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Healing from Conflict in the Church: A Pastoral Memoir

Mikayla Gainor

If you have had the privilege of being part of a congregation, especially one that functions like a tight-knit family, you have also probably witnessed or personally experienced some degree of conflict. In any healthy family, conflict is inevitable, but the way it is handled determines the well-being of the unit as a whole. When disagreement breeds resentment, wounds are often created that can leave permanent scars. Especially within the body of Christ, this division can be poignantly painful as it directly contradicts the primary call to love God and love others. As undesirable as it might be, however, there are lessons to be learned from those who have gone before us and have come through to the other side of messy conflicts.

I recently spoke with a pastor who once faced a challenging conflict in his church that eventually led to the decision to step down from his role as pastor. Due to the sensitive nature of the things that occurred, we have decided to keep names anonymous. I will refer to the pastor I spoke with as Pastor Z.

The Conflict

In Pastor Z’s case, the conflict that occurred took place within the context of congregational disagreement toward him as the pastor, largely due to disillusionment and resistance to change. Having grown up in the congregation, Pastor Z was initially excited to respond to the call to serve as their pastor. He commented that a church has one of two responses to a pastor who returns to his home church: 1) They either love and respect him, appreciating how he shares their roots, or 2) They love him but are unable to respect his leadership because they can only see him as the kid who grew up there. This second response is what Pastor Z experienced from those who had been heavily involved in the church for years.

At crucial moments where Pastor Z advocated for changes he believed would significantly help the church and prevent them from dying out, he was met by rejection and encountered rumors that were spread about him and his family as a result of his decision-making. Since his ideas were different from the way things had always been done in the past, they were often shut down. His attempts to confront the people who were directly involved in going behind his back did not produce reconciliation, and he lost the battle in the end. “It was especially hurtful because it was where I grew up,” he expressed. “This assignment in my ministerial career still stings as one of the greatest failures of my pastoral service.”

The Healing Process and Return to Ministry

Although Pastor Z knew it would be hurtful to some in the congregation who did support him, he believed that it was ultimately better for the church as a whole if he stepped down from his pastoral position. His presence there only seemed to prolong the divisiveness and secrecy of those who opposed him. His family left with many wounds that would take time, faith, and unconditional love to heal.

Pastor Z did not believe he would ever go back into ministry after this disheartening experience. “I was so convinced that I’d never earn a living in a church again,” he stated. “But following my departure from that church, I continued to work with a lot of broken families, and I still introduced myself as ‘pastor.’ I held onto that title for some reason, and this continued to open the door to some great conversations with people about Jesus. I was still able to pray with people, even at work, and I thought, ‘Ok, Lord, I could do this instead and be okay with it.’”

Pastor Z and his family also transitioned to a new church during this time where nothing was expected of them in terms of pastoral responsibilities. He was told that he didn’t have to be a pastor and that he could just come and be part of the church. The head pastor there was especially integral in Pastor Z’s healing process. “He let me come there broken and hurt and work through everything without needing to just ‘pull up my bootstraps and move on.’ I got to be a human being – just me without a title. No strings attached.” This unconditional love for him and acceptance for where he was coming from allowed Pastor Z the space to process what had happened. He had time to reflect and reorient himself without needing to pull things together while continuing to lead others. “The head pastor didn’t point fingers,” Pastor Z explained. “Even if there were things I could have done better, he didn’t point out every flaw and nail me for it. He provided a space for me to heal.”

Eventually, the head pastor at this new church extended an invitation to Pastor Z asking if he would like to preach one Sunday. Pastor Z appreciated the opportunity and continued to serve in various ways throughout the few years they were at that church. The more opportunities he was given to preach, the more he became comfortable with it again, and he thought to himself, “Maybe God’s not done with me just yet.” Even with his increasing engagement at that church, however, he still believed that he would never return to full-time ministry. So, when he received a call from another church asking him to interview as the head pastor, he denied the initial request.

Through the support of his wife, the head pastor, and other members of the church, Pastor Z was encouraged to reconsider the offer at the new church. His wife believed even before he did that taking the position was the right choice. The head pastor also told him, “Everything you’ve done has been a blessing to us here, but I don’t think God’s done with you yet.” Pastor Z was motivated to think twice about the offer and genuinely pray about the decision to move. It meant a lot for him to hear that people believed in him after the doubt he had previously experienced, and it was especially encouraging to hear that from a fellow pastor whom he really respected. “Through other people, God reminded me that I had a purpose he created me for,” Pastor Z shared.

