The results are in on my study on destructive forces in the church. Beginning in 2005 and continuing to the present, I have been analyzing the negative, destructive, damaging, unhelpful, hostile, and hurtful practices at work in our communities of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” A whopping 86% of United Methodist churches surveyed (998 out of 1,161) say they are engaged in some “regular or ongoing” form of conflict. 62% report that it is “serious” conflict. Yikes! So, the old familiar refrain, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” may be a little on the wishful side. Let’s take an in depth look at what I’ve found…
Five different segments were surveyed or polled to gain a composite view of the destructive forces at work in the church — and five distinctly different perspectives emerged. First, clergy and laity engaged in congregational leadership were interviewed for their perspective. Second, over 4,000 regular church worship attendees filled out a simple survey for their viewpoint. Third, just under 500 “church shoppers” (people looking for a new church) were interviewed. Fourth, well over 1,000 people not affiliated with any church chimed in with their opinion. Fifth, and last, I polled y’all on my blog for the past couple weeks and got your responses. It is somewhat remarkable that the answers vary so much, but everyone agrees that these behaviors damage our church.
Active Clergy and Laity Leaders
Both clergy and laity agree, unresolved conflict is the most toxic force at work in the church. Many report that it takes no more than one person to undermine the whole congregation (though I always thought it required a minimum of two for a conflict…), and that the conflict sometimes occurred decades before and still exerted a negative influence in the present day. More often than not, the conflict resulted in polarization — factions forming around two (or more) sides of an issue. Worship styles, changes to worship space, worship times, or worship practices, property and facility use, money issues, removing members from the rolls, children (behavior of), change of pastor, staffing issues, and accepting new people were named as primary sources of disagreement and division. The second most destructive force differed for clergy and laity. Overall, and especially with laity, gossip was number two (and a very high number 3 for clergy). The power of gossip to destroy individuals and congregations is almost inestimable, and I heard more stories of people being hurt by gossip than I heard concerning any other destructive force. Even when people didn’t name it as a serious problem, they told stories of devastating pain and poison done by gossip. For clergy, power struggles are number two, but at least half of the pastors interviewed defined a power struggle in terms of anyone disagreeing with their leadership and decision-making. When pastors believed that they were in charge, power struggles were a huge issue. When pastors were more collegial and collaborative in their leadership style, power struggles ranked at the bottom of the list. Fourth for both clergy and laity was narrow-mindedness, but interestingly it was always the narrow-mindedness of others (never themselves) viewed as the problem. Keeping secrets was seen as a problem, but most congregational leaders explained to me how important it was for them to keep secrets from the congregation. The more conflict in a congregation, the greater necessity to keep secrets. But is this a “cart-and-horse” kind of dilemma? Perhaps the penchant for keeping secrets breeds an environment hostile to trust.
People Who Attend Church Worship Regularly
Gossip leaps to number one with almost one-third of all respondents naming it as the most destructive force in the church. Virtually everyone surveyed shared at least one incident of gossip that had done damage in their congregation. Pastors are an overwhelming target of church gossip, but laity leaders and newer members are popular topics of conversation as well. Power struggles come in second, but interestingly, they are framed in terms of newer pastors trying to bring about change in the congregation. Clergy view laity as the source of power struggles, while laity blame the pastor. Go figure. Narrow-mindedness, spreading rumors, and lying are close thirds. Laity sitting in the pews may not be as aware of unresolved conflict (which comes in sixth) and may be completely oblivious to power struggles.
Two forces combine to account for 50% of the responses from church shoppers about destructive forces in the church: gossip and narrow-mindedness. A number of church shoppers have horror stories about damaging gossip in former congregations they attended. About ten percent of the time, the church shopper was the target of nasty gossip, thus motivating them to seek another church. This may account for the attitudes about narrow-mindedness. Many church shoppers voice deep concern about the “openness” of congregations to newcomers, and they want to take time before joining to church to be sure they agree with the core beliefs. Many church shoppers fall into the “once burned, twice shy” category. They want a safe place free from gossip and narrow-mindedness, also free from lying and spreading rumors. Honesty and transparency are important to church shoppers.
