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The weekly pastor’s prayer breakfast is a wondrous thing to me. On a recent Tuesday, 13 gathered for a breakfast of biscuits, sausage and ham, gravy, jellies and peach fried pies. Good. Good. Good.

After some good-natured ribbing of the associational moderator and an announcement that one of the churches had called a new pastor, the time for prayer requests came around.

One of the pastors reported on his struggles. He is in his fourth year at a church with a track record of changing pastors every two to three years, and some division is appearing in the fellowship. Most recently this has taken the form of personal attacks on his preaching and leadership. He is wondering if he should try to stick it out and weather the storm, seek another place of service or just quit.

Most of us at the table have had similar experiences. Drawing from these and years of close observations of life in small churches, we shared our wisdom. Let me pass some of it along. It may be of help to others who are experiencing difficulties in the ministry.

Our leader, a well experienced and much beloved pastor, said that over his 40-plus years he had noted three primary sources of conflict–the youth program, the nursery and relations with the deacon body. He went on to elaborate about each of these.

Every church says it wants more youth, but usually this means “youth” who will like old-time gospel music, who will act “church broke,” whose parents will come with them and support the church financially and who are of the same ethnicity and social class as the congregation. When the youth program grows and surges beyond these parameters, then the stage is set for conflict. (Unfortunately, there are not many youth today whose favorite music is southern gospel quartet and bluegrass gospel.)

Every church wants a nursery blessed with beautiful babies. But staffing it is often a problem. Contemporary mothers have high demands for cleanliness, higher than some churches feel are reasonable. They also want high quality care by nursery workers. Often their definition of “high quality” is not the same as the grandmothers providing the care. And then there are the inevitable fights among toddlers over toys and the colds that they bring home from the church nursery.

A strong deacon body (sometimes called “board”) has been a necessity for survival in many smaller churches. There have been times in many such churches when they really had to rein in a pastor for the good of the church. But power tends to corrupt those who exercise it. Generally, the deacons are older and financially conservative. Generally, they are comfortable with things as they are.

Often the pastor has been exposed to broader experiences of life in a church than has the members of the deacon body. Consequently, he sees need for changes. However, his views may not be shared by the deacons. And as in the cases of matters related to youth and to the nursery, he believes that these will make it possible for the church to accomplish what it says that it wants to do.

Conflict comes. The pastor can’t really understand. He believed that he was doing what the church wanted, and now the deacons are challenging what he proposes to do. Often issues of ego and face-saving become primary and things escalate. A struggle over “who is in charge here” may be joined.

In some instances churches have split over these matters. And increasingly, new churches have opted to be “pastor and staff-led” congregations. Is this climbing out of the ditch on one side of the road and falling into the ditch on the other?

As another of the wise counselors at the breakfast table observed, in a “perfect world” the pastor would be able to declare, “time out.” Then he and the deacons could have a season of prayer and refocusing on the real work of a Baptist church. They would re-affirm that Jesus is the head; that they are to submit, mutually, to Him and to one another; and that the health of the church is what needs to be their consuming desire (Ephesians 5.) This will likely take some “give and take.” And then the church can get on with doing the main things of evangelizing, discipling, supporting missions, offering intercessory prayer and providing ministry.

Of course, this is not a perfect world. God has entrusted His work to very “earthen vessels.” The pastors gathered around their brother and prayed for him and for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those involved in the conflict. Also, they pledged to continue to pray about the matter. We have seen God work in surprising and marvelous ways in the past.

It is so good to be connected with a group of pastors who care deeply for one another and have developed a level of trust that makes it possible for them to share openly with one another, a “band of brothers, indeed. But, then, that is how Christians are supposed to act.

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.

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