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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  • Misu Ionel says on

    I have just discovered your site (sorry..) and read this (old) article. Somehow I believe none of the writers from here really mentioned what is the biblical teaching towards those who cause damaging splits. I`m a pastor (from East Europe) and understand JoAnne´s family situation and disappointment regarding the lack of encouragement in this article. Is there another one following this? A radiography without biblical solution does not help much, except to whine.

  • After reading these comments, I feel more comfortable sharing my experience.
    Every week I would sit in the pews and listen as our Pastor spoke. He was long but great, than we found out he was dying of cancer. It was sad, but during the next few months he resigned at a meeting because several members including the church secretary confronted him for things he had not done in the church.
    Everything seem to settle down when the associate pastor took over for the next year while they searched for a new pastor.
    One was called, a woman newly ordained and in her 30’s. She was coming into an established older church of 90% of the age over 70. She immediately changed the service from traditional to contemporary with keyboards and the player could not read of play music. They forced out the pianist of 30 years for a “rock n roll” worship style. She thought that was her calling, but many in the congregation expressed their disdain for the overnight change, including myself. But instead of hearing us out, she chastised us for “complaining” and called all into her office and ask us to resign any position we held so she could “put in people who understood her”. To make a long story short, the pulpit did not check out or did not find that she just came from a mega church that had just split, then lost another 100+ from the church that was formed from the spilt.
    How do we handle this. The entire church has been separated into two services by the pastor. One for the older people and one for ones she brought with her (about 15). What are we to do, we need advice and the Elders hands are tied because the associate pastor is the Chairman of the Elders and serves at the “will and pleasure of the pastor” we are in a real pickle, with older members leaving and I know they gossip and complain as all churches do, but what are they to do also. I am heartbroken, I have prayed, I have repented with both pastors and others have too, but there is no change in the problem. What do we do???

  • I agree with this web page. My church is going through heart ache right now. Our PASTOR IS THE PROBLEM. We think he is hiding an illness that makes him burst out at the congregation talking about past issues or people who are dead or no longer there or we don’t know at all. And he won’t stop talking. it’s like he goes into another place and forgets he is at church. He walked out and nobody knew where he went once. He shouted from the pulpit at a little boy for his shirt not being tucked in his pants and wouldn’t stop. He never goes to word, but always repeats what he saw on the news and goes on and on about his past hey day of almost being a basketball player, but instead got called to preach. Money, Money is always on his brain. We have dropped from 500 to 40 people in the last 20 years. Members have called for a prayer meetings to pray for him and the church. I feel this not being know by the pastor or deacons could be taken as a coup. PRAY FOR US PLEASE.

  • #1 says that a church that has split is likely to die. I *thought* I once read that something along the lines of 80% of churches that have suffered a split are dead within 5 years, but I can’t seem to locate that source. Do you have any concrete numbers, i.e., what percentage of churches ultimately die as the result of a split?

    • Diane Erickson says on

      Nothing is said about the group that leaves and splits the church. What becomes of them? Their foundation is not of a solid beginning. They usually take the people who are disgruntled and unhappy, and those who feel entitled. The flesh is totally seen and in control by the actions of these people.

  • My church might split. We have been struggling for many years. I am unable to say excactly what happened but I know Sagan was crouching at the door and took his opportunity to jump in. My congregation is hurting and confused. We are not working together to mend the broken fences but point our fingers at the board, and the former pastor. We are so filled with pride we cannot see our own sin. It is the most ugliest thing I have been through. We are not reflecting grace nor are we loving each other. we need to remember that love covers a multitude of sin.

  • I have loved reading your books so when I found this article in a search I was excited to read it. To my surprise and disappointment I read number 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.” I was even more saddened as I read the rest of the article.

    My husband and I have been pastors for 17 years, 14 years in our current church. We just experienced our first split 2 months ago. It has been devastating for us, personally and spiritually. We had a couple that we had invested in mentoring for 3 years. We were preparing them to lead a church plant once we grew a third congregation to move with them. I had to ask the wife to take on leadership roles for me while I was tending to a sick father out of town. I relied on her leadership for about a year. After my father passed I came back to the church and attempted to get involved again in the normal pastors wife role. She caused chaos at every meeting, disrespected me publicly and began to push women of the church to choose her side or mine?? I did not even know I had a side. As the disunity continued to grow, my husband and associate pastor worked behind the scene with the pastor in training to no avail. The final straw was when the man meet with my husband, the senior pastor and the associate pastor to resign pastoral license, said he would not follow our leadership and then refused to leave the church. It was brought before the church and the family was ask to leave.

    The split came when the man and his wife called every church member one by one weekly to try to get them to leave our church. They told members they had to make a choice, them or us. They told many lies that disparaged my husband and me. They misquoted scripture to SHOW members they were right and the church was wrong. We lost 1/2 of our church. Looking back, we probably should have sent them on their way much early.

    We are now more unified than we have been in a year. We are struggling financially to just pay our bills since the split, as a matter of fact, my husband may not be able to get paid and now has to look for a job. He was a full time pastor. We have been praying and trusting God. We have believed that because we are seeing people saved and new people coming to the church that just maybe we can be restored two-fold, but I found your article disheartening. We already feel like we want to quit. Because I respected you so much I was hoping to hear words of encouragement not words of death. Maybe everything you said is true. Maybe we should just quit and move on, but just maybe we should stay and be one of the success stories I read about in the comments. I wish you would have continued your article with “But if you decide to stay, here a some things to do to help rebuild your church and yourself…”

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