Nine Lessons for Pastors Facing Leadership Conflict
Two years into our church plant, we faced our first major crisis. Two elders left the church, but not before raising some serious accusations against me as the pastor. Suddenly, our young church had entered into the murky, dark, choppy waters of leadership conflict. As you might expect, the resignation of these two elders led to a series of very difficult members’ meetings.
But God was with us. There were many instances of his kindness, but one in particular stands out. On the Sunday morning of what would be the most difficult members’ meeting for me, God sent Rod and his wife Joy, who were vacationing in the area, to visit our church. Rod was a pastor and, just the year before, had walked through an amazingly similar period of conflict in his church. Two elders leaving. Accusations. Conflict. Rod’s encouragements and wisdom during the week that followed were grace to me, a young pastor just struggling to keep his head above water in a sea of conflict. Joy ministered to my hurting wife.
Recently, I had the opportunity to counsel a pastor facing a leadership conflict in his church, and I was reminded of how frequently churches are afflicted.
Leadership conflict in the church is tough. It’s scary, disorienting, confusing, and damaging. And every church experiences it. Jesus spoke of false prophets who would come in among the disciples (Matt. 7:15–20). Likewise, Paul warned the Ephesian elders that wolves would arise from among them and would not spare the flock (Acts 20:29–30). Confronting such threats necessarily involves conflict.
Then there are the less sinister, but still frequently destructive Paul-and-Barnabas-type disagreements. Satan uses these to harm churches. Pastors need to be vigilant to do all they can to avoid leadership conflict, but they also need to respond wisely to leadership conflict when it comes.
Looking back, here are nine lessons I took away from our church’s experience of conflict.
1. Preach God’s Word faithfully.
As pastors, our most basic responsibility is to preach the Word (2 Tim. 4:2). But in the midst of controversy we can easily be side-tracked and put sermon preparation on the back-burner. One of the first questions an older pastor asked me when he learned I was facing conflict in the church was “How are your sermons?” He wanted me to avoid the pitfall many pastors fall into of thinking they have an excuse not to prepare.
Brothers, the battle will affect our emotions and that will, at times, make sermon preparation difficult. But our people still need to hear God’s Word. Our people also need to hear the voice of a faithful under-shepherd, particularly if other voices are calling for their attention.
Finally, pastors themselves need to spend time with God through his Word. David strengthened himself in the Lord when his own men spoke of stoning him after their wives and children had been taken captive by the Amalekites (1 Sam. 30:6). Each week, our sermon preparation gives us the opportunity to do the same thing.
2. Pray fervently.
In leadership conflict, the struggle is almost always personal. Pastors are forced to confront human opponents when the health of the church is at stake.
But ultimately, we need to remember that Satan is at work in every instance of church conflict. He intends for the conflict to divide the church. He intends for church members to be wounded and disillusioned. If possible, he intends to dishonor Christ’s name in the community.
And here’s the thing. Satan is so much smarter and stronger than we are. When he requested of the Lord to sift Peter (Luke 22:31), Satan wasn’t in any doubt as to whether or not he would be successful. He just needed permission. Faced with such an enemy, our responsibility as shepherds is to humble ourselves in prayer and to ask Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20), to fight for his people.
3. Love your people.
In conflict, subtle insinuations, vague accusations, and even overt lies combine to present church members with a carnival mirror’s reflection of their pastor.
How can they sift the true from the false? Pastors, it’s our responsibility to love our people so well that they truly know us. If, as a pattern of ministry, we hide in our studies and refuse to interact with fellow church members, they won’t know us and so won’t be equipped to recognize slander when conflict comes.
How are we to love our people? In a hundred ways. But one avenue of love is essential—hospitality. Elders must be hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2). Hospitality is a wonderful means of discipleship, but it also prepares our people for conflict. By loving our people and inviting them into our homes so that they can truly know us, we equip them to recognize the carnival mirror distortions for what they are.
4. Meditate on Matthew 5 and Romans 12.
During our church’s conflict, I was helped immensely by meditating on Matthew 5 and Romans 12. These two chapters contain crazy commands like “love your enemies” and “never avenge yourselves.” In short, they contain God’s wisdom for how to relate to others—even to those who oppose us.
Satan uses leadership conflict to stir up factions in the church. Pastors often fall into the trap of defending themselves vocally and even launching counterattacks against the opposition. They rally people to their cause and demand their rights. Though this feels justified, the end result is almost always more strife and more confusion. People are forced to choose between the pastor and the opposition—a difficult choice when both sides are actively sinning.
But if we embrace God’s wisdom by loving our enemies, enduring suffering patiently, and never avenging ourselves, then our people will have a clear choice between those who are following God’s Word, even when it is personally costly, and those who are not.
5. Remember: you are a bad person.
Often in leadership conflict, the opposition makes vague allegations against a pastor. Lacking a smoking gun like adultery or embezzlement, they focus on issues like pride, impatience, or anger, arguing the pastor is unfit for ministry.
Meanwhile, the basic message we pastors hear is: “You’re a very bad person.” These public accusations wound deeply; they hurt our wives and families, as well.
