Conflict in the church is as old as the church itself. Acts 6 says that shortly after the church started and began multiplying, there were rumblings of discontent. Paul prepared Christian leaders for conflict by teaching them to put on the full armor of God. Even so, sometimes one of those fiery arrows finds tender flesh because we let our guard down around people we trust. Sometimes the people we least expect to wound us, do—and those wounds can hurt the most. So what do you do when the ministry you give your heart to threatens to break it?
Three brave ministry leaders share their personal stories and the hard-earned wisdom they gained on how to heal from ministry wounds.
Sustain the Injury
Sarah* had been a children’s pastor at her church for eight years when her senior pastor called her into his office.
“The day after I returned from maternity leave, my pastor called me into his office and said, Everything you’ve been doing in your ministry is wrong and you need to do something different.’ I never saw that coming, and it shot every ounce of confidence I had.”
Eager to please, Sarah took on the task of restructuring her entire ministry—and finally earned her senior pastor’s blessing. Or so she thought.
Two years later, the pastor again called Sarah into his office. But this time, he fired her. “There was no explanation or critique,” says Sarah. “I was given three weeks’ notice, and for two of those weeks I couldn’t tell anyone.” After 10 years of working for the church, Sarah was let go with no thank you and no goodbye.
To make matters worse, the pastoral staff told the congregation that Sarah had been released from ministry, but gave no reason. With no explanation, people were left to come up with their own theories.
“There was no regard for me as a person,” says Sarah. “Not a single person spoke to me, including the pastoral staff. I found out I didn’t have the relationships I thought I did with people. I only had my family.”
Assess the Damage
Just like a wound to the body, the first step with an emotional wound is to acknowledge the pain. Elizabeth Hansen, MA LLPC, a mental health therapist and Christian counselor, explains it like this: “Disenfranchised grief is grief that isn’t always recognized. Death is considered normal grief. Situations like losing a job or conflict with a person are not always given as much attention. It can make you feel like what you’re going through isn’t normal, which interferes with the grieving process. It’s okay to grieve because what’s happened is a loss. The only way to lessen grief is to experience it and not avoid it. To heal a wound, you need to attend to it, not ignore it.”
Nine months after her release from the church, Sarah was able to emotionally separate herself from the situation and discover that her wounds originated from a place other than being fired.
“I now realize that the number one thing that took me out was when my pastor called me into his office three years ago,” she says. “My heart never recovered from that. As much as I tried, there was never a day when I could meet his expectations because even he didn’t know what they were. My job is to support the senior pastor’s vision, but if he doesn’t have one, then it’s a recipe for failure.”
“It’s harder to respond to conflict with authority than with a peer,” says John Opalewski, founder of Converge Coaching. “If you have nothing to lose, then have a conversation with the person. It’s okay to make the person aware of how he or she made you feel. Expressing your feelings can help with the grieving process. However, if you’re concerned about future opportunities, then let it go and lay low.”
Stop the Bleeding
During one church’s business meeting, it came to light that a disgruntled leader was trying to undermine the leadership of the church at every level, from children’s and youth leaders all the way to the senior leaders. Bill*, the senior pastor, tried to meet with the leader and reconcile, but the leader opted to leave the church.
Soon after leaving, the person started writing a blog that was built around criticizing the church. Then he began personally calling church members to rally support away from ministry leaders like the children’s ministry and the overall leadership.
“I was stunned,” says Bill. “Your initial feeling is always, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ” After spending time deep in prayer, God led Bill and the other ministry leaders to two Bible verses. “Job 41 describes the beast, Leviathan, saying we cannot tame or defeat him in our efforts. In Isaiah 27:1, God says that he will be the one to slay Leviathan. We felt that God was telling us not to engage or respond to the attacks; that God would be our defense.”
Bill never read or engaged in the blog posts or the person’s angry phone calls. “The enemy wants you to fight. But it’s not about winning or losing, it’s how you stand through it,” he says.
Stabilize the Injury
Oftentimes, we’re driven to share our side of the story to minimize pain and halt the injury that’s happening. But when it comes to defending yourself, Opalewski cautions, “You can answer people’s questions, but don’t seek opportunities to defend or explain yourself. Get to the bottom of why you want to set the record straight; what are you trying to accomplish?”
Perhaps it’s to save face or maybe you’re angry and you want to strike back. It could be that your real goal is to clarify misinformation. Once you’ve determined the reason you want to defend yourself, you may find a more productive solution or have time to calm down and think more rationally. You may also find a different, less-reactive way to right wrong information.
Through this experience, Bill says he learned it’s not possible to reconcile with someone who doesn’t want to be reconciled.
“Forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things,” Hanson points out. “They don’t always happen at the same time.”
If the person isn’t interested in restoring the relationship, then there’s no point in engaging with him or her. You have to come to the understanding that the person will never agree with you—and decide you’re okay with that.
Two years after the conflict, the person came to Bill and repented. Bill says he was able to reconcile with the person because he hadn’t invested emotion in the slander.
“I learned that by not engaging or defending myself, I had a clear conscience before man and God. When conflict rises in the church, it’s never just about the leaders. It echoes to the flock. Our response has to be shrewd and yet harmless (Matthew 10:16).”
A group of families in Henry’s* church began to grumble about different aspects of his children’s ministry. Some had differing opinions on policies. Others had issues stemming from miscommunication. Henry met individually with each family to address the concerns. He listened, validated their feelings, and explained his vision for ministry. After the meetings, Henry did research to see if and where he needed improvement. Through his research, he found that his ministry’s policies met the standard for children’s ministries. He apologized for any shortcomings and worked to improve his policies and procedures. But ultimately, he stuck to his vision.
Some parents were still upset and began to quietly campaign against Henry. They called other parents to gain support for a leadership change. They gathered as many families as they could to go to church elders and raise their concerns, never communicating with Henry directly.
“The elders saw it as a united front and decided to meet as a group,” says Henry. “I knew the elders didn’t share the same concerns because I’d already met with them.”
The meeting was very disjointed and became a personal attack on Henry’s character. “It was 30 minutes of raking me through the coals. That’s where my wounds stem from. There’s an infinite number of ways to program a ministry and I’m okay if you don’t like my vision. There’s another church out there that may be a better fit. But when you undermine me or attack my character—that’s not okay. I sacrificed a lot for the kids represented in that room, so it hurt to have the parents say what they did. Some of them I had considered good friends.”
“It’s okay to debate ideas; it’s not okay to debate personalities,” says Opalewksi. “In a situation like this, try to redirect the conversation to the real issue. Find out if there’s a personal agenda. If so, end the meeting and put distance between you and the person or situation.”
Hansen agrees that boundaries are crucial. She warns of “opportunistic infection,” infections that take advantage of your weakened stated. “When you’re wounded, your value and opinion of yourself are under attack. When someone criticizes you, ask God if there’s any truth in it. If there is, then good news: Jesus already forgave you. If not, then don’t own the person’s opinion of you. Create a hard boundary.”
Although painful, the meeting was beneficial because it became clear to the elders that the parents’ issues stemmed from a lack of confidence in the leadership, which in turn led to their critical opinions. Ultimately, the elders didn’t agree to the parents’ demands.
“Having the support of my senior pastor is what helped me heal. He and I continued to meet after that, and he helped me focus on the positive aspects of the situation. From those meetings, we strengthened our policies and made the ministry even better. Plus, my research validated my policies and gave me more confidence in my vision. ”
One by one, the complaining families trickled out of the church. Today, Henry is confident as his ministry continues to grow and he remains obedient to God.
Reckoning & Recovering
Both Opalewski and Hansen agree that the first step to healing from ministry wounds is to admit that you’re hurt. Second is to reach out and get help from a trusted source. Talk to a spouse, friend outside your church, ministry leader, or even a professional counselor. Take action once you’ve had time to think things over and come to a rational, objective conclusion. And take care of yourself. Maybe it’s an afternoon walk in a park or a few days off.
You can’t completely prevent the wounds that may come with ministry because your calling is to serve broken people as a broken person yourself. But you can prepare for how you’ll handle wounds as they come and know that they don’t diminish your value before God. Having the skills and mindset to work through pain will minimize the damage of ministry wounds. Opalewski recommends three steps for preparing your heart for such a trial.
1. Educate Yourself
Educate yourself by reading and learning how to deal with difficult personalities and abusive people. Study up on healthy conflict resolution and direct communication.
2. Build a Support System
Build a support system that includes people like your spouse, a trusted friend, another children’s minister in your community or network, and a mentor or leader.
3. Practice Dealing with Conflict
Run through dialogue with people from your support system before addressing conflict with another person. You’ll get feedback that will help your approach and strengthen your confidence.
Even though wounds hurt, they force us to learn. And when you know how to properly address conflict and respond to your critics, that strength will become part of your reputation.
Lastly, remember to surround yourself with people who edify you—but focus on God as your source of strength. And remember: Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed and rejected, even by a good friend. It’s by his wounds that we are ultimately healed.
Emily Snider is a children’s minister, writer, and ministry consultant.
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