A lawyer challenges transitional pastors…
Are you struggling with how to handle a bitter divorce battle, a businessman taking advantage of a worker, or even a church member threatening a pastor or the church with legal action? It’s like civil (or not so civil) war erupting in the church.
We live in a world plagued by legal battles. Often the battles and struggles within a local body become evident, or at least more pronounced, when a church is in transition (and what church is not!).
The battleground is individual rights -- a banner borne proudly in society’s post-modern parade. Courts have been petitioned, and agreed (even gleefully) to serve as arbiters of what would have previously been considered personality conflicts, personal differences of opinion and theological debates within the church. The process and outcome leave us confused, afraid and even spiritually disconsolate. It is often difficult to determine which has been more effective: the church’s influence on society or the incursion of societal values into the church.
There is no job description in God’s community of saints for a fearful “Chicken Little”. The sky, created and sustained by our Lord, is not about to fall, unless by an ear-splitting trumpet call. But, realistically, disputes, conflict and litigation have caused many serious and long-lasting consequences for Christian church communities.
What can be done? What should be done? How does a transitional pastor handle the process and get things on track? What must we do to break through this fear-bound blight on our churches? Are there any answers other than leaving disputants to the carnage-filled courts as their only recourse?
First, let us recognize that conflict is inevitable. At some level, it is a necessary dynamic in a fully functioning community. Honest differences of opinion have a place in the church, but do they have place (and a process) to be resolved? Even a relationship grounded on the principle of love, such as marriage, is not immune from some conflict. Indeed, a marriage is often deepened and strengthened by the process of two individuals, created as such and brought together by God, inevitably “rubbing each other the wrong way” on occasion. The church, called to be fully engaged in communicating God’s saving grace, is unavoidably involved with conflict. Living as God’s servants necessarily brings us into full frontal involvement with the human struggle. While this earthly war may be a reflection of the creation’s groaning or a soul’s rebellion from God, it is often played out in the arena of personal relationships. This is where the church needs to minister to the embattled and broken bodies that come for respite.
Second, the church and all Christians are called to be peacemakers. In a world defined by strife and destructive political positions, Christians often mouth “Peace” in the direction of the remote global stage, but utterly fail to live it at the interpersonal level. Our “rights” are not easily abandoned, and peace does not come except at a cost of what are usually considered someone’s rights. If we are to strive to serve the world we live in with peace, we must learn what it means to “turn the other cheek”. We must give up our coat simply because it is asked for, even if not deserved. These are not questions to be answered in some glib manner, devoid of balance and common sense. Our Master suggests by example that there is a meaningful difference between being a carpet on which rough boots scrape off mud, and possessing servant’s hands that tenderly wash the stained feet of someone who has betrayed you (or may even yet). We must be peacemakers not doormats.
Third, churches often fail to grapple with or acknowledge conflict and the need to wisely pursue peacemaking. Matthew 18:15-17, and I Corinthians 6:1-7 need to be appropriately applied by churches. The question is: how? While many Christians may be “Chicken Little” when it comes to the sorry state of the world’s devolution, they usually become ostriches in the face of disputes within their own fellowship. There is a reticence to commit any real resources to establish a dispute resolution process and train pastors and laypeople in the required principles. It seems that Christians would rather bind up the wounds of the battered and bruised than seek to come between the combatants before blood is spilled. While there are many models for dispute resolution (a number of which have readily been adopted by the business and legal worlds) the church is confused about how to manage its own “fights”.
Having been in the legal trenches for 25 years, I have seen many “Christian” conflicts, some of which are more akin to “no-holds-barred” guerrilla warfare. Few of these have ended as the participants hoped, and I was often left to pray that despite the sadness and bitterness, God’s mercy and grace would cover all.
What could have been done? Transitional leaders, churches and their lay leadership might consider the following suggestions:
1. Embrace the reality that conflict is inevitable, and even necessary. It can be a positive force for good and growth, reconciliation and relationship, if wisely handled.
2. Consider what it means to be a peacemaker. This is different than being a peacekeeper. It is an active role seeking resolution in and restoration of relationships.
3. Consider how to apply the Biblical principles relevant to handling disputes in a well thought out and structured way. Develop a system for dealing with disputes in the church and define roles for appropriate and qualified/trained people in order to ensure that the process has integrity. This could be as carefully planned as providing a provision in church bylaws allowing disputes between members (or with the church) to be referred to binding arbitration. This avoids cluttering the courts with our Christian communities legal carnage. Alternatively, it may be a reliable mediation service run by or through referral by the church. Another choice might be to create a church-sanctioned and documented process that aims to ensure there is both justice and mercy.
4. Train those who are already inclined or skilled in peacemaking so that they may be equipped to do the job. The rhetorical question from I Corinthians screams out for reply, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge [resolve] a dispute between believers?” Develop a referral network of professionals to assist in the thorny and often technical aspects of disputes.
It is a shame that our churches fail to anticipate disputes, but, instead, run away from them. Disputes can irreparably damage or destroy churches by wearing them out or tearing them apart. Church leadership, including pastors, need to hear this and deal with it, not just to survive but to thrive. The casualties, both actual and anticipated, in this war are too great to be ignored.
Surely there is a role for the church, in the words of Micah 6:8, “to do what is right (justice), to love mercy (grace), and to walk humbly” with our God.
Bob Kuhn is a graduate of Trinity Western College and the University of British Columbia Law School. He has practiced law in the Lower Mainland since 1979 and started Kuhn & Company in 1998. Bob and his firm practice in both litigation and commercial/charity matters for the broad spectrum of business, church and non-profit entities.
Bob has acted as lead counsel on a number of high profile cases including appearing at the Supreme Court of Canda for Trinity Western Univeristy with respect to its successful challenge of decisions made by the BC College of Teachers.
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