Navigating a Church Crash – Finding Healing & Hope
by Randy Miller, Worship Pastor
Imagine for a moment: an important and stabilizing force in your life, something you thought was secure, trustworthy and, in many ways, untouchable . . . suddenly isn’t. A real-life movie experience where a nothing-was-as-it-seemed storyline begins to unfold. The paradigm you had been living in is abruptly turned upside down. You’re now in uncharted territory. You’re in the midst of a traumatic event you never thought possible. Much that made sense, and the relationships in your life that were once a dependable and reliable support, are instantly gone.
In the spring of 2018 this scenario became a reality for me, along with our entire church body. Our church’s leadership asked the Senior Pastor to resign. Then, five months later, this same Pastor started a church in the same city, only a few miles away. We’ll refer to these tragic events in our church as, “The Crash.”
Effects of The Crash
Immediately after The Crash happened, total shock, confusion, and emotional pain that literally manifested into physical symptoