Five of the Most Frequent Issues of Conflict among Church Members

If you want to hear the reasons for a church fight, you are likely to encounter one of these five. Let me be clear. I do not think all church members are fighting all of the time. But the sad reality is that it only takes one real issue of conflict once a year to do serious harm to the unity and health of a congregation.

I’ve addressed issues of church conflict in different ways on this blog. This particular post is an update based on issues I’ve heard, or those in which I have been a mediator the past year. They are listed in the order of frequency I’ve heard them.

  1. The corporate worship time is changed. The church may be adding a service. Another scenario is that current worship times are modified for a variety of reasons. Some members simply do not want to give up a cherished time slot for “their” worship service.
  2. Members disagree how to deal with a pastor or staff member involved in moral failure. I’m serious. I recently was in conversation with leaders in a church where a staff member was dismissed due to clear and flagrant moral failure. The terminated staff person was treated with grace and generosity. Still, some church members thought that Christian charity and forgiveness demanded that the staff member not be dismissed.
  3. A number of members complain about the length of the worship services. Their issue may be the length of time of music in the worship service. Or it may be the length of the pastor’s sermons. Or it could be other issues. Perhaps some of the members are frustrated that they get to the restaurants later than members of other churches.
  4. There is lack of clarity and disagreement about who makes decisions. Most church documents are not clear on this issue. How much independent authority does the pastor have? Or the staff? What decisions should be made by congregational vote? How much authority do the elders or deacons have? Or committees or boards?
  5. The conflict over worship style is still present. I have noted in other posts that this issue has not been as prominent as in recent years. Yet it is still present. I would surmise that it would have been the number one issue five to ten years ago.

If you have read any of my writings, you know I have a heart for revitalizing churches. Ultimately, church revitalization is about the revitalization of Christians. It is my prayer that church members will seek to be last and not first, that the needs of the church and the community will come before their own preferences.

“I give you a new command. Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35.

What do you think of these five sources of dissension among church members? What would you add?

Posted on July 23, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • There are many times at church we get into conflict over the small stuff because there are circumstances in our life that we have no control over. Ex: My family is changing as the children grow and leave and parents die. My health is changing and I can’t do anything about it. My position at work is changing because of the youngsters they hired to eventually take my place. My church is one place I can fight to keep from changing and I will make everyone miserable who tries to change it. Wish it wasn’t so but it is and as long as we are this side of heaven, conflict will rear its ugly head from time to time. I believe there is a verse that says “Blessed are the peacemakers” Guess they will be needed for a while longer.

    • Beth, you make a very good point. I have observed many times over the years that people who are discontent in their work, marriage, etc., can be some of the most vicious troublemakers in the church. I think it’s because they have no other place in which they can exert control and at church others are often reluctant to call them on their bad behavior.

  • Churches sometimes become so divided and immature that they will divide over the silliest things. I was in a major metropolitan area, a new pastor at a church that a few years previously had changed its name from Providence Baptist Church (which was good enough for 100+ years) to First Baptist Church of (unnamed upscale suburb). Soon after arriving as pastor, I noticed that the thick local phone book literally had four or five pages listed under “First Baptist Church.” I made the suggestion that in communications, we begin to refer to the congregation as (unnamed upscale suburb) First Baptist, in order to communicate more effectively where we were located. That was the end of my “honeymoon period” as pastor! I don’t know why this was such a ‘hot button’ issue, but it was. Almost half the congregation was so up in arms that you’d think I had suggested we change the name to Satan’s Church. Shortly after this I learned that the ‘unanimous’ vote I’d been called by had been a sham, and that the church was split about 51%-49% on any conceivable issue. And of course, even though this was a long-standing pattern that had lasted through at least three previous pastors’ tenures, within a few years, this ongoing internal division was all my fault and I was asked to leave.

    • Keith, sorry brother for your experience. Unfortunately, it sounds way to familiar. I’ve found there’s a long backstory of unresolved conflict that goes with these silly things. I could go back 20 years or more.
      When churches or individuals run from conflict, we just pack it up to spill out at a future date/event. Some trigger comes along that reminds us of an unpleasant experience and people get hurt.

  • These, and any you might add, are “idols of the heart.” I sometimes work with churches in conflict and am often consulted by pastors. One of the main things I see is a zealous pastor getting ahead of the members. He will have a vision and get impatient and move ahead without the core people understanding what’s going on. Thus, they feel railroaded and disrespected. In the Marine Corps we had a saying, “Leave no one behind.” So I encourage pastors to slow down, be patient or seek another place of service, it’s not worth tearing a church apart.

  • Reading the list, and the comments strike a chord, but really, how childish, how embarrassing! If Paul was still around writing letters, he certainly wouldn’t mince his words to churches who were dividing over such issues. If he wrote to one such church it would be a difficult letter to read, as there would be so much harsh truth in it.

    I suspect in many cases it would be less like the letters to Corinth, and more like the letter (not pauls) to Laodicea!

    Some churches are so mixed up in priorities it is difficult to call them “churches”.

    I agree with the crux of the article and many of the comments – the solution is a work of Christ in the hearts of members, and also, I’ll add, a focus on mission, i.e. forget about preference, and plan, strategize, work, struggle to be effective at meeting people’s ultimate need – to be part of the Kingdom.

    When we focus on others, and their temporal and eternal needs we will forget about our silly preferences.

  • Change. I think dealing with change is a common struggle. Unfortunately resisting change can often hinder growth and fresh expressions of mission.

  • Steve Pryor says on

    One comment on #3. On Saturdays, we (congregation) get fired up when a college football game goes into overtime and takes another 10 or 15 minutes of our day.
    On Sunday, we get impatient when service runs 5 minutes over while the Lord is moving and folks are making eternal decisions.

    I heard Adrain Rodgers make that point years ago, and I have to admit I’ve been guilty.

  • Right now our latest controversy is about a church discipline issue. Something that should have been dealt with some years ago but wasn’t and now as the current pastor I am trying to handle Scripturally. It is apparent to me that churches have done such a poor job of following passages such as 1 Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18 that when they are followed there is howling from the membership about being judgemental and picky. The level of Scriptural ignorance and lack of willingness to be accountable to one another is tearing at the foundation of our churches. It is wearing me out.

    • Many years ago John very wise pastor told me, “When man calls, man must provide for and protect, when God calls God WILL provide for and protect.” Brother you are doing the Lord’s work hang in there and keep fighting the fight!

  • This is why my family and I have found it so difficult to get back to church. We’ve felt so hurt by all of the fighting and criticism (my husband is a Worship Leader) from everything over changing the tempo of a song, to his hair style…you name it. People would line up some times after service to offer their “encouragements” to him. We are just done. It breaks my heart but we just can’t find the strength to go back. My sweet husband truly loves to lead others in worship but he’s not anymore because it’s too painful on all of us. He’s had the meanest, nastiest comments directed at him from professing believers. I’ve been in tears over how hard Sunday School teachers are on our young children. When you’ve felt bullied and even abused by church members how do you willing go back to such an institution? Especially when the last two churches seemed so healthy at first.

    • J.W. I would encourage you to not throw in the towel. While you and your husband might be able to have a prolonged separation without it damaging your faith the same May not be true for your children. All I know is the Bible warns us not to forsake the gathering of believers. Find a church in which you can simply slip in the back. Leave the desire to lead in worship on the back burner… For now.

      I too have had some horrific experiences, including being threatened with arrest by a group of out of control trustees. After almost a year of heart ache, heart break and HEART BURN, I was ready to throw in the towel myself. It may sound trite but I sensed The Lord ask me if I had ever had a bad meal at a restaurant. Obviously I had, many in fact. I then sensed He ask if I still went to restaurants. Ouch!

      I didn’t throw in the towel and The Lord brought healing, wisdom and more wisdom which I will forever be grateful. I am a much better pastor having experienced the nightmare that I lived and I believe, in time, your husband will be a much better worship leader! God Bless!

  • Whenever I deal with church conflict, either within my own congregation or in another, I’m reminded of a principle that I often use during marriage counseling: people argue because they care. And caring about the Church is a good thing. Yes, it can be used in sinful, selfish ways. But the underlying fact that people are motivated enough to argue means that there is still hope. In a marriage, when a couple stops arguing, it’s often a bad sign. Because it can mean they simply don’t care enough about the other person to fight anymore, and the marriage might be beyond repair. In the same way, a church where people don’t argue is often a church on the verge of collapse. Because when conflict does come, they won’t fight. They’ll just leave.

    My point? Don’t suppress the argument. Redirect it. As Don Draper would say, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Affirm their passion for the Church and their desire to see it succeed. Don’t turn them into traitors to the faith or treat them like childish malcontents (even if they’re being less than mature). Hear them. Respect them. Understand them. And then have a conversation about whether their ideas will have an outcome that is faithful to the mission of the congregation and of the Church at large. Many times, they just want to know that someone is listening to them and valuing their opinion.

  • Thom,

    Agree totally. I have seen each of these in the past few years. As to your first point, Tom Peters (author of “In Search of Excellence”) wrote an article many years ago entitled “Structure is not Organization.” Great read. It speaks to the notion that if we change the structure we change the organization. As you have noted, that is not true. Organizational change cannot be brought about through structural change alone. My ministry professors tried to teach us this many years ago, but it took personal evidence to prove it for me. Better late than never, I suppose.


  • In our denomination (PCUSA), we continue to deal with bigger ticket items like whether God is leading particular churches to remain in the denomination in the midst of apostate decisions at the national level. We went through a long and painful discernment process a couple years ago related to ordination of those not chaste in singleness and faithful in marriage. Now we will likely go though this process again based on the General Assembly efforts to change the definition of marriage from “a man and woman” to “two people” At stake, is discerning whether God would have us stay in place and uphold the Word with faithfulness, love, and humility–or to go.
    We have dealt with some of the other matters, such as who has authority (to expend principal of endowment fund, viz). When Sessions or boards remember that their primary call is the spiritual oversight and nurturing of the flock–not corporate business, remember that their money and resources are God’s rather than their’s, and make decisions based on the mission goals of the church and Christ’s mission–rather than “how we’ve always done it” many of these issues get resolved. The worship issue is spot on. We addressed this by conducting a written survey on everything from music, sermons, and liturgy–to frequency of communion and whether to share the peace. We made change after prayerful consideration of member’s comments. As an evangelical preacher in a theologically diverse congregation, I was led to keep preaching the Bible without equivocation, while ensuring that no matter the lection or topic (even sin, Satan, sanctification), that the love of God and the good news of salvation in Christ is proclaimed every week. The changes have been well received. As the leadership, we still miss the mark sometimes, but pray for knowledge of God’s will and the strength to carry it out in all we do.

    • jonathon says on

      >continue to deal with the bigger ticket items.

      That is something all mainline Protestant Christian congregations are having to deal with.
      That issue will get bigger, as they (ELCA, PCUSA, ECUSA, Disciples of Christ, & United Church of Christ) continue their path towards merging into one denomination.

  • The problem lies in the heart of each believer. In the bible, Paul talks about how we are not to think of others as better than ourselves, yet our churches (mine specifically) are all about us, and our needs. When our church can return to selflessness is when conflict will end.