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A key leader of a church resigned and left his church family of many years recently. More will follow him out the door. This is the conclusion of months of growing conflict that he helped to set into motion. All along the way, there were moments where bringing in wise counselors from outside the congregation could have prevented this outcome. But several things stood in the way of wisdom.

First, there was nothing to compel the leaders to seek help. These were leaders of an autonomous church. In their eyes, no one had the right to speak into their situation unless asked—and they weren’t asking. Furthermore, the church had no guidelines in place to automatically trigger seeking help when their conflict got past the point of interpersonal reconciliation. Because all the leaders were involved in the conflict, their view of its causes became too subjective for them to be able to see the objective reality. As time went by, the theme of church conversation seemed to become, “Death First before I submit to anyone!”

If you have ever been close to the heat of a church conflict, you know that not all conflicts lead to division in the congregation. But too many do. And they follow a pattern so discernable that those who work in church conflict can number and describe each level. They are:

Level 1: We have a problem. Though the problem is painful, with wisdom from God, together we can find a solution and fix it.

Level 2: You caused this problem. We feel that we would not have had a problem if you had shown more maturity, wisdom and restraint. You need to own the problem as your fault and apologize.

Level 3: You are the problem. We are in conflict because you are immature and do not belong in leadership. You need to be publicly shamed and to step down from leadership.

Level 4: God condemns you. You have shown by your unwillingness to step down that you are not only immature, but unspiritual and out of step with God. His Word shows you to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Level 5: We who oppose you will destroy you or, if we leave the church, will publicly shame you in the community. This is a war to the death regardless of who else gets hurt. If the church fails, it will only be your and your faction’s fault.

What I know is that, when a church gets to Level 3 conflict, rarely do church leaders have the ability to guide the church toward reconciliation and peace without bringing in wise counselors who are not emotionally involved. But this is exactly what most will not do! And so another church splits. More believers find themselves homeless from their church family. More teens and children, as well as young believers, are scarred spiritually from seeing ‘mature’ believers failing to obey Jesus’ command to love one another.

How do leaders protect the congregation they are called to lead from such an outcome? The answer is always: Plan ahead for the bad days. The guiding document (constitution, by-laws, etc.) of the church I was talking about in the first paragraph is typical of many such churches. This document was developed when things were going well—when the church was new and growing and everyone was happy to be together. No one foresaw any rough days ahead. Or, if they did, they believed the myth that spiritual people in the congregation would step up at the right moment and save the day.

Satan has many schemes we should be aware of and creating church conflict dates back to the New Testament church. This is why it is important that while leaders are in harmony and are listening to the Spirit, they think through what the church should do when bad days come. This plan should be written into the church’s guiding documents so that it cannot be ignored when emotions begin to cloud issues and relationships begin to fray. Here are the questions that need to be addressed while God is in His heaven and all is right with the church.

Who will we call in to help in times of conflict and when will they be called? It is critical that the person or organization you call on for assistance is spelled out as well as the timing, so that factions at odds within the church cannot block an invitation for mediation. Think seriously about how people will identify a Level 3 conflict and trigger a call for help before the conflict divides the church.

How will we handle a lawsuit against the church? Determine what will be both your legal and spiritual steps in such a case.

How will we handle pastoral failure? No one wants this to happen, but it does happen to much loved pastors. Because he is loved and because he may deny the truth of his sin until much damage is done to the congregation, you must clarify what constitutes pastoral failure as well as have a pathway to follow. Make sure to decide who you will ask to help restore your pastor in his walk with God, his family and the congregation.

Who has the responsibility to dismiss a pastor? You want to be careful not to leave this decision solely in the hands of a small leadership team. How is the congregation involved and when?

How and on whom will we practice church discipline? This is a critical biblical issue that needs clarity to avoid opening up the church to an unnecessary lawsuit.

Who determines who will be granted control of the assets if the church splits? If you are part of a fellowship or denomination, they would be the ones to call in such cases. If not, determine to whom your church will submit itself for this decision. Be sure to spell out the circumstances in which this organization is called in.

As you can see, this is a serious discussion that EVERY leadership team needs to have. Pre-thinking for the bad days will not prevent them from coming. But by planning what you will do when those days arrive and including this plan in your official guiding document can prevent them from being fatal for your church family.