Anatomy of a Church Split
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.