When he walked into the new church for the first time during the interview process, he felt like he had known people for a long time, even though it was his first time meeting them, and he knew by the end of the day that that was where he was meant to be. Since being there, Pastor Z has experienced another layer of healing through the congregants’ healthy community and willingness to serve. “Every time I turn around, people are doing ministry because that’s what they want to do,” Pastor Z shared. “There is so much support, and people are always willing to step in to meet each other’s needs.”

Through the support and encouragement of people who love him, the acceptance and mutual kindness he experienced through healthy communities, and an extended time of rest, Pastor Z found healing and regained confidence in his pastoral giftings. In this refining process, the Lord gave him the faith and courage that was needed to step back into ministry.

Lessons Learned and Advice for Other Pastors

Two lessons stand out to Pastor Z from this experience: 1) he was reminded that he is not superman and 2) he recognized the importance of taking care of himself. Although he tried to make things work and restore the peace, there were some things that were just out of his control. “I don’t have to handle all of this, and I can’t be everything for everyone,” he reflected. “I have learned to be honest and share my weaknesses with people I trust because they make me stronger in the long run.” Additionally, being confronted by his own limitations pushed him to see the importance of self-care. “I actually take a day off now, and I do things that feed my spirit.” Protecting that day off is crucial for being sustained long-term. Giving himself permission to rest enables him to have a refreshed spirit and a focused mind throughout the week.

To other pastors in a similarly sensitive position, Pastor Z would urge them to go to their own leadership and accountability partners early on. Seek them for support and feedback before things become too complicated. “You’re not alone,” he encouraged. “Go to someone early on rather than letting things brew. Tell them what you’re facing. Tell them you need help doing the right thing – even if it is the hard thing to do.”

A Word on Supporting Your Pastor

In his reflections, there were a few things Pastor Z wanted to share with congregants, especially those who might struggle with the leadership of their pastor. The first is being able to have grace and recognize that pastors are humans too, and they also need support. “That is one of the hardest things for congregants to accept: that you’re not perfect as a pastor,” Pastor Z stated. When congregants don’t understand this or have unrealistic expectations for their pastor, “ministry can become a burden, not a joy. Your pastor is no different and no better than you. He needs the same considerations and encouragement that you need.” Pastor Z shared that one of the best gifts he ever received was from a woman in his congregation. She gave him a Bible with a note that said, “My pastor cries too.” When he asked her what it meant, she explained, “You’re human too. You’re no different than us.” Yes, much is expected and required of pastors because they have a great responsibility to care for their flock, but they too need love and forgiveness.

So, how can people support their pastor well? In answering this question, Pastor Z emphasized the power of prayer and the necessity of accountability. Particularly, he shared that pastors need prayer for protection and people who will check in to see how they are doing. “Be in constant prayer for your pastor,” he urged. “Not just praying that your pastor preaches well and that his family is doing well – but that he is protected from the enemy. If you’re in full-time ministry, the enemy attacks you both personally and corporately. It certainly helps when people are committed to praying for a hedge of protection to guard against spiritual battles.” And when a pastor does stumble or make mistakes, hold him accountable. Since he is not perfect, he too needs to be called out in love.

Additionally, when a pastor shares specific prayer requests, follow up on them. Given the necessary boundaries surrounding what a pastor can or can’t share with congregants due to confidentiality, the prayer requests that are shared signify trust. So, for those who have established that level of trust with their pastor, it is good to check in because it shows that they listened, remembered, and actually care about what was shared. “Don’t let it just be a prayer in the wind,” Pastor Z cautioned. Ask, and follow up.

Moving On

Pastor Z is not the only one who has encountered a disgruntled or rebellious congregation and has needed to discern when to stand firm in confronting them or when to gracefully bow out and surrender the future to the Lord. This may be one of the most challenging decisions a pastor may have to make, and it is not one that is made lightly. While a pastor must remember that he is not above reproach, he must also remember that he has been entrusted with a great responsibility to shepherd his flock and steer them in the way of the Lord. He must have the humility to acknowledge his mistakes and ask for forgiveness when in the wrong, but he must also have the courage and strength to convey hard truths, even with the risk of being in the minority.

When conflict goes awry, the healing process may take time, but with the right support and guidance from the Lord, recovery is possible, and a return to ministry may bring unexpected, sweet blessings. Members of a congregation can play a pivotal role in enabling this process, and when support is mutual between the pastor and congregation, irreparable damage may be avoided in the first place.

Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a senior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.