Working Through Conflict With Church Leaders
Being a pastor involves making decisions and leading the church in a direction you believe is honoring to God. It also involves working with church staff members, other pastors, deacons, and leaders of various ministries. Inevitably, differences of opinion will arise regarding which activities should take priority or in which direction a ministry should go. On some occasions, the differences may elevate into real conflict which can be uncomfortable and, if not dealt with biblically, can result in harm to the church body.
So how does one work through conflict in a way that glorifies God and actually builds the church? It may first be helpful to first realize that, sometimes, peaceful resolution is not possible. We can’t make peace at the expense of truth and righteousness. Paul warns us to “watch out for those who cause divisions” (Rom 16:17-18; Titus 3:9-11). That being said, our responsibility is to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) and seek unity whenever possible (Eph 4:1-3; Rom 12:18).
When conflict with church leaders does arise then, what do we do? Here are six suggestions:
- Check your heart. What is my attitude regarding this (or these) person(s)? Paul cautions us to not be quarrelsome – am I arguing over some minor point? Am I angry that people are being difficult and not seeing things my way? Paul also tells us to be kind to everyone, “patiently enduring evil and correcting [our] opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24). So am I seeking real truth or is my pride showing (James 4:6)? If I have been rightfully corrected, am I being humble enough to accept it and grow in wisdom instead of pride (Prov 15:31).
- Search your conscience. Have I sinned in my words or in the manner in which I spoke? Have my words demeaned someone or did they build the other person up (Eph 4:29)? Have I made a decision without consulting someone who should have been part of the process? If I have sinned, whether it was by words, attitudes, actions, or just plain old thoughtlessness, I need to ask forgiveness (Matt 7: 1-5).
- Listen to understand. Am I really seeking the other person’s interest above my own (Phil 2:3-4)? Am I listening carefully to the other person’s point of view with an intent to truly understand, or am I mainly trying to get them to understand me (James 1:18)? Active listening is a learned skill. When another person is speaking, we are often busy thinking of our rebuttal or trying to fine tune our argument. Instead, we need to listen in order to learn and understand.
- Seek a creative solution. In the first chapter of Daniel, the king’s servants served unclean food to Daniel and his companions. Daniel could have simply stood his ground and flat-out refused to eat what was served. Instead, he learned that the eunuch’s concern was not what food Daniel ate, but how he and his companions looked when presented before the king. So Daniel offered a creative solution – let us eat clean food for 10 days and see what we look like. God honored Daniel’s approach and both Daniel and the eunuch were able to realize their goals. We can only find a creative solution when we learn what the others are trying to achieve and help them achieve their goals while we also seek ours.
- Correct if necessary. If the other person is, in fact, sinning, gently correct him (2 Tim 2:24 again). We can best serve others in the church by helping them see and correct sinful behavior that is harmful to the Lord’s reputation, the unity of the church, or to their own spiritual well-being (Prov 27:6; Gal 6:1-2; James 5:19-20).
- Seek mediation. Sometimes people disagree in a way that is kind and loving, yet neither party believes it is appropriate to compromise. In these cases, we want to maintain unity as much as possible and seeking outside help would be appropriate and beneficial (1 Cor 6:5). Peacemaker Ministries (https://peacemaker.training/conflict-reconciliation/ ) offers help in this area, but any godly man who is trusted by both parties to make a wise decision can help.
There are many times in the epistles where the authors urge believers to seek peace and unity. I would venture to say that’s because whenever different people are thinking, differences will arise! Conflict can be good as it forces us to search our conscience, sharpen our thinking, grow in humility, and seek creative solutions. Let us always seek to work in gracious, loving ways, and when conflict with church leaders arise, seek to glorify God and edify others in the way we resolve our differences.
