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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  • Why is it as an educated man such as yourself, who has learned about such issues, is perfectly okay with writing about church splits that, as you point out often lead to the death of the church, although some would argue that this is why it begins, why is it you and others in your Convention will not go to that church and hold them accountable for their actions?
    Is not separation a Scriptural admonition when the church has performed wrongly?
    Are there no other actions that could be taken by local associations to highlight the wrong that has taken place in a local independent, autonomous congregation that would drive them to the correct position?
    Yet, so often, the others who should have Scriptural knowledge simple withhold it and sit back and watch the congregation die a slow, painful death that puts a black eye on Christianity in the local community while at the same time profiting from the supposed, sympathetic writings of guidance on church splits and calling that ministry. Why is this? Is it because that church has money or that member, even if in the wrong, who has money, and keeps the books rolling off the shelves at the Lifeway Store and the local director of missions receiving his check each month? Would this have anything to do with it? Why do you waste your time documenting what happens? Why not just spend your time documenting the actions of a lost people who die lost without the Lord instead of attempting to share the gospel with them? Isn’t your focus outside of Scripture?

  • Thom:

    Any data/stats on denominational churches starting/launching non-denominational churches in a healthy manner (not a ‘split’)

  • Anonymous & need prayer says on

    I am dealing with the toughest heartbreak I have ever had. My Dad was the Music Minister & was pushed out by a new Pastor. I listened to the Pastor belittle the style of music that my Dad had used. He would make cutting comments until he finally pushed him out after years of abuse. although some didnt notice. Some knew and didn’t care. I have always been a forgiving person. This is hard. I am in a battle with my emotions and with what I know I have to do. But I can’t even say the word forgive yet. Why do people hurt other people for their own agendas…. My father had already changed so much of the music, but he was older. In the way. Just prior to leaving, I overheard the associate pastor talking to visitors apologizing to them for the style of music. So, both pastors, both. I’m trying to get over it, but it’s the hurt I’ve seen in my Dad, however much he hides it and pushes me to move forward and forgive. I’m hurting. I’m scared to join another church. I don’t trust anyone anymore. It’s heartbreaking.

  • I am a newly married 22 year old and I attend the same church I have since I was a kid. We are on the front-side of a split and I have been very discouraged. The most discouraging part is seeing the people I have looked up to more than anyone else my whole life act in such a childish, selfish, and most importantly, un-Godly manner. Please pray for our church and my family during this. Pray that we will not try to justify our own opinions and will focus on, and only on, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  • Dale Reese says on

    In light of what has occurred in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal denominations, are there any books being published for our Clergy Study group to go through?

    I am United Methodist, and with the election of the self-avowed and practicing bishop in the middle of July 2016, there are many who think we are headed toward a split. Can you point our study group to some resources?

  • Mark Wright says on

    The goal of every church should be to grow and split and produce more churches, more leaders, more disciple makers… The problem is instead of splitting and growing, churches (people) want to add space, start having 2 or 3 service times and grow THEIR church.. after all a large church is better, RIGHT??

    It would be wonderful if a church would grow and split and be an growing thing instead of becoming fat and satisfied…

  • Went through a church split in July 2013 and feels as though I’ll never recover. It is a very sad and lonely feeling.

  • Pastor CC says on

    I have been a pastor for two months – within 2 weeks of becoming pastor of the church a board member approached me and in essence said I needed to kick another board member out of the church. It didn’t happen. THey soon began questioning my leadership and spreading dissension. Now half the congregation has left and has started a smear campaign against me. Did I mention this is my first pastoral position? So… I got that going for me, lol. I say that to say this – the board thought that I should be their puppet and needed me because of the pastoral pedigree – if you will. But God placed me here to bring to light the truth, to reach out to the community and show the love of Christ to those who truly need Him. To build up and not tear down. I must say this being my first time up to bat has really been an experience. At times it is disheartening but I remember one thing – I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. The fact is this church split is the result of a pastor who refused to bow down to the masses but rather bowed down to God so He could make a decision in the situation. Let’s face it brothers – the ministry isn’t for wimps. I mean within an 8 day period (Sunday to next Sunday) we can hear from the same person – “most anointed message I have heard” next Sunday – “I’m not getting fed”. Lol.
    Will this scar me emotionally for the rest of my ministry? Absolutely not. Does it hurt right now? Sure it does. So even though I am a novice pastor I am indwelled by the Highest Priest. He says everything will be okay – guess what- I believe Him. Blessings

  • James Lambert says on

    Lots of different views on why churches split. I heard of a split from a DD, Missouri Synod member, Dr. Lowell Green informed me about a split that sounded more like a joke than a real life split. However, is this split just like the stupid things over which churches split? It was about a church whose “top spiritual minds” got together and could NOT agree on whether Adam, the first man had a naval! So the matter ended in a church split. A number of people left and formed their new church and called it: You guessed it? “The First Church of the Navalites!” was once a member of a charismatic church that was at first very spiritual. Then it went sour. I experienced unbelievable refusal to cooperate with the good and right things. Plus when I played the organ for the last time, I played “When The Saints Go Marching In” and this a beautiful old inspiring hymn! Then I heard that some of the people were saying “It sounded like a night club.” Ha, I wonder how THEY knew? Plus the music director flatly refused to play “Just As I Am” at the communion service. He said “No, too emotional.” So later I learned that the associate pastor wanted to bring the men up from the homeless shelter for Christmas dinner. Church members refused to support the idea on the grounds “They would smell up our church!” Good land, GOOD LORD! I was at the mission and it did not smell. All the men there were very well bathed and even when the place was full up it still did not smell. Those who refused to feed the homeless were not even involved in any of the team missions, what ever few, so why were they worried about smelling up their church? Were they so ignorant they didn’t know about Glade air freshener? Or were they on the order, as one comment described a church, A country club. I sent the leadership a letter charging them with acting out like a country club. Next, I was expelled or excommunicated through a “kangaroo court” and the man who started that was an ordained minister in the church who I had called on his teaching on the false prophet Nostradamas! He taught this astrologer as a true prophet and I stopped him. He deserved the rebuke. Years later a former church member identified him to me as a “sex addict” and she was warned to stay away from him! Later a false prophet, after my expulsion, caused the church to close, the church was torn down. Unknown by a former member who spoke against the church saying “There will not be one stone upon the other that will not be thrown down.” I passed by the location a day or so later and saw the bricks laying on the ground, just as the word was spoken against it. The congregation split into more directions than I could determine. Key members, especially elders went elsewhere. The associate pastor died not much later.
    How could anything have been any plainer? They went outside the will of God and like the old Israelites were scattered for disobedience.

  • Christopher says on

    I’ve been going to my church for twenty years and it started out as 150 members and around 2000 the children’s minister came in view of a call to be full time pastor and was voted down, a couple weeks later he left the church and started his own down the street from ours and within months people started leaving our church to go to his. Some got mad and stormed out others left quietly. We were declining and last year a well known community man another guy came in view of a call and no one accepted because his son was gay and we lacked peace about it. The Sunday he showed up the church doubled in size but since we didn’t vote for him, he took some of our members with him and started his own church. My question for you is are there consequences for things like that and if so what are they? Also now our church is down to forty members attending regularly, how can we move forward for the glory of God and grow?

  • danny horsley says on

    Dr. Rainer,

    I am new to pastoring and we are looking through our bi-laws and updating them. I am blown away by the fact that many church splits are preceded by an inactive member showing up to vote on difficult matters. What would you recommend in bi-laws as far as how and when a member becomes “in-active” and thereby loses his/her right to vote? On the same note, what age, (13,16,18,ect.) would you allow a member to vote?

    This article is very helpful, thank you so much for sharing.

    Danny H.

  • Dt. Wayne Rhodes says on

    I was doing some research on another subject when I came across your article. Three times in my ministry, I have served three churches that have gone through splits. Your article both resonated with me and gave me new insight.

    The first occurrence happened 2 month after I arrived and 30% of the active membership formed a new congregation. Those that left will testify that they left over doctrinal issues, but it was a personality cult built around an influential and very charismatic layman. He was new to the faith and to that congregation. The group that left was gifted, talented and generous. That church sustained and has grown. I spent my first two years in the healing process of the mother church. This occurred 34 years ago, both communities are respectful and cooperative; I am the one that has a low level anger.

    Chuck, yourself and I are familiar with the second occurrence. The mother church planted several new congregations. All but one of them failed. The remnants from the failures came back to roost and were “againers” over every new ministry. If you will recall, the one church plant that survived actually grew and flourished. The members of the mother church became resentful of their “child’s” success.

    The third occurrence was clearly over the controlling power of the Senior Pastor. For several years members, who were in conflict with him, bled off and went to the United Methodist Church. He was slowly challenged by a group of individuals. It built up to what one outside observer called the ugliest congregational meeting that she had ever witnessed. The language, the emotions and the volume was inappropriate on both sides. There were children in attendance that were spiritually scarred for life. The departing pastor got the largest severance package in the history of the presbytery. The local congregation’s reputation was trashed in the community and ironically, his supporters left and also went to the United Methodist Church. A gifted and strong Interim Pastor brought insight and healing to the congregation. They came to accept the criticism of the former pastor’s supporters that this congregation was the second country club in that community. They truly sought to be a New Testament Church. The Senior Pastor of the United Methodist Church and I became friends. He was a mentor to me and offered the names of about 20 people, he would gladly send back to us. As my congregation healed, they humorously referred to his congregation as First Presbyterian Church –South. We had a great ministry, but there was a level at which the clergy team was never trusted. One example, we could not get a church credit card. The staff would have to buy items out of their own pocket and be reimbursed.

    Thom it is a testimony to you that you and your material stay fresh. Would you consider reflecting on this and at some point write an article addressing how you do this?
    Coram Deo,
    Wayne Rhodes, Ph.D.

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