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.
The first condition was cultural. When my family and I joined Grace Fellowship, we noticed an uneasy tension between the two main ethnic groups in the church—both of color. We initially saw this as a minor irritation that the church had learned to live with. We figured we could live with it, too. For the most part, everyone got along, as long as it was understood that the dominant ethnic group was in charge. However, the minority ethnic group, of which I was a part, eventually became more significant in numbers and influence. I didn't orchestrate it. It was how God chose to bless the church. But this created problems. Eventually, I found myself trying to save the church from splitting along a major ethnic fault-line. It didn't help that the former "first family" belonged to the ethnic group that was declining.