|Strike the Shepherd – Losing Pastors in the Churchby Ken Sande, Founder of Peacemaker MinistriesWhen an army loses its officers, disaster is just around the corner.Even a madman like Adolph Hitler understood this. Just before he launched his attack against the Soviet Union in 1941, he arranged for Stalin to see forged documents that indicated his own officers were conspiring against him. Gripped by paranoia, Stalin executed or imprisoned 35,000 top officers—over half of the Russian officer corps.1 When Germany launched its attack, the Russian army was headless and helpless, and suffered staggering casualties and defeats.A similar disaster is occurring in the church. We too are engaged in a terrible war. We struggle “against the powers of this dark world and…spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12). How much more do we need our leaders, and how much more devastating is it when we lose them on the eve of battle? Yet this is happening at an alarming rate. Consider these sobering statistics:
- 23 percent of all current pastors in the United States have been fired or forced to resign in the past.2
- 45 percent of the pastors who were fired in one denomination left the ministry altogether.3
- 34 percent of all pastors presently serve congregations that forced their previous pastor to resign.4
- The average pastoral career lasts only fourteen years—less than half of what it was not long ago.5
- 25 percent of the churches in one survey reported conflict in the previous five years that was serious enough to have a lasting impact on congregational life.6
- 1,500 pastors leave their assignments every month in the United States because of conflict, burnout, or moral failure.7
Although there are times when it really is best for a pastor to step down, far too many good pastors are being driven out of ministry, leaving thousands of churches weak and vulnerable to spiritual attack. Without good leadership, factions multiply, evangelism declines, divorces proceed unrestrained, discipleship loses direction, and missionaries are forgotten on the field. As Scripture warns, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Matt. 26:31).
What is it that usually strikes pastors down? Surveys by Christianity Today8 and the LeaderCare ministry of LifeWay Christian Resources9 reveal that the most common causes for forced exits include:
- The church already being conflicted when the pastor arrives
- A lack of unity and the presence of factions in the church
- Conflicting visions for the church
- A church’s resistance to change
- Power and control struggles
- Personality conflicts
- Poor people skills on the part of the pastor
- Conflict over leadership styles
- Dissatisfaction with the pastor’s performance
- Theological differences
All of these reasons for forced exits can be summarized in one word: conflict. When a pastor is forced out of ministry, it is usually because he has been unsuccessful at resolving differences with other people in his church. As the Christianity Today survey further reveals:
- 45 percent of ousted pastors think they could have done more to avoid being forced out.10
- Resolving conflict is the primary action they wish they had taken sooner.11
- They believe conflict management was the area of training most lacking in their seminary or Bible college education.12
Do you see the pattern? Pastors are not being adequately trained in conflict resolution; conflict brings down thousands of them every year; churches engage in spiritual battle without proper leadership. And then churches wonder why they have so little fruit and suffer so much defeat.
No secular business would accept such high leadership losses. Executive turnover in the business world typically costs employers from 12 to 18 months of the executive’s annual salary.13 If this figure were applied to pastoral turnovers, we would see that they are costing the church over $684 million dollars a year! If you measured the cost in terms of seminary or Bible college expenses that go down the drain whenever a pastor leaves the ministry, you would come up with a similar appalling number.
But the cost to the kingdom cannot be measured in terms of money. How precious is the gift of preaching the gospel, and what is the cost when a pastor loses his pulpit and his gift is silenced? How precious is the witness of a vibrant church to its community, and what is the cost when a forced exit splits a church and results in two hostile congregations? How precious is the privilege of being raised by both parents, and what is the cost when a pastor is not there to prevent a divorce and a child is torn between two warring parents?
Whatever the measure, the cost of losing thousands of pastors each year is astronomical. The church cannot afford to let these losses continue.
All of these facts came rushing through my mind recently when I sat in a conference with 1,200 pastors. As I overheard conversations around me and then listened to their glorious singing, I could tell these were deeply dedicated pastors. As I looked around the room, I thanked God for raising up so many gifted leaders for his church. And then the awful statistics came to mind: in just a few years, 23 percent of these men might be forced out of their churches. Choking on this thought, I tried to convince myself that these well-educated, highly committed men would beat the odds.
But during a break a pastor named Steve approached me for advice and demonstrated how little practical knowledge many pastors have when it comes to resolving conflict. Steve told me that he was planning to resign his pulpit. Shortly after he had come to his church, he discovered that one elder and his wife ran everything. Steve had wrestled against their control tactics for two years. He had learned in seminary that he should make peace, but now that he faced an actual career-threatening conflict, he realized that he had never been taught how to resolve conflict in practical, nuts-and-bolts ways. The other four elders knew less about conflict resolution than Steve did, so they failed to take decisive action. As a result, he and his wife were ready to quit.
As Steve and I prayed and talked, however, his attitude changed completely. I reminded him of God’s concern for his situation, and the hope he has because of what Christ has done and is doing for him. Then I explained a few practical peacemaking principles he could apply. We developed a strategy to equip his four well-meaning elders to resolve the conflict. We also agreed on a backup plan for how the church could seek outside conciliation if the controlling elder refused to cooperate.
By the end of our twenty-minute talk, I was looking at a different man. The drooping shoulders and gloomy expression were gone. Steve was sitting erect in his chair and smiling. He was ready to go home and do everything in his power to fulfill his calling as a pastor and stay at the helm of his church. There is no guarantee he will succeed, but he was prepared and eager to give it another try.
Many of the men in that room were probably as discouraged as Steve was. Like thousands of other pastors, they are surrounded by conflict in their churches every week. Yet few of them are adequately trained to resolve conflict. They too have been told that they should make peace, but all too often they lack the practical training and tools to do so. This weakness is especially evident when it comes to handling hostile church factions or resolving conflicts with members that could turn into lawsuits against the church.
