By Jacqueline J. Holness
Ideally, a church should be a sanctuary of peace and harmony, but because flawed people make up congregations, a church is subject to acrimony and strife. Sometimes the source of contention can be rather harmless.
Thom S. Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, conducted a Twitter survey about comical church conflicts and received a flurry of responses. He compiled his favorites in the blog post “Twenty-Five Silly Things Church Members Fight Over” on his eponymous website. I won’t list all 25, but here are a few that made me smile: “a dispute in the church because the Lord’s Supper had cran/grape juice instead of grape juice,” “an argument over whether to have gluten-free communion bread or not,” “a disagreement over using the term ‘potluck’ instead of ‘pot blessing,’” “a big church argument over the discovery that the church budget was off $0.10,” and “an argument on whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal.”
Has your church ever grappled with any of these comical conflicts? At my church, one of the members suggested that packaged communion wafer and juice sets be offered in addition to our traditional open wafers and juice to prevent spreading germs. There was some discussion back and forth mainly because of the increased cost of the packaged sets, but in the end, members agreed to offer both.
While the aforementioned disputes are unlikely to cause serious schisms in a church, some much more serious church disputes last year spilled outside of the church’s doors:
• Genora Hamm Biggs, age 103, was banned from Union Grove Baptist Church in Elberton, Georgia, after she disagreed with the minister who conducted himself in the Holiness rather than Baptist tradition she said. When the story broke that the elderly member had been removed, the minister said he received death threats, although the woman “was often loud and disrupted the service and talked over the preacher,” according to one church member. As a result, the minister and church came up with another solution. He and supporting members left the church, where Hamm Biggs had reportedly been a member for more than 70 years, and formed a new church where she is not invited.
• Rick White, who had been minister of The People’s Church in Franklin, Tennessee, for 33 years, agreed to resign after a “leadership dispute” with the church’s elder board. However, White changed his mind and turned to the congregation “for a vote of confidence in his leadership.” Although it was reported that the majority of the congregation wanted White to remain the minister, he ultimately resigned as the congregation vote violated the church’s constitution. White’s two sons-in-law also resigned after White was ultimately forced to resign.
• The Rev. Norvel Goff, who has been named interim minister of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine members were killed during Bible study, is suing his former church for slander. According to wbtw.com, “The lawsuit claim said church members defamed him by saying church funds were mishandled under Goff’s watch.”
• And finally, in Jackson, Mississippi, police had to be called during the worship service at New Galilean Baptist Church due church conflict. There was a “confrontation over a controversial vote to change the church’s leadership,” according clarionledger.com.
Chuck Lawless, a dean and vice president of Graduate Studies and Ministry Centers at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, wrote a blog post explaining why church conflict escalates. Among his reasons he listed: “The church is made up of sinners,” “church leaders have not taught biblical principles for conflict resolution,” “people listen to gossip,” and “nobody’s praying for unity.”
Organizations have been created surrounding the need to bring restoration in the midst of church conflict. According to Peacebridge Ministries, church conflict can always be traced back to “power, pride, and the deep need to be ‘right.’ No matter how else you boil it down, the issues almost always revolve around the power to control people, money, belief, or property.” Peacebridge Ministries offers to assist churches with disputes. They provide conflict training, conflict analysis, interventions, forgiveness and reconciliation workshops, and board and staff training. Another organization, Peacemaker Ministries, dispatches intervention teams to churches in conflict. “Peacemaking teams are made up of committed Christian conciliators who have been trained by Peacemaker Ministries.”
How has your church handled conflict, whether slight or serious? We must remember that God has called us to be peacemakers, and if we cannot live in peace in church, how can we expect those outside of the church to do so?
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).