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

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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.

Second, Pastor Doug remained in a key leadership position upon his retirement and my installation. He continued as a voting elder and was given the title "Pastor Emeritus." The title was well-intentioned, but it confused many congregants. One member even commented, in my presence, that Pastor Doug would always be her pastor. Pastor Doug's continued leadership made it difficult for some people to accept the transition and support me as their new senior pastor.

Third, some of our congregants exalted Pastor Doug and his family in such a way that made it difficult to correct them when they were wrong. The Bible instructs sheep to esteem their shepherds—retired or active—but that doesn't mean supporting them unconditionally, no matter what. At one point, Pastor Doug's wife would routinely leave the sanctuary when I preached. When Pastor Doug was confronted about his wife's disrespectful behavior, he defended her actions by commenting that she didn't want to be a hypocrite. Congregants who supported Pastor Doug and his wife, including some key leaders, witnessed this behavior week after week but made no attempt to confront her.

Lastly, the leadership was divided. Division existed at two levels. First, the elders and deacons disagreed over the role of deacons. I even presented a paper on the roles of elders and deacons, but Deacon Hall was infuriated. Disagreement and power struggle continued for several years.

Steering clear of danger

Eventually, all these conditions collided to produce a perfect storm that caused a devastating church split, and it led to my early resignation (I had already communicated my intention to resign later in the year in order to move closer to my wife's and my ailing parents). Had the leadership heeded these warning signs, we probably would have avoided the tragedy. I believe the adage is true: "Hindsight is 20/20." Here are six lessons I learned from my experience:

First, it is vital to understand the spiritual, political, and cultural dynamics of your church. The church is filled with Christians who still sin and behave selfishly. Coupled with this is the reality that Christians are different from each other in so many ways—ethnically, culturally, economically, politically, socially, and spiritually. Sinful and diverse people often create negative dynamics—storm conditions—that can challenge the unity of the church. It is essential that church leaders identify these dynamics and pray for the Holy Spirit to foster unity. Additionally, an ongoing, in-depth, cradle-to-grave relational discipleship ministry is absolutely vital to God's people discovering what it means to walk in love. Christian love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, versus legalism produced by the flesh. Only by relying on the Spirit's grace and power daily can Christians live selflessly and in peace.

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Related Topics:ConflictCrisisCriticismEmotionsUnity
Posted: December 10, 2012

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Displaying 2–6 of 13 comments


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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January 05, 2013  9:16pm

How does it feel knowing you have lead and destroyed a happy home(GF)? May God have mercy on you.

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