Those Outside the Church
Things get interesting when you ask people without a church affiliation what they believe are the most destructive forces inside the church. Lying and narrow-mindedness leap into a tie for first place, with power struggles, gossip, and keeping secrets following far behind. There is a fairly simple explanation for this disparity with the other categories — the media portrayal of religion in the United States. Most religious media coverage focuses on scandal, clergy misconduct, violence in churches, or mistreatment of women, minorities, gay and lesbian, and the poor by the church. It is alarming to encounter the widespread opinion of those outside the church that pastors are liars, bigots, thieves or wimps.
Online Poll Response
Aligning most closely with the clergy results from the church leadership sample, unresolved conflict and power struggles predominate. Those who have experienced unresolved conflict are unequivocal — where it exists, it is toxic. And power struggles have the effect of locking a congregation in place, often undermining any long term change or growth. Once again, the majority of pastors see laity who will not acknowledge their leadership as the real problem. Narrow-mindedness and gossip were also named as problematic destructive forces.
Interestingly, very few within the church believe lying is a big problem — until a major conflict tears a church apart. Then, lying is identified as one of the primary contributing causes. Two-out-of-three pastors confess to feeling ill equipped to deal with conflict and destructive influences, and only one-in-nine report that seminary offered them any kind of helpful guidance in dealing with conflict. Once a pastoral leader is viewed as “taking a side” in a dispute or being the source of the destructive force (lying, gossiping, spreading rumors, etc.) he or she ceases to effectively pastor to the whole congregation. Where polarization occurs, pastors are almost always stuck in the middle, and end up favoring one side over the other.
The most destructive “non-force” named by respondents in all five samples is apathy. Not caring can be as destructive as behaving in inappropriate ways. Immaturity, selfishness, materialism, lack of biblical and theological understanding, stupidity, immorality, fear of change, sin, and demonic interference were all named as “other” destructive forces influencing and damaging our churches.
It does no good just to identify the destructive forces without examining ways to address them. Those who navigate conflict well to create healthy, productive and affirming congregational environments, name the following:
- name bad behavior for what it is — most of the destructive forces continue unchecked because no one ever steps up to say they are unacceptable
- create behavioral covenants — agree together on what preferred behaviors will be affirmed, what bad behaviors will not be tolerated, and what ways the congregation will address bad behavior
- open communication — become transparent — with very few exceptions, there are no congregational issues that require a closed confidentiality (there are some issues, so use common sense). Trust must be built over time, and rumors, secrets, power struggles, and factions all undermine trust.
- practice spiritual disciplines together — people who pray together, worship together, study together, and discern God’s will together grow closer over time, and learn to deal with differences in more loving and compassionate ways. (Note to pastors: leading worship for others and worshiping with others are two very different things. We need to find ways to be in worship with each other.)
- work on emotional intelligence — emotional intelligence reminds us to work on ourselves instead of trying to change other people. As we develop skills at managing our own emotions, reactions, responses, and at building healthier relationships, we become the change we want to see.
- practice grace, forgiveness, mercy, and justice — produce and act on the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control).
- take time to play together and enjoy each other as people first — it is easier to work with people you truly like. Establish respectful, kind, and honest rapport with people — then you can work out just about any problem.
- where serious problems exist, seek help — ask for mediation, for guidance, for expertise at working through difficult situations.
Other suggestions for defusing destructive forces are welcome. The one almost universal opinion about these destructive forces is simply this: there is absolutely no reason for us to allow them to continue. As the church, we need to witness a different way of being in the world. If we cannot offer a healthy counter-cultural vision for dealing with disagreement and conflict, then we miss a wonderful opportunity to witness to the world the grace, love, peace, and kindness of our God and our life in Christ.