Though we must acknowledge that we struggle with pride, anger, and impatience—does any pastor not?—we still feel unfairly judged. In the flesh, our temptation is to respond in kind. We want to vindicate ourselves and hurl our own criticisms. But the gospel frees us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39).
Brother pastors, our basic message is that we are so bad that the Son of God had to come to earth and die on a cross because of our sin. In ourselves, we are bad people who desperately need the grace of God. Leadership conflict and the accusations that often accompany it give us an opportunity to humbly acknowledge our faults and ask for our people’s prayers.
This isn’t to say that we will never have to defend ourselves against scandalous lies and accusations; after all, Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). I also don’t think we’re wise to confess sins we haven’t actually committed. I simply want to highlight how difficult it is to convince a congregation that the pastor is swollen with pride when he’s humbly acknowledging his faults and shortcomings. Honest humility disarms many a personal attack while also giving our people an example worth following.
6. Embrace suffering.
Paul encouraged fearful Timothy to “share in suffering as a good solider of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 2:3). That’s good advice because there’s much suffering in pastoral ministry. Leadership conflict, in particular, is painful. It’s hard to sit through a members’ meeting and listen to distorted or dishonest representations of your character.
In these moments, it can be tempting to give into grumbling and complaining. But we need to remember that this is our job. In calling us to be his under-shepherds, God has called us to suffering. Part of our job as under-shepherds is to be bitten by wolves so that the sheep aren’t. By God’s grace, our willingness to be chewed on by the opposition without quitting or sinfully responding may be the means God uses to preserve the church from division and perhaps even destruction.
7. Don’t throw away the playbook.
In their book Redeeming Church Conflicts, Kara Barthel and David Edling warn: “One of the biggest mistakes people make in church conflict is to fail to trust Scripture.”
Conflict often sends the church into a flurry. As certain members panic, other strong leaders in the congregation rise up and take matters into their own hands. They set up meetings with both parties and determine for themselves who’s to blame. The result is more disorder and division.
What happened? They forgot the “playbook.” They forgot God’s instructions for dealing with conflict in the church. God has given us church discipline to guide us through the murky waters of conflict in the church. It’s especially important for the church to follow church discipline when the conflict involves an elder.
There isn’t space in this article to go into the Bible’s teaching on church discipline. But it’s vital that both we and our churches are committed to practicing biblical discipline. Once again, the Devil is smarter than we are. If we forsake God’s guidance on resolving conflicts in the church, we’ll find ourselves unwittingly following Satan’s.
8. Be quick to grant forgiveness.
It’s true that Satan is looking to harm the entire church. But pastor, Satan is especially gunning for you. He knows you’re hurting and he knows the ease with which bitterness takes root in the human heart. It can be so tempting to relive painful interactions with opponents and mentally dress them down, saying things that you wish you had said. Satan is happy to load us up with such imaginations.
But while vengeful thoughts taste sweet in our mouths, they quickly turn our stomachs bitter. If we become embittered, we sin and tempt God to remove his hand of blessing from our ministry. What should we do? We must forgive—freely and fully—just as God has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32).
Even if our opponents never acknowledge their wrongs and even if they refuse to repent or reconcile, we can still forgive. God has forgiven us for far more than we’ll ever have to forgive anyone else. We can entrust our enemies to God, correct them gently, and pray for their repentance (2 Tim. 2:25).
Even if we ultimately have to lead the congregation to use its authority to remove unrepentant opponents from church membership, we can do so without animosity. Church discipline should always be done in love and with tears. In short, bitterness enslaves, but gospel-forgiveness liberates. And when we forgive, we discover as Corrie Ten Boom did, that to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.
9. Be thankful.
It isn’t natural to feel thankful as we endure conflict. But that’s because we tend to focus on momentary suffering rather than the privilege of serving as under-shepherds of King Jesus.
Brothers, we don’t deserve easy ministries. We deserve hell.
But in wondrous love, God has met us with grace through the gospel. We’ve been redeemed—and on top of that, we’ve been privileged to serve the Lord as pastors.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul repeatedly chronicles the suffering he endured while serving as a minister of the gospel. Take some time and read through 2 Corinthians 4:7–12, 6:1–10, and 11:16–33. Mind-blowing suffering.
And yet, listen to the apostle’s perspective in 2 Corinthians 4:1: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.”
Brothers, we’re not pastors because we’re worthy. We’re pastors because God is merciful. In Christ, all we ever receive from God is mercy. Even the disorienting, depressing, and dark seasons of ministry are mercy. The light and momentary afflictions are producing in us “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17)—and we have every reason to be grateful.
Leadership conflict in the church is hard. There’s no question. But as pastors, we can rejoice in the reality that God’s grace and wisdom are enough to sustain us. We can endure because we know that in due season we will reap, if we do not give up (Gal. 6:9).
My own church has experienced God’s grace over the last year and a half. I can’t say we’ve completely recovered, but I can say God has been kind to us. He has brought us through. He has given our church new elders who are faithfully shepherding the flock. He continues to sustain and provide for our young church, and he continues to teach us that, at all times. He is enough.