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.

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.

Second, ensure that your church leadership is on the same page regarding vision, direction, biblical principles, and policy. When Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, he exposed the foolishness of the accusation: "A house divided against itself cannot stand" (Matt. 12:25). Strength lies in unity. Leadership that is divided cannot provide adequate direction for a congregation, especially in a time of crisis. Pastors should foster unity among their leadership through regularly communicating vision, values, mission, and goals; regular prayer and fellowship times together; and constant teaching on the importance of maintaining unity among the leadership and membership. Leaders should be carefully selected through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit and Scripture. Corners should not be cut in applying the biblical qualifications of leadership. Divisive and uncooperative leaders should be weeded out quickly if efforts to correct them are met with constant resistance.

Third, act decisively when problems arise. United leadership ensures the ability to act decisively, especially when circumstances require harsh measures such as church discipline. The apostles modeled decisive leadership when they responded to the complaint of the Hellenists in Acts 6:1-7, and unity was preserved. Failure to act quickly and decisively will give factions time to organize and build momentum. Halt special "fellowship" meetings led by dissenting members, and discipline the ringleaders when they flagrantly ignore the request for them to cease. Lovingly confront antagonistic members. Failure to respond swiftly and decisively will allow stormy conditions to develop into a perfect storm that may eventually devastate your congregation.

Fourth, leadership must seek divine wisdom in order to avoid creating or exacerbating a crisis situation. At Grace Fellowship, our elders realized too late that Pastor Doug should not have continued as a voting elder after his retirement. His 30 years of service as senior pastor, though appreciated, gave him incredible influence that made it difficult for me to lead in his wake. Also, his title as Pastor Emeritus only caused confusion about his retirement and my installment. Unfortunately, our leadership's failure to correct these problems only made the situation worse.

Fifth, include competent mediators early on, especially when it's clear that internal efforts at reconciliation aren't working. Proverbs 11:14 says, "In a multitude of counselors there is safety."Mediators should step in early on, as soon as it becomes obvious that internal efforts to bring resolution are unfruitful. Our problem wasn't that we didn't seek outside help; rather, we waited too long. By the time we reached out for help from others, the combative members were adamant that only their solution was acceptable, and they refused to include mediators.

Sixth, remember that God is sovereign over his church. The story of Joseph is a lesson for us. When reckoning day finally came for Joseph's brothers after years of concealing their sin against their brother, Joseph confronted them with this powerful insight into God's dealings with him and them: "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good" (Gen 50:20). Evil never has the last word in God's universe, or in his church. This is true even of church splits. Deception, gossip, slander, rebellion, pride, jealousy, strife—evils that can divide Christians, split churches, and sometimes send pastors packing—ultimately, and without exception, are meant for good by our sovereign God. Out of this dilemma at Grace Fellowship, the Holy Spirit has given birth to a thriving new congregation filled with people who joyously worship God and love each other. I had the privilege of worshipping at this church recently and left thinking, Only God could do something like this! The passing of time will reveal God's wonderful handiwork in trying circumstances.

As for me, my family and I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where I've embarked on an exciting church planting adventure. I'm still healing from my wounds, and I'm still able to draw valuable lessons from my experiences at Grace Fellowship Church. I'm thrilled that God is using this negative experience in my life to prepare me to work in another part of his vineyard.

If your church is surrounded by storm clouds, don't fret. Though storms arise in churches, they don't have to leave devastating results in their wake. There are always warning signs that storms are approaching. Recognize these signs, respond to them in prayer and with godly wisdom, and leave the rest to God. The church belongs to his Son, the Bridegroom, and nothing in heaven or on earth will thwart his purpose to present his bride without spot or wrinkle at the last day.

Emmitt Cornelius Jr. is a church planter in Atlanta, Georgia.