Nine Thoughts on Church Splits

For over thirty years I have been professionally and personally connected to the local church. I have served as a pastor, church consultant, author, seminary dean, and church resource provider. The most painful moments of my tenure have been those occasions where church dissension is great, and where church splits take place.

There is little good that comes from church splits. The residual pain is lasting and the negative community impact is enduring. After reflecting on church splits over my thirty-year tenure, and after conducting an informal Twitter poll, I have nine major thoughts I would like to share with you in this article.

  1. A church that has split is likely to die. Certainly, many of the congregations will hang on tenaciously. But over the course of a few or many years, the cancer of the split eats away at the health of a church body. I have conducted many church “autopsies.” The beginning of the death of these churches often took place at the point of the split.
  2. The negative community impact of a church split is great and enduring. I have done interviews of community members where a church that split is located. The merchants and residents often say, “Oh that’s the church that fought all the time until it split.”
  3. The majority of church splits focus on the pastor. I have seen some church splits where the pastor is clearly the problem. I have seen others where the pastor is the convenient and most visible scapegoat. By the way, pastors who have been through church splits are scarred for the rest of their ministries.
  4. Church splits typically originate from power groups in the church. The power group may be a formal body, such as deacons or elders. Or they could be an informal group that still wields great power in the church.
  5. Some church members have actually been a part of several church splits. In other words, they have sown the seeds of dissension in different congregations where they have been members. Be cautious about accepting new members who are not vetted with their former church. Problem church members tend to recycle.
  6. Church splits are typically preceded by inactive church members becoming active members. It is amazing to attend a church business meeting or conference where divisive issues are discussed. Inactive members come out of the woodwork.
  7. Church splits are more likely to occur in “country club” churches. A country club church is a metaphor for a church where many of the members have a sense of entitlement instead of an attitude of service. They pay their “dues” to get their way. And if they don’t get their way on every issue, even minor issues, they may sow the seeds of dissension that lead to a church split.
  8. Some churches still split over doctrinal issues. These types of church splits are not as common as other splits, but they still take place. It was more common in mainline churches in the past, but it is becoming more frequent in some evangelical churches today.
  9. Some churches still split over financial issues. These issues include disagreements over budget expenditures, mission expenditures, incurring of debt, facility expenditures, and building programs.

There are no winners in church splits. Those who leave typically leave hurt and angry. Those who stay become a part of a church that usually begins a steady, if not steep, rate of decline. And the reputation of the church in the community is damaged greatly—sometimes permanently.

Let me hear your thoughts on this difficult issue.

Posted on March 9, 2015

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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  • It has been 8 years since a seismic split in a church where I served as an elder. A group of inactive folks got stirred up over an issue and all turned into mini-apostles for their cause. When we disciplined them, they tried to sue the church in court using holes in our by-laws.

    The church made it through mostly intact, survived for a while, but went through further turmoils and basically shrunk down to nothing later on. The original trouble making group also shrunk, became extremely strange, and today manifest cult-like tendencies.

    I frequently have bad dreams about the whole event–probably some form of PTSD.

    By the grace of God, I’ve been blessed to enjoy a fresh new church experience with spiritually healthy people for some years now.

  • Gail Marvel says on

    Splits are painful; however, the Apostle Paul sheds another perspective on this topic, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1 Cor 11:19 NIV).
    I mentioned in a previous comment that I am freelance writer visiting all the churches (over 80) in my community and writing about the experience. I’m beginning to see God’s fingerprint in some church splits and I’m reminded, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Ro 8:28 NIV).
    My articles, “Experiencing the (local) Church,” are published every Monday in The Montrose Mirror, a free online community publication. Today’s article (Issue # 108, page 22) is, in my mind, an example of God using a church split as discipline. However, in this particular instance I’m not sure the discipline is working as this church’s teachings are far afield from biblical teachings.
    If you readers are interesting in reading the article they can contact the editor and she will email them the issue. [email protected]

    Gail Marvel

  • During the summer after my first year of seminary, I was asked to preach from May-Aug in a church of about 50 people. By the end of those 4 months, the church was down to 10. The reason: the two power brokers fought and one left, taking their faction. It was rather awkward at times watching the remaining power broker give announcements and try to run a formal service to a congregation that was essentially his wife, children and a couple of other people. Last I heard, they had sold the building to another congregation and were meeting in someone’s home.

    On the plus side, I didn’t embarrass myself in front of too many people the Sunday a page had dropped out of my sermon notes and I froze like a deer in the headlights when notes when from pg 3 to pg 5!

