The Intensity Comes Home:

Church Conflict and the Pastor’s Family

By Monte Robison

You might think it’s just you against the bad guys in the “OK Corral” as you confront destructive conflict in your church, but those you love at home often face the consequent damage and injury to an equal or greater degree. The pastor’s spouse and family often suffer painful and lasting effects of collateral damage even though they may not be on the front lines of such conflict.

This was true particularly in one of the conflicts I encountered in ministry awhile back. When I began to engage in a process of resolution for this conflict, I found that very quickly the pressure on me became intense and stayed that way. For a period of about six months, as I and several others worked hard toward peace and well-being in our fellowship, the conflict became the all-absorbing subject of my thoughts and conversations. It became almost everything to me—it nearly crushed me. Toward the end, I found my usually sound sleep was shortened or disturbed almost nightly; my appetite for food, usually robust, decreased so much that I ended up losing about 25 pounds on an already fairly lean frame. And at one point, I felt so low and overwhelmed, and so completely exhausted, that I seriously considered leaving ministry entirely.

But beyond these significant consequences in my own life, the conflict had serious negative effects on my wife and children. The fallout for my wife was the most substantial.

One of the most hurtful elements in the conflict for her were the things that people said directly to me or to others about me. She remarked, “When I would hear some of the things people said to my husband or were saying about him to others, I was shocked, hurt and even angry. I know him as a kind, generous, compassionate and sympathetic person and here they were representing him as something completely different.”

Along with the things that were expressed openly, were the things left unspoken. My wife noticed that many friendships cooled even among people who did not seem to share the negative opinions of the few in opposition to me. This direct and indirect toxicity impacted my wife’s relationship with many of the church members and made her uncomfortable attending services at the church for a long time.  The experience has made her very guarded about forming friendships with church members to this day.

Finally, the sheer length of the conflict was draining her emotional reserve as well as mine. The resolution of the conflict seemed so far off, so impossibly difficult. She often expressed thoughts about moving away, or even quitting ministry. Her outlook on life was very bleak.

Our grade-school children were aware of the general contours of the conflict, and as the process of resolution ground on, they also became aware of the anxieties and tensions that weighed on their mother and me. We did our best to shield them from the worst of the negative communication and emotion, but they were definitely affected by what was on our hearts and minds so much of the time during those months.

In addition, there were several instances of bullying from some of the kids at church who were from families with adults who had feelings against my leadership. Beyond the sporadic intimidation from their peers, there were a couple of instances where a few of the adults who had issues with me, picked on them unnecessarily, seeming to see them as my surrogates. This was very hard on kids who as PKs already live in the church ‘fishbowl’ where their behavior is often commented on and scrutinized more than the average child kid. And, it made my wife and I angry, pressing us even further to consider moving on, or quitting ministry. After prayer and counsel, I decided not to confront the bullies, either the juvenile or the adult. We did keep a close watch on what was happening with our children, looking for repetition, or escalation, but mostly helping them to process what was going on.

Short of finding a magic wand, or a complete divine deliverance on the order of Jericho’s walls come a tumbling down, managing and resolving conflict sucks precious time and energy that in the best of times are in short supply. So what do you do to stay sane, to be faithful to your calling, and to hold yourself and your family together? We found a number of practices to be helpful.

Number one, keep talking. Keep talking to each other, to your kids and to God. Keep expressing feelings, and encouraging one another. Let your spouse hear your heart, even some of the edgy stuff where you are not so strong, not so confident, even where you are angry and fearful. And hear their stuff too. Help your kids to understand the dynamics of what is going on, and express their thoughts and emotions. But point them all to God, to His presence and power. You go there to. You won’t feel like it sometimes. Go anyway.

Number two, more talking. Seek godly counsel. Talk with people in your ministerial department. Talk to other pastors of experience. Most of them will have been through something similar.  We found that talking to friends and colleagues who were nowhere near to the situation gave us a larger frame to think from, a wider perspective to view our situation. As we would pour out our hearts to them, especially to the ones in ministry, a story from their past would touch us, a word of wisdom would refresh us, or a point of clarification would bring us hope and strength to keep going.

Number three, and especially, but not only, for the kids, get away from town, go away for even just a couple of days, to the mountains, to the beach. Go somewhere, preferably, that gives you uninterrupted contact with the natural world. Yes, you will continue to think about the situation, the cloud of concern will follow you. But you will find that somewhere on the hike, or playing in the waves with the kids, that you will have had a moment of forgetfulness, the intensity and the struggle will seem distant for a few seconds. The cloud of concern will float away just a little, and you will breathe a bit deeper. And if that is true for you, it will be more true for your spouse, and more still for your children. We got away a couple of times even when we didn’t think we could because of time and obligation, and even when we thought it wouldn’t do us any good. It did.

Four, for the children in particular, but for you too, pay special attention to maintaining structure and schedules.  Get up at a set time, and go to bed on a regular schedule too. You might not sleep well, but you will rest some. Plan for fun times too. You will have to force yourself, but get out and toss the football, play a board game, ride bikes around the neighborhood together. It will help them and, really, it will help you too.

Five. Claim the promises. I know, you do this anyway. But now, especially in the intensity, the unrelenting anxiety of conflict, you will live or die on the basis of your connection or disconnection from God’s assurances. Much of the book of Psalms and many other areas of scripture have emotion and language that fits a ministry conflict situation in a way and to a degree that you will never perceive until you read them, cry through them, and cling to them in the midst of a ministry upheaval. Our God was David’s God before, and He has lost none of His interest and sympathy for the overwhelmed, or His power to sustain and deliver. “O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge.” Psalm 62:8 New Living Translation

There are materials and people that can help pastors and their families who experience church conflict immensely.
The SDA Theological Seminary has a distance education course available on Conflict Management taught by Dr. Stan Patterson.

Also, it is possible to schedule an Intro to Conflict Management training for pastors at annual pastors' meeting by inviting either Stan Patterson or Skip Bell (contact through the seminary). There is a 6 hour minimum of time necessary for these presentations. 
One of the best "how to" books for expanding your functional knowledge of conflict intervention techniques: Furlong, G. T. (2010). The Conflict Resolution Toolbox: Models and Maps for Analyzing, Diagnosing, and Resolving Conflict: Wiley. ISBN: 0470678496
Improve your own conflict strengths: Steinke, P. L. (2006). Congregational leadership in anxious times: Being calm and courageous no matter what: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN: 1566993288

Before things heat up (and they will, sooner or later) try understanding yourself better: Assessment instrument with short explanation of conflict styles available: Leas, S. B. (1997). Discover your conflict management style: Alban Institute ISBN: 1566991846.

Preeminent group training: Peacemaker Ministries

Lastly, I suggest a thorough read of Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve. His analysis of the actual mechanism between leaders, the people they lead and dysfunctional system actors in conflict is the best I have ever read. Especially wrestle with his idea on empathy and pathogens, it will seem to run counter to everything you know, but it’s actually dead on with how things actually work. Friedman, E. H. (2007). A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix: Church Publishing Inc.. ISBN: 1596271671
Monte Robison, Pastor pastors the Ocala Seventh-day Adventist Church in Ocala, Florida.