism over grace, and tradition over innovation in Christ. Somewhere along the way, GF got away from being the chuch that greeted people with Maranatha and love and instead became a church where status reigned in place of love. I still love my GF family and am thankful that one day the love and grace of Christ will heal the rift in fellowship that occurred.

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January 07, 2013  9:43pm

Again I just want to say how deeply sorry I am for the destruction I have caused at "Grace Fellowship". I wasn't called to Pastoring. I only accepted the job because it was offered to me. I will, from now on, wait on the Lord.

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