The Barrier of Team: The Breakthrough of Unity
Doug was a gifted teacher in the adult small group ministry at the church. He wasn’t called by God into vocational ministry, but his church taught spiritual gifts well enough that he knew what his gifts were and enjoyed using them in ministry. Lisa (after the coffee incident) was also committed to ministry at the church –although she had spent a few years bouncing from thing to thing, she caught a vision for the 5th & 6th grade department and went wild there. It was a perfect fit: the kids loved her energy, her passion for God, and her relevance. And she loved having an impact on kids and helping to shape their values before they faced the pressures of middle school. During their engagement and subsequent marriage, Doug and Lisa led the young adult small group at the church and Lisa team-taught the 5th and 6th grade Sunday School class.
Pastor Jim loved Doug and Lisa. He hadn’t personally led them to Christ, but from the day he started at the church he knew that they were a dynamic, influencing couple that were, in his words, “keepers.” Not only was their love for God evident in what they did, but their commitment to invest in the lives of others shone through in their weekly ministry projects. They were a delight to have at the church, and every year they seemed to be more and more effective.
About six years after their wedding, which Jim performed, he asked Doug out to lunch and challenged him to serve on the leadership team of the church. Their church had a one-board leadership structure and being asked to serve was a privilege usually given to people in their 30’s and older. Jim didn’t want Doug’s age at that time (28) to be a barrier for him, and Doug said yes. The other board members were pleased with Doug and Lisa’s track record and heartily welcomed him to the board. His nomination and vote were unchallenged.
It wasn’t long, though, before Doug started dreading the meetings. They were not openly contentious by any means, and no one received a black eye. But there was something he couldn’t put his finger on – something that distressed him. He served his first three years on the board and continued to teach Bible studies – and Lisa took over the 5 & 6 grade ministry and grew it well. Soon 40 pre-teens were coming to their mid-week ministry night!
The more Doug worked alongside other leaders in problem-solving, the more he realized that there was a group at the church that didn’t support Jim’s pastorate. It wasn’t that they disliked him personally (although there were a few of those), but it was the vision they didn’t support. It was getting worse – not better – and really ate at Doug’s stomach every time the board met.
Over lunch one afternoon, Doug and Pastor Jim discussed this openly. It turns out that things were worse than Doug even knew. Jim had been asked to resign by a faction group on the board, and an entire adult Sunday School class had written him a letter to that effect. They knew “what they wanted in a church” and they knew Jim “was not the man to lead it,” the letter read. Jim had been looking for other work but he didn’t feel released from his ministry assignment yet so he clung to it with patience despite the opposition.
From there, things got worse and not better. The contentious group started calling Doug at work and at home and telling him things about the church and Doug couldn’t discern whether they were true, false or a little of both. The stressors in the church were weighing on Lisa’s heart and her ministry with the pre-teens was suffering. Furthermore, Lisa’s students were picking up information from different sources and that caused them to ask questions about churches and pastors that she was simply unprepared to answer. Life was hard, and it wasn’t getting easier. Doug internalized a lot of his anger and hopelessness and ultimately developed an ulcer.
The strain of ministry conflict was getting worse and Doug’s health was not good. When his doctor asked him if he needed a medical leave from his job for a week, Doug realized that what he really needed was medical leave from his church. In the midst of a strained and difficult ministry environment at a church Doug and Lisa loved, they began the heart-rending decision process of whether or not to leave.
They knew that they couldn’t let Doug’s health be the primary issue -- because he needed to respond differently to the conflict and not internalize it and then “blame” the church for his ulcers. But over time it began to be clear to them that they simply couldn’t continue to minister effectively in a church where ugliness and meanness increasingly won out over love and reconciliation. After 12 months of soul searching and many nights of tears, Doug and Lisa left the church.
At our church, my wife and I are giving time we don't have and tons of money because it's important. Do you think we are going to let sick people kill that work and investment? Heavens no! It's costing us way too much! For every sick, agenda laden, divisive, contentious person in our church we aren't willing to confront (out of fear we say "oh that's just the way they are," or "I don't think God wants us to treat people like that,” etc.), there are 10, 20, 100, 1000 people out there to be won to Christ that won't because they sniff out the contentiousness and will go somewhere else. Do we want to stand before God and say we did the math wrong, or that we didn't have the guts to make way for 100s more to come to Christ by not tackling these problems decisively?
At one church, Carson Valley Christian Center, the church was planted with Ten Core Values in mind. One of these values deals with conflict and contentiousness head on:
Core Value 4: Community life in the church family is so honored that division and gossip are confronted quickly, clearly, and resolved in accordance with Biblical principles of fellowship and conflict resolution.
Matthew 18:15-20 discusses very specifically what we are to do if a believer sins against us, and how to go about reconciliation. It is critically important that we face conflict and its related issues head on, so that the mess of unresolved issues does not fester and seethe:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (NIV).
A growing church must have its core leadership in unity over the vision, in harmony with one another, and committed together in its focus on ministry to the community. Larry Osborne’s book, The Unity Factor, makes clear that churches that push forward with programs, activities, and structure without unity do so at their peril. Countless stories of church division and difficulty can be told about churches which never arrived at unity of purpose and vision. A growing church will be led by a leader who understands the imperative of developing unity and cohesiveness among the key leaders.
A growing church must also be clear about the call to maturity. When believers are constantly bickering and creating climates of backbiting and division, the potential for effective kingdom ministry is virtually nil. Leaders must model and exhort their congregations towards spiritual maturity and present visible patterns of conflict resolution that engender authentic community within the family. Tragically, many churches have chosen the path of least resistance rather than the pathway of greatest spiritual impact. Unity must be present in order to break through growth barriers.
Some churches are so conflicted and contentious that a long term solution is far from reach. But sadly, in many cases the church has failed to teach and practice the Matthew 18 principles of conflict resolution and the sin-forgiveness process. In some churches, resolving conflict is not a core value. What could happen in the Kingdom of God if more churches decided to face sin and conflict in a godly manner?
Leadership unity is necessary for lasting ministry growth
“Speed of the Leader, speed of the Team”. What leaders model in relationships will determine the behavior of the team
Much conflict in churches has a major spiritual warfare component. Fast and pray about the specific conflicts that affect you on a daily basis. Enlist a team of people to pray about these, even if they are not aware of names or issues.
List the areas of greatest conflict in your ministry area. List names. Who needs to be confronted? Have you let the conflict go too long without dealing with it?
Read and study Matthew 18:15-20. How well is your church doing in teaching these principles? How well are you doing at practicing them yourself?
Which of your key staff or volunteers regularly practice Matthew 18 conflict resolution? Why?
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