I am thankful for my four years at Bible college.
I imagine that the Baptist Union of Great Britain and its constituent churches are thankful as well, since it kept me out of harm’s way for four years while they tried to knock some sense into me.
Looking back, I was in my mid-20s and was too young to be a responsible husband and father, let alone be entrusted with the soul-care of God’s people.
With hindsight, I should have sought an assistant pastor’s role in a church for a few years after graduation. This would have enabled me to learn from an older, more experienced pastor and thus saved myself (and my first churches) a lot of grief.
There were three reasons why I didn’t go for an associate pastor position.
- They are relatively rare in our Baptist world, where the median church size is 47 members.
- I had trained in evangelism and church-planting, and an associate position in new church plants is even rarer.
- We had all been imbibed with the great myth that real ministry was solo ministry.
As one regional minister said to me, “Why would you even go and work with someone else, when you can run your own ship?”
Thus it was that in 1993 I launched out as pastor of a 55-member Baptist church in London, and soon hit trouble.
Looking back, I realized quickly that there were certain things for which my academic training had simply not prepared me.
There was much to be grateful for in my studies. New Testament Greek and my studies in Mark, John, Romans and Ephesians taught me how to mine the Bible for the truth that lay below the surface and not to be superficial in my study.
But there were other things that were quite frankly confusing, both then and now. One lecturer used to say, “You don’t understand now why we are teaching you these things, but when you have been out in ministry for a few years, you will.”
I had a friend from college who also settled in London. We used to call each other up on a regular basis and say, “Remember that stuff they said didn’t make sense then, but would when we’d been out in ministry for a while … any of it any use yet?”
“No,” would come the reply. “What about you?”
“No, me neither.”
Then there was some mystifying information provided on leadership.
We had a former army leader come to do a day’s training. After he spoke, one of our cohorts explained that his “command and control” approach was very interesting, but in Baptist churches we had to get everything of substance agreed on by the community of the church.
He was astonished, as if he had never heard of such nonsense. Leadership in such a situation, he assured us, was impossible.
In brief, my college training taught me theology and how to interpret the Bible. It provided also some insight into Baptist history and principles, and it gave me useful information on the conduct of worship.
But it did not teach me how to be a pastor, it did not teach me how to do ministry on a week-by-week, year-by-year basis, so as to actually build a church and take it somewhere.
Above all, it did nothing to prepare me for conflict. And conflict, I have discovered, is the make-or-break issue in most churches and in most ministries.
At some point, every minister will face the deacon from hell or the irate and angry group in the church.
At some point, there will be the people who seek to undermine you behind your back or stir up dissent in the congregational business meeting.
How you handle that will not only determine the future direction of your ministry, but also go a long way to determining the health of your church.
Yet, in too many churches, ministers and laity simply don’t know how to handle conflict. Instead of addressing the issues, they are sidestepped or swept under the carpet.
As a consequence, ungodly malcontents can hold too much sway in a church, in extremes almost holding the body of Christ to ransom, as members would rather keep the peace than face the pain of angry words and hurtful comments.
In my 22 years of pastoral ministry, I would conclude that it is the failure to face, address and deal constructively with conflict that is the main reason why churches do not grow.
Seminaries, divinity schools and Bible colleges must do a better job training their graduates in conflict management, and local church ministers would be wise to build on this education.
Unresolved conflict makes for a sick church, and sick churches struggle. Ministers who know how to effectively manage conflict can help churches avoid sickness and the resulting decline.
Darren Blaney is pastor of Herne Bay Baptist Church in the United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Preach the Word. It has been adapted for publication with the author’s permission. You can follow him on Twitter @PTWblog.