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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  • I was only 10 years old when I experienced my first church split. I’m sure I didn’t know all the reasons behind the split, but what I did see was power and jealousy. The pastor became jealous of a well respected, elderly gentleman who taught the adult Sunday School class. Some members would come for the Sunday School class and then leave, not staying for the regular church service. This did not set well with the pastor. I do remember this elderly gentleman and his wife crying in our home because of the accusations that were targeted at them over this situation. Eventually my parents chose to leave the church but not be part of a formal split. Not long afterwards the pastor also left. He moved to another city in our same state, made his legalistic rules the norm for the church, and ended up destroying that church as well.

    I know these memories are incomplete because of my age at the time. Nevertheless, that experience burned into me the destructive nature of jealousy and power plays in the church. Decades later I watched those who considered themselves owners of the church try to destroy our pastor. On the surface, the reasons were made to sound spiritual, but they were instead petty and completely against Scripture. They were not about to back down, but–thankfully, in my opinion–they left the church and moved elsewhere. They left scars behind. Both the pastor and his wife were deeply hurt, as were congregational members who really didn’t understand what was going on.

    It is difficult to label splits as good. Internal disagreements that involve anger and rancor are by their very nature evil. However, God is not overcome by man’s evil, in or out of the church. God can turn an evil situation into good–and that is where I see most splits in which the church survives. In language, we normally distinguish between “splits” and “divisions.” The word “split” has negative connotations; “division” can be intentional and positive, a form of church planting. This may seem an arbitrary distinction, but it helps in explaining to others what is happening.

    Anyone in ministry–whether pastorate or other–has to be prepared for controversies and suffering as well as scars. For me, it is helpful to remember the scars that Jesus bore for us–the scars that he still has. Scars differ from open wounds. Scars indicate experience in the battle and identify us with the one that told us that the true disciple will indeed suffer.

  • John Crisp says on

    I was voted in as pastor of a church that went through two splits in an 18th month time frame before I came in. We have have been there for 22 months. It has been and is still a slow process to heal the church (it can not be me it has to be all about God and His Grace in this situation). When we came in there were 20 people and they were going through their reserve funds. As of last year we broke even on our budget, and we have been staying steady at around 60ish. Several times I have wanted to quit, but God has told me no. I request prayer from all in this rocky journey.

  • Michelle says on

    I am a pastor’s wife who has been scarred for life. I now know the deep pain of divorce. Not because I’ve been through an actual divorce, but because of the deep pain our church has caused our family. I love Jesus and I still love the Church, praise God, but I will never be the same again.

  • I was unclear about your first point, “a church that has split will likely die.” Which party in the split are you referring to (the church the split away or the church that stayed)? Are you saying both churches will likely die?

    • Thom Rainer says on


      I am referring to any church that is involved in a split. Some splits are “one-way” in the sense that departing members go to many churches are just drop out altogether.

  • I love the blogs, Thom.
    I have learned from one lay leader that it is possible to have an influential leader who siphons off individuals and intentionally wins them to themselves instead of the overall vision of the pastor and church. This is dangerous and I have learned to be more aware and cautious, as a senior/lead pastor. The lady that tried to split our church ended up with a handful of people weak enough to go. We have been much better for it because it cleared out any disunity. Our church is thriving like never before. Thanks again for your excellent insights.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you so much, Tom. I just spoke with a pastor yesterday whose situation is very similar. Blessings on you and your church.

  • The only real church split we’ve seen resulted in two half churches. To this day, the division is still obvious – the doers are on one side, and the carers are on the other. It’s tragic really. The worst part is everyone wanting you to choose when you never even wanted a choice.

  • Kevin Rettig says on

    I pastor a church that split less than a year before God brought us here. It took over 2 1/2 years but finally my wife and I came to realize that the reason for the split was still in the church. Not two days after this realization, and without saying anything to anyone else, the fellow responsible invited me to lunch, and there confessed that he had the blood of the previous pastor on his hands. He then urged me to take a call to the first church that came looking for a new pastor.

    To make a long story shorter, I could not resign or move on as God was not releasing us from this church. Instead, the man offered to leave if only I would give him my blessing — something I would not do. He and his wife (the church’s biggest gossip) stayed in our church for nearly a year before God moved them out of state. That year was by far the toughest ministry year I’ve yet to experience. During that time, I was praying for a funeral, but God had different plans. Our church is still going, but still struggling for its existence. Perhaps in the long run we will have to disband and reorganize under a new, well-written constitution and by-laws as the current constitution could have prevented the challenges my predecessor dealt with, had it been a good, effective document from the beginning.

    Romans 8:28 tells us that God can work all things for good to those who love Him; and sometimes an ungodly split is used ultimately to purify and strengthen rather than putrify and weaken.

  • I recently accepted the call to a church that split two and one-half years ago. What advice do you give to repairing damage from a split and establishing a heart and culture missions?

  • Insightful article. As Christian-leaders and members of a local church, we need to be likeminded (one the same age) in motive ( that of love), in attitude (humility) and in purpose (glorifying the Lord). We are bridges to bring others to Christ. The world is watching.
    ECatherine Pearson, Author- An Attribute A Day.

  • Would you do an article on church mergers? I am curious to hear what your thoughts are about the pros and cons about churches that decide to join up and merge to reach a community or city.

  • The lesson I learned from the church split in my former church was the importance of the pastor and the church board members growing with their church.

    What were early warning signs was that the pastor not prepared to lead a large church was that he never had new books on the shelves of his study. The books on his study’s shelves were those that he was required to read in seminary. He did not attend conferences, seminars, or workshops or purchase tapes and videos.

    The pastor acted as if he had learned all that he needed to learn in the church from which he went to seminary and in seminary itself. The church from which he had gone to seminary was not known for its efforts to reach and engage the unchurched. It had hit a plateau at an early stage and had never moved off that plateau. From his own description of his time at seminary he had not taken any courses in those areas that are a must for any seminary student who plans to pastor a growing church.

    The pastor also had the type of personality that if he decided to do things a particular way, he was not open to considering alternative ways of doing things. While there are situations in which a pastor needs to stick to his guns, there are situations in which he needs to listen to other people’s ideas and to give them consideration.

    Several board members maintained the attitude that they knew what was best for the church. They could also prove intractable at times.

    Both the pastor and the church board had poor conflict resolution skills and the consultant’s other recommendation was that they all undergo conflict resolution training. Both the pastor and the church board could have grown from the experience.

    The pastor was at one point highly motivated to change. However, the church board sought what they perceived as an easier solution –the resignation of the pastor—something that would not require the board members themselves to change and which would allow them shift any responsibility for the church’s problems from themselves to the pastor.

    • James Lambert says on

      Board members may many times, and are many times put in charge of running the church. These most of the time are merely business persons, and not spiritually minded. They are a definite negative for the spiritual part of the church. In another case the ministers were the fault in minister run churches. My grandfather was upset with one pastor because he kept on preaching the salvation messages instead of taking the people into the “Meat of the Word” so they could grow. Granddad made a work of bringing a group of young people into the church, in fact put a cover on his pick up and benches in the back. He warned the pastor numerous times to preach different sermons with the “meat on the bones” type or they were going to lose their young people. The preacher responded with “I know what I’m doing,” Then my granddad said “I prophesy that in 30 days the young people will be gone.” It happened and because the preacher apparently was to lazy to pray and “study to show himself approved unto God.” He didn’t stay long after that “big boo, boo!

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