Dealing With Criticism and Critics
As a pastor, you typically (and hopefully!) have a good measure of support within the church. However, one of the things you inevitably face, simply because you are in a leadership role, is criticism regarding any number of issues – whether it be in relation to your preaching or the decisions you make. During the ongoing pandemic, there’s a high probability that your decisions regarding whether or when to close the church, hold online or drive-in services, or when (and how) to start meeting in person have been criticized. You’ve been too slow or too quick, too inconsiderate or too cautious, too afraid of government or a poor witness to the community. In many instances, there’s a critic at the ready, waiting to tell you just what you’re doing wrong. So, the question is, what’s the best way to handle criticism?
Be Humble, Seek Grace, and Evaluate
Criticism stings. David captured it well: “[They] whet their tongues like swords, [they] aim bitter words like arrows,” (Ps 64:3, ESV). The words hurt. You work hard, you are under a great deal of pressure, yet somehow your preaching is not as good as “the-famous-preacher-I-just-listened-to” and your recent decision was obviously wrong-headed for one reason or another. You need grace to not respond in anger, bitterness, or by falling into depression. God gives us his grace when we seek to be humble by honestly evaluating the level of truth in the criticism (Prov, 3:34; James 4:6). It may be that God is using your critics to shape you (Rom 8:28-29) and it may be that your critic is actually trying to be helpful (Prov 27:6). How do you evaluate?
First, are you at fault? Were you unprepared for your sermon? Did you make a hasty decision that went poorly? Were you inconsiderate in your action? Did you speak harshly? A great verse to keep in mind as you evaluate is Acts 24:16. When talking to the Governor Felix, Paul stated, “So I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man” (ESV). It’s good to pray and ask God to help you see if there’s sin on your part (Psalm 139:23-24). If there is, admit it and seek forgiveness (Matt 5:23-24). It could certainly be that your action was not intentionally sinful, but was perhaps inconsiderate. Even in those cases, seek forgiveness for not being more thoughtful, and learn from that experience. Accept that you’re not sinless and will struggle like many others (1 John 1:8-9). As a pastor, you need to be mature, but you can’t be faultless.
Second, look to see if there’s a pattern to the criticism. As Dr. Ernie Baker tells us, “if more than one person is telling you the same or a similar thing, you’d better listen.” As Baker explains, we tend to think of ourselves in the best light, but others can sometimes see more clearly. I might think that I’m a compassionate pastor, but I’m hearing, more than once (Deut 19:15), that I’m not. It’s time to sit down with one or more of your critics and ask what she’s seeing that you’re not. Seek to understand and to grow. It might also be helpful to sit down with a close friend and ask for an honest opinion on the issue. We all need one or two friends who will speak honestly into our lives (Prov 27:6).
Be Pro-Active in Maintaining Unity
Whether or not you are at fault, you may need to teach people how to maintain unity even when they disagree with you. You can’t expect everyone to be happy with everything you do, but you can teach them how to converse rather than criticize. Teach them what the Scripture says about church unity (Eph 4:3; 1 Pet 3:8), gossip (Prov 16:28; James 3:1-12), and how to approach you when they have a problem (Matt 18:15). Of course, they can only do this if you are open and available to people in your church, and if you discuss issues with an open mind and with gentleness (2 Tim 2:24-25).
Lastly, you might need to rebuke someone who is divisive. You’ll want to do your best to evaluate whether they are merely immature or purposely divisive (1 Thess 5:14). If the person is merely immature, your teaching should be effective. However, it may be that he is simply stubborn and maliciously divisive. As always, you first make a gentle appeal to the person. Teach, and as necessary, rebuke, warn and, if he remains stubborn and rebellious, put him out of the church (Titus 3:10; Matt 18:15-20).
It Hurts to Grow
James tells us that we become mature through suffering and, in the midst of our suffering, we need to ask for wisdom (James 1:2-5). Criticism can be hurtful, but I encourage you as pastors, allow God to use the criticism to grow you into a deeper maturity as a leader of your flock. It might be that you need to change and grow, or it might be that you need to take action to protect your flock. So seek grace, be humble, wisely evaluate, and maintain the unity of the church. May our Lord grant you strength and wisdom as you lead.
