When Churches Can’t Heal

Have you ever been in a church that is mired in conflict? One where chaos and disagreement have become the norm? Almost invariably, there are a few specific reasons for this. This post explores those reasons.

One common reason is that the organization in question has become a religious club, versus a church. Churches represent the body of Christ, where there is a shared understanding that the role of the church is to offer love to God, to each other, and to the world around them. If this understanding is lost, the focus becomes liturgy, worship, the praise band, the building, or some other alternative. Thus, anything that disrupts the business of the religious club quickly becomes a conflict. Paint the bathroom the wrong color? By gosh, you’ll pay for that. In these situations, disputes can drag on for years, because the focus is on all the wrong things.

Another reason churches get mired in conflict is that there is that there are unhealthy people at the top. Leaders who put their own priorities first; who are there to be served, versus serving others; or who have emotional or psychological issues can quickly create a toxic environment. These situations are easy to spot: Newcomers are welcomed with open arms, but the backdoor is wide open, and real leaders rarely stick around. In these cases, vestries and other internal safeguards are often missing or ineffective, with either one person or a small clique of insiders making all the decisions. Some churches facing this situation will even refer, only half in jest, to having “A-List” and “B-List” members. It’s also worth noting that clergy ultimately set the tone and direction for the church. Even if it’s just by refusing to get involved, clergy through their action and behavior establish organizational norms.

On a related note, it is well-established that the ministry is a magnet for narcissists and other emotional predators; many clergy I know estimate that at least 1/3 of their peers suffer from narcissism. Churches in this situation invariably are headed for trouble, and ultimately need to get rid of the troubled clergyperson as quickly as possible. In the meantime, it is essential that vestries and other leaders establish and enforce strong boundaries across the board.

Yet another reason churches can become toxic is that they are still responding to issues from years ago, often around unresolved conflict. In these cases, the real problem lurks behind the scenes, creating seemingly ludicrous disputes over trivial matters. For example, in one church with which I am familiar, the decision by the altar guild to quit wearing blue smocks led to a dispute among members of the altar guild that dragged on for more than a year, replete with the silent treatment and other forms of abusive behavior. Clearly, the real issue was not about proper attire for the altar guild, but instead was something far deeper and more troubling.

Still another reason for ongoing conflict is the presence of bullies in the church. Typically, it just takes one or two to do tremendous damage to a church. The ever-widening circle of conflict can result in major declines in membership and giving, and often requires outside intervention to resolve. Ironically, these often are churches that place a high priority on being friendly and nice, for it is this very emphasis on being nice that makes people reluctant to challenge bullies. Double ironic is the fact that the most effective weapon against a bully is the sweet parishioner who otherwise never says boo to a goose. It is that very person who, when he or she stands up and says, “I’m sorry, but I don’t like what I am seeing,” brings conflict screeching to a halt.

Keep in mind that healthy churches are almost never an accident. Typically, they are healthy because they’ve made a deliberate decision to be healthy, and to take steps in that direction. Similarly, unhealthy churches, often without realizing it, have made decisions that create that situation. Becoming a healthy church thus invariably involves calling a spade a spade, looking issues straight in the eye, and dealing directly with them.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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