  • My former church experienced a split in 2001. What social workers call the presenting problem was disagreement over the construction of a new sanctuary for the church.

    From what I gather the pastor wanted to proceed with the construction of the new sanctuary to accommodate the growing congregation. The church had launched a third Sunday morning service—a decision that had enjoyed only lukewarm support from the pastor as it meant that he would have to officiate and preach at a third service on Sunday morning.

    The pastor had gone along with the launching of a mid-week service on the condition that he would not have to regularly officiate and preach at that service and lay leaders in the church would largely assume that responsibility. He had gone along with the third Sunday morning service because he thought that it would alleviated the congestion in the church parking lot on Sunday morning.

    The launching of the third Sunday morning service was poorly planned. There was not consensus on what kind of the service it should be. The group in the congregation that had pushed the most for the service wanted a service in which the style of worship was more charismatic—uplifted hands, clapping, movement to the music, etc., and the style of music was contemporary—praise choruses and worship songs rather than hymns. Sunday morning services were also communion services. There was also a nursery and a Sunday school for the children.

    This group formed the core of the midweek service’s congregation. The midweek service featured a charismatic worship style and contemporary music but was only able to have communion once a month. In this particular church’s denomination, weekly communion is a widespread practice and it plays an important part in the spirituality of its congregations. However, only an ordained pastor can officiate at a communion service. The pastor had agreed to the midweek service on the condition that he only had to officiate and preach at the midweek service once a month. There was also nothing for the children. Despite these drawbacks the midweek service’s congregation was growing. Many newcomers were asking why this type of worship gathering could not be held on Sunday morning.

    The community in which the church was located was experiencing rapid growth, the church was growing, and the third service was warranted to keep pace not only with the growth in the church but also the growth in the community. Most important it was warranted in order for the church to fulfill the Great Commission.

    The pastor’s response to the growth was not to add services but to construct a larger sanctuary. He envisioned maintaining the church’s Sunday morning schedule of two services but in a sanctuary that would accommodate a larger number of people and would be more traditional in its design than the multipurpose building in which the church worshiped.

    The third Sunday morning service, when it was launched, was no different in worship style and music style than the other two Sunday morning services–fairly traditional. This was consistent with the pastor’s view that the new service would provide a third option for those who regularly attended the church’s Sunday morning services. This decision did not sit well with church members who had been assured by the pastor and the church board that the service would be more charismatic in worship style and contemporary in worship style. It is noteworthy that in that particular community a service that was more charismatic in worship style and contemporary in music style would have attracted more people to the church on Sunday morning. Community churches with those styles of worship and music were enjoying explosive growth.

    The church board bulked at the idea of constructing a larger sanctuary. The church was already heavily indebted from the construction of an educational building.

    The problem came to the attention of the bishop overseeing the judicatory of which the church was a part when the church’s annual meeting repeatedly failed to elect new board members after repeated voting. The bishop insisted that the church hire a consultant and undergo a series of assessments.

    The assessments revealed that the church was experiencing significant growth and the pastor was ill-equipped to lead a large church. The consultant recommended that the pastor undergo training to develop his leadership skills so he would be better equipped to lead a growing church.

    Rather than accept the consultant’s recommendation, the church board tried to force the pastor to resign. This was poor judgment on the board members’ part. They failed to take into account the personality of the pastor. The pastor’s supporters rallied to his defense and the church board resigned. The church board members, the choir director, the choir, and one-third of the church’s member households left the church. The pastor had been willing to undergo the recommended training. However, their departure eliminated his motivation to do so.

    One of the first things that the pastor did was to discontinue the third Sunday morning service. He also took steps to bring the church’s preschool under the direct control of the church board’s executive committee and siphon off revenues from the preschool to make up for the loss of giving. When this solution to the church’s financial problems did not resolve the church’s growing financial crisis, the pastor and the executive committee sold all the trees on the church property for wood pulp, a decision that upset a number of church members. The plans for a new sanctuary were shelved. At this point the church had plateaued. But it did not stay on the plateau for very long.

    Two years later the church and a number of other churches in the same judicatory were devastated by a highly controversial denomination decision that resulted in a secession of a number of congregations and judicatories from the denomination and which caused a substantial drop in church attendance and giving.

    Yet over the next seven years the pastor was able to persuade the remaining church members to go along with the conversion of the multipurpose building into a permanent sanctuary with an organ and pews and the construction of a fellowship hall with a commercial kitchen and an outdoor labyrinth. Presumably these capital improvements were intended to stave off the further decline of the church. The church, however, continued its decline and eventually lost its self-supporting status. The pastor resigned and now serves a church in a different state. The church is now a subsidized mission of the judicatory.