To make matters worse, most congregations have not been properly equipped to deal with conflict either. So when conflict arises, many members retreat into denial, some form defensive factions, and others launch all-out attacks on the pastor. When a pastor who is equally unprepared for peacemaking walks into such a church, the stage is set for agonizing conflict and a forced exit.
That is the bad news. The good news is that it is never too late for both pastors and congregations to learn how to respond to conflict biblically. And it can start with you.
Guiding People Through Conflict
A succinct summary and application of biblical conflict resolution principles for those trying to assist other people who are struggling with conflict.
If you are a pastor, you can start today to learn practical principles and skills that will enable you to lead your church through the worst of conflicts in an effective and biblically faithful manner:
- Begin by browsing around Peacemaker Ministries’ web site at www.Peacemaker.net and reading about the foundational principles, heart issues, articles, and true stories that relate to your particular needs.
- Read The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict and Guiding People through Conflict, which provide detailed, down-to-earth principles that have been used to resolve thousands of conflicts in the church.
- Take your leaders through the Peacemaking Church Risk Management materials which provides detailed guidance on how you can prevent or safely handle conflicts that might otherwise turn into lawsuits or church divisions. (Among other things, this material shows how your church can re-establish the practice of redemptive and constructive church discipline, which can be a key to resolving serious conflict in the church.)
- Pursue Peacemaker Training, which provides the opportunity to learn conflict coaching and mediation skills, and to practice them in role plays based on actual church conflicts.
- To equip your entire congregation to respond to conflict biblically, lead your church through a carefully laid out process of developing a “culture of peace™” (see the Peacemaking Church section of this website).
- If you are faced with a conflict that is beyond your present ability to handle, contact Peacemaker Ministries for advice or to arrange for a team of trained conciliators to assist your church.
In this foundational peacemaking resource, Ken Sande describes the powerful biblical principles you can use to resolve conflict. Download Chapter 1 for FREE!
If you are a church leader or member, you can encourage and support your pastor as he seeks to lead the way in learning and modeling biblical peacemaking.
- Familiarize yourself with biblical peacemaking by browsing around our web site and reading The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict.
- Then bring this article to your pastor’s attention and encourage him to take advantage of the resources and training described above.
- Support and pray for your pastor as he seeks to convince other church leaders and the congregation to invest time and resources in developing a culture of peace (see the Peacemaking Church section of this website).
- To prevent your pastor from standing alone when serious conflict strikes, suggest that the church requires its other leaders to learn basic peacemaking or even go through higher levels of Peacemaker Training.
- When conflict arises in the church, pray for your pastor, discourage gossip, and encourage members to respond to the conflict biblically (see the Peacemaker’s Pledge).
- If you see that your pastor may have failed to notice how he has offended someone, go to him privately, and respectfully encourage him to go to that person to seek reconciliation before the seeds of bitterness take root.
- If your church seems to be entangled in a conflict it cannot resolve on its own, suggest that the leaders contact your denomination or Peacemaker Ministries for qualified advice or conciliation assistance before things grow worse.
- If your church is searching for a new pastor, urge the search committee to inquire into the candidates’ training in conflict resolution or their openness to getting training as a condition of coming to the church.
If you care about the next generation of pastors, contact any seminaries or Bible colleges you have a connection with and urge them to place a higher priority on equipping students to respond to conflict biblically. Point out that although many seminaries have general theoretical training in conflict resolution, pastors themselves are continually reporting that they did not receive the practical training they need to meet the conflicts of real church life (see, for example, “A Better Way to Handle Abuse“). Unless seminaries fill this gap, they will continue to send out pastors who may have mastered Greek and Hebrew, but are unprepared to deal with the conflicts that are likely to destroy their pastoral careers.14
Please take action today. An enemy is seeking to rob our churches of their leaders, so that congregations will be weakened when he attacks. Let’s stand together in the Lord to defeat our enemy’s plans, train and preserve our pastors and our congregations, and see the church go from victory to victory!
1 William Stevenson, A Man Called Intrepid (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976) 36.
2 John C. LaRue, “Forced Exits: A Too-Common Ministry Hazard,” Your Church, Mar/Apr 1996, p. 72, www.christianitytoday.com/cbg/features/report/6y2072.html.
3 Charles Willis, “Forced Terminations of Pastors, Staff Leveling Off,” www.lifeway.com/about_pr0801l.asp.
4 John C. LaRue, Id.
5 George Barna, 1996 Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators.
6 Carl S. Dudley, “Conflict: Synonym for Congregation.” www.fact.hartsem.edu/topfindings/topicalfindings_article3.htm
7 Focus on the Family, 1998.
8 John C. LaRue, Id.
9 Charles Willis, Id.
10 John C. LaRue, “Forced Exits: How to Avoid One,” Your Church, Jan/Feb 1997, p. 88, www.christianitytoday.com/cbg/features/report/7y1088.html.
12 John C. LaRue, “Profile of Today’s Pastor: Ministry Preparation,” Your Church, Mar/Apr 1995, p. 56, www.christianitytoday.com/cbg/features/report/5y2056.html.
13 William Hendricks and Jim Cote, On the Road Again: Travel, Love and Marriage (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1998), p. 13.
14 See “Peacemaking Resources for Academic Training” for a list of practical resources and training, including custom MDiv programs that are available for Christian colleges and seminaries.
Ken Sande is an attorney, the author The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Baker Books, Updated Ed. 2003), Peacemaking for Families (Tyndale, 2002), and founder of Peacemaker Ministries (www.Peacemaker.net), an international ministry committed to equipping and assisting Christians and their churches to respond to conflict biblically.