 Ernie Baker, "Receiving Criticism." Biblical Counseling Coalition. Jan 5,2008. Accessed April 15, 2020, https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2018/01/05/receiving-criticism/.
Helping Someone Who is Depressed
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, you’ve most likely had people in your church struggling with depression. The current circumstances are bringing an entirely new set of stressors and only serve to exacerbate old issues with which people have been dealing. So, how do you help a fellow believer who is depressed? Let me preface by saying that what follows is not at all comprehensive, but will serve as a brief overview. A number of excellent books have been written on how to help people deal with depression biblically and, in most cases, we walk alongside people who struggle with depression over an extended period of time. That being said, I pray that what follows will provide a helpful and hopeful approach to meeting a serious need in our churches.
Some Common Causes
Sometimes, depression has its root in sin. David’s sin with Bathsheba remained hidden for several months. After David was rebuked by Nathan, he wrote Psalm 32 which gives a rather clear description of a depressed person (vs. 3-4). Depression can also be rooted in a person experiencing severe injustice (Psalm 73:2-14), a broken relationship (Jer 17:5-6), physical exhaustion (1 Kings 19:4ff) or, especially today, overwhelming circumstances (Psalm 42 & 43). It could also be that even after much discussion, the person cannot point to any underlying reason.
A difficult, and sometimes dangerous aspect of depression is the way people can spiral down with hopeless thinking. Hopeless thoughts lead to greater hopelessness. Help can only come from a clear understanding of the whole gospel – justification, sanctification, and glorification (Titus 2:11-14) – and how that applies in this person’s life.
Going through our examples, if the underlying issue is sin, the good news is one can repent and find joy in God’s forgiveness (Psalm 32:11). If one is experiencing injustice, the person can understand God’s purposes in suffering and the fact that ultimately, God’s justice will prevail (Psalm 73:16-28). In terms of broken relationships, we know that although people will let us down, our trust in God can always be steadfast (Jer 17:7-8). Sometimes, it’s mainly a matter of taking care of the body (1 Kings 19:5-8). When circumstances are overwhelming, we can remember God’s provision in the past and be assured of His continues provision in the future (Psalm 42:5, 11). When we just don’t understand, we realize that we can still glorify God in our lives even when we’re feeling empty (2 Cor 4:7-10; 2 Cor 12:9).
This is not to say that it’s a simple matter of memorizing some verses of Scripture and all will be well. When helping people who struggle with depression, we must listen patiently and compassionately (1 Thess 5:14). Just as it was perhaps a slow spiral downward into depression, so it will be a slow spiral upward out of depression. The circumstances in the person’s life may not change, but his view of his circumstances – seeing them from God’s perspective – can change. In all of the Scripture passages cited above, that’s exactly what happened to the author. Whether it was David, Elijah, Jeremiah, or Paul, it was their understanding of God’s sovereignty and work in their lives that brought them from despair to hope. Their circumstances had not changed.
What is God Doing?
It would be wonderful if we could simply point out what God is doing is each person’s life. Joseph suffered greatly but God was shaping him to become the ruler of Egypt who would then save his father and brothers. But Job didn’t know why he suffered and we seldom do as well. What we do know, however, is that even in our weakness, we look to a future of glory where we will one day suffer no more; we know that in our weakness, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us; we know that God works everything in our lives in order to actively shape us into the image of his Son; and we know that since God sent his Son for us, he will provide everything we need (Rom 8:18-32). There’s great comfort in that and great strength that enables us to glorify God in our lives even when we feel depressed.
As I mentioned up front, this is just a sketch, but you can provide help and hope to people in your church who struggle with depression. There are a number of helpful books out there, but my favorite is If I’m a Christian, Why Am I Depressed? By Robert Somerville. Somerville had been a Biblical Counselor and professor for decades before personally struggling with deep and prolonged depression. This is a first hand account of his struggle and path to victory. Another excellent resource is Depression: Looking Up From the Stubborn Darkness by Ed Welch ($1.99 on Kindle right now!). Welch has written dozens of books pertaining to biblical counseling and they’re always helpful and profound.
In conclusion, you don’t need to look far to find someone who is struggling with depression. Look around the flock that God has given you and you’ll soon find someone in need of help and encouragement, and you’re just the right person to provide the hope they need (1 Pet 5:1-4).
How Not to Worry in a Worrisome Time
Whether it’s losing a job, financial pressure, or the coronavirus, it’s easy for us, even as believers, to fall into fear and worry. But the good news is we have a Father in heaven who cares for us and who is sovereign over every circumstance in our lives (Heb 1:3). Interestingly, we are actually commanded to not worry: “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil 4:6); “Do not worry about tomorrow” (Matt 6:34). Jesus even tells us that fear and worry are rooted in unbelief (Matt 6:30) and when we worry, we are acting like unbelievers (Matt 6:32).
It is certainly not wrong to plan or prepare for difficult times. Proverbs 21:5 tells us, “the plans of the diligent lead to abundance.” In Proverbs 22:3, we read “the prudent sees danger and hides himself.” The key is that we use wisdom to guard ourselves against danger, but realize that the outcome belongs to God. We do not have control, nor were we meant to have control – certainly and control belong to God and God alone. One more Proverb to highlight this point: Proverbs 16:9 says “the heart of man plans his way but the Lord establishes his steps.” So we plan and God ordains our path.
Worry does us no good because God, who loves us and is sovereign over everything, cares for us. In Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus describes how our heavenly Father feeds the birds of the air and even cares for the grass of the field yet we, as his children, are of so much more value than either of those. We need to realize that God actively and personally cares for each one of us. Worry is useless since, he has even determined the number of our days (Ps 31:15; Job 14:5).
The worse thing about engaging in fear and worry is that, when we do so, we are denying God’s loving care for us – and this is not to deny the severity of what we fear. In Matthew 8:23-27, we read the account of Jesus calming the sea. It’s important to remember that several of the disciples were experienced fisherman. They had spent a great deal of time on the Sea of Galilee. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume they had been caught in storms before. In this case however, they feared for their lives as “the boat was being swamped by the waves” (v. 24). Mark tells us “the boat was already filling” (Mark 4:37). In other words, they were, at least by their own reasonable and experienced observation, in dire straits. But after they awaken Jesus and he miraculously calms the sea, he rebukes the disciples, saying “why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” The Scripture offers no commentary on this event, but it seems that they should have known that regardless of how bad the situation looked, they had no reason to fear because Jesus was with them. And though the storms in our lives may be equally ominous, and perhaps “the boat is filling,” we have no reason to fear because Jesus is with us, too (Matt 28:20).
Jesus never tells us that we won’t have problems. We live in a fallen world where the ground is cursed (Gen 3:17-19, Rom 8:20) and where we are promised tribulation (John 16:33). Nor does Jesus advocate carefree irresponsibility. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the servants were expected to work wisely with what was given them and the master rebuked the one servant who merely hid, and then returned, what was given to him. We are told to take care of today’s troubles as God enables us (Matt 6:34). In the midst of our troubles, we are to be faithful to work and apply wisdom, and then trust God with the outcome.
How do we counsel others (and ourselves!) when they get caught up in worry? Let us take a (very brief) journey through Philippians 4:4-7. In this passage, we rejoice in God’s care for us in the midst of difficulties (v. 4). We don’t become selfish in our circumstances, but instead continue to be gentle and loving towards all people (v. 5). We approach God with prayer and supplication in confidence since he already knows what we need (v. 6, Matt 6:32). We offer thanksgiving for the innumerable blessings he has already given us, as well as the fact that he cares for us right now, even today (v. 6, Rom 8:32, Col 4:2, 1 Pet 5:7). When we do all this, we will have God’s peace which the world just won’t understand (v. 7, John 17:27, 2 Thess 3:16).
So don’t be caught up in worry. Plan, prepare, pray, and trust in our God’s amazing love, sovereignty, and care.