  • I could write a book about this. I was called to be the 19th pastor of a church in its 127 year, and ended up serving longer than anyone in 100 years. And with all I did when the spilt came, it was about me. I was a successful business professional and community leader in a city over 70 miles from the church and a people person. That did not work for the power group, even though being a successful professional was the main reason they called me. The chair of the trustees once said in a meeting, you are the cheapest preacher we have ever had. When visiting an 80 year old member once in the hospital, she told me I was the first pastor in a long time to be pastor of all the people. There was conflict in the Youth Ministry, so I met with them one Sunday after church and asked them to cease all activities for 30 days and pray. Later on that evening one of the deacons called me and said I was wrong for putting the children out of the church. People were told not to come to church. People were told not to give to the church. However those not in power kept coming and giving. The deacons were asked to vote me out and they did not. A secret meeting was called and the deacons who supported me were removed even though I continued to have them serve. Finally on one Sunday morning I was served with trespass papers. I went back to the mega church where I had led the AIDS Ministry, the Nursing Home Ministry and the Prison Ministry. I was then called by two of the deacons who had been removed and asked would I come to the conference room of a local hotel and have service. I told them I would but as I had told them so many times, God did not send me to the church to split it. These services were to be for healing. I preached a series, Why Church. Every Sunday more people came. People staying in the hotel came and gave. I baptized more people in the pool of the hotel than I did in the previous thirteen years. God blessed us in 2 1/2 years with a building and plenty of land. What got to me were the people in their 70’s and 80’s who joined. One lady who had been an officer for over 30 years said she after living over 80 years had finally found Jesus. Yes I was wounded. I gave my best. But when I look at what God is doing right now, L have to believe it was all in God’s plan. Thanks for I Am a Church Member. I have have people unlearn a lot of things. The former church was a county club for a few and the rest were tolerated. Please pray for the fellowship and the move of God. Also pray as I do for those at the previous church.

    • “Finally on one Sunday morning I was served with trespass papers. ” Wow, my brother, that is harsh. The reason this touched me is that when a group in the church where I was serving over 20 years ago was trying to have me removed as pastor, I found out later they had consulted an attorney, apparently to explore the possibility of a similar action. One of my supporters, who knew about the meeting, told me later that the attorney advised them against such action. It’s sadly incredible that the power group in your church was able to pull this off. What I have learned is that those who are determined to take back control of the church will stop at nothing to accomplish this goal. Threats, intimidation, harassment, and legal action are possible in their “control at any cost” mentality.

      Thanks for sharing and God bless you.

  • On a slightly more positive note the church I am currently serving in is a survivor of a church split. The church was really by in the 80s but experienced some major conflict which resulted in some serious decline. As early as 15 years ago it was left with just around 40 people, all aging. A new pastor came in and helped the church go through a period of healing and (more importantly) a process of righting the wrongs in which they had participated. When that pastor left the church was still small, but it was healed, and the groundwork was laid for another pastor to come in and transform the church into a church with the heart for the lost. It has grown steadily since then. In many ways the old church had to go through a complete re-invention of itself, which it did by God’s grace.

  • Great general summary. Unfortunately I’ve been involved in a couple splits myself and I’ve seen MUCH on this list come to fruition. It’s a sad, frustrating, and often times angering thing when a church splits. Just a reminder that sometimes good results. I was just part of a large and very popular split in a church founded in the Northwest/Seattle area. It was a multiple site, reformed, somewhat charismatic church with sites in several states. When our pastor finally felt forced to step down only two congregations had to close and even one of those was absorbed into another church in the network. The church dissolved and each congregation became their own entity. It took time, but there are now 12-14 independent churches throughout the U.S. doing well and they were solid plants who got their foundational doctrine from the original church, the original pastor, that was forced to split. So good can come…..sometimes. Great article though. I just wanted to post a positive (a sort of positive anyway) that is a result of a split. God bless.

    • I’m happy to see those congregations in a more healthy model. It would be sad to think of this as a church split since the only one that really left was the pastor. Probably shows more that it is not necessarily the healthiest thing in the world to balance a dozen congregations on the personality of one man (at least one mortal one).

      Hopefully this has also marked a culture change within the remaining congregations.

  • I became pastor of a church that had gone through a church split a few years before (less than five years). I have now been pastor for 12 years and it has been a struggle. The only thing that (I think) has kept us from becoming another statistic is that most of the people present here when the church split happened have since died or moved on. Sad, but that’s the reality. Most of the people here now know nothing about the church split or any of the people involved (most don’t even know who the former pastor was).

