Facing a Faction
In a survey of nearly 600 pastors conducted by Texas Tech University, 28 percent said they have been forced out of a previous congregation due to personal attacks or criticism from a small group of members. David Briggs from the Association of Religion Data Archives describes these "factions" within congregations as "clergy killers"—"a small group of members [who] are so disruptive that no pastor is able to maintain spiritual leadership for long."
Such situations are toxic, damaging relationships, even spurring ugly lawsuits. How should a church respond?
Ken Sande, founder of Peacemaker Ministries and an Editorial Advisor for Church Law & Tax Report, says he saw a 2,500-member, nondenominational church in Tennessee flirt with a potentially disastrous force-out.
A few members began complaining about the senior pastor's sermons, saying his teaching no longer "fed them." In time, some church elders joined the chorus of complaints, and within months, the congregation was embroiled in conflict.
A meeting of the church's leaders was called. The pastor, expecting a dismissal, spent the night before carefully preparing a final, parting shot to the elders. At the meeting, as he approached the pulpit to deliver his remarks, a wave of conviction suddenly came over him. He dropped the notes to the floor. And he proceeded to confess his sins with the conflict.
Stunned silence overcame the room as he took his seat. Then, one by one, several elders stepped forward to confess their own mistakes. In a matter of hours, months of fighting were put to rest. "The Holy Spirit moved through the congregation like a wave," Sande recalls.
In the weeks ahead, the pastor and elders worked together to discern God's will for the ministry. Together they realized the pastor's gifts weren't as strong a fit as they once were. They mapped out a period of transition, with the church affirming his work, encouraging him to find a new ministry to serve, and supporting him financially until one was found.
The turning point for the Tennessee church, Sande says, was the humility of the pastor to own his role in the situation and set an example of genuine repentance. Three other lessons to learn, according to Sande:
1. Pursue prevention. Before trouble ever arises, speak (and train) often about important communication principles (withholding judgment, going to people rather than talking about them, and so on).
2. Be approachable. And accountable. A distant pastor becomes an easy target. So does one overprotected or underprotected by a congregation.
3. Verify the claim. When a claim surfaces, assemble a group of godly men and women who are willing to ask hard questions—of the pastor and the ones making the claim—and listen.