  • Thank you, pastors, for sharing your painful experiences. It is helpful to me today. I pastor a church that went through a split two years before I arrived. We had an excellent interim minister for 18 months.

    I see one positive from the split but a number of negatives. The negatives include the emotional scarring that happened during the split. No one ever wants to repeat that experience. The difficulty with that scenario is that some in the leadership have become very timid in making bold decisions in moving ahead. That is frustrating me and my patience is strained because they won’t make some of the necessary corrections that we need. The one positive that I have noted from the split is that it humbled the people. They became very dependent on God. Previous to the split there was a lot of pride, but they almost lost the church. In their humility, God has been able to work. I’m following a 52-year pastorate. I’m not sure anyone could have led the church successfully had there not been some “clearing of the decks.”

    Interestingly, the community hardly knows about the split even though our church is not that small. They have always been internally focused. So it didn’t really matter to the community when the church split. Hoping to change that…

    All in all, I think church splits grieve the heart of God. Great conversation.

  • I have now served as senior pastor in four churches, all four of whom were either the result of, or the remnants of a church split. I can say unequivocally that each point in this article is true.

    Another observation I would make is that in most church splits there has been, at best, poor decision management on both “sides” of the split. In my first church out of seminary, I was called by a church formed out of a split. God did all the work, but I was privileged to be a part of the split being healed. Through the process, however, those unwilling to repent, forgive, and begin to work together once again, not only left both churches, but fell out of fellowship with any church. I can say confidently that God is able and will heal a church split if the people will humble themselves and honestly take ownership of their own sinful part of the split.

    In two of the four churches, the above has been my experience. Sadly, the one church which was formed, or at least greatly influenced by a doctrinal split, of which I should have been aware, but hadn’t put the pieces together, I was fired for teaching the “official” denominational doctrine claimed in the churches constitution, but which was unofficially denied by the “power brokers” who had been a part of the split from the larger church. I was aware of some of the issues, but not just how far the church had left it’s foundational roots. What is sad is that the local association nor the state was willing to hold the congregation accountable on an doctrinal issue as central as baptism by immersion in a Southern Baptist Church. It continues to be a part of the local, state and national convention, because the association would not address the issue, and the state and national conventions were too far away. So yes, this pastor was deeply hurt.

    The church in which I currently serve has experienced several small divisions resulting in pastors and members leaving over the years. We are once again seeing God begin to heal and bind the body together. There are still many who are, or who have been hurt, but I know it takes time for wounds to heal. My own are still healing, but I am beginning to understand that my own healing and transparency is a large part of how God is working to strengthen this body in a unique way.

    I thank our Lord that He is able to heal the broken hearted and humble the proud, bring them together to build a strong body of believers rooted in His truth, love, and grace.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Excellent input, Scott. I thank God for your ministry.

    • James Lambert says on

      Good statements. I wish to continue not only just talking about the problems facing the church, but help to encourage the solution. Paul told Timothy: “Preach the Word, be instant in season and out of season.” I believe to really preach the word is to be fired up through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s too bad Billy Graham is no longer broadcasting. Oh may God raise up more of the redeemed, and “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” “Rise up O men of God.” This is a word from the Lord “Stir up the gift that is within you!” Be filled with the Spirit again and again and empower all the preachers! Pray for them that had a fall, and pray to restore them back to God. Harsh judgement is NOT God’s way. Hey, we the redeemed need all the help we can get guys! We have the message that has changed the world. So let’s keep changing it until Jesus comes!

  • Thanks for sharing Brother Thom, these are right on target. In my first pastorate over 20 years ago, I was the scapegoat in a church split. After a year or so of intense internal conflict, a deacon called for a confidence vote on whether to retain me as pastor. This happened during an ugly business meeting (one of many). I won the vote by around 40 to 20. Apparently, my main crimes were not visiting enough, not keeping enough office hours, and problems with the church bulletin. The 20 then left the church, but they really didn’t leave. They continued to attend monthly business meetings where I would watch them counting heads to see if they might have enough votes to have me fired. After four or five months of this they gave up. I stayed on for another year before leaving to come to my present congregation where I have been the last 20 years. That experience did scar me for life. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Truth be told, I believe I did. It took several years of counseling, therapy, and anti-depressant medications to finally rise out of the after effects of that ordeal. I would not wish the experience on my worst enemy.

    In the end, the experience made me stronger, tougher, wiser, and more humble. But this was only because I have trusted God completely, focused on Christ, stayed in the Word, and pray daily. Otherwise, I’d be utterly bitter and would have quit the ministry.

    Thanks as always for letting me share.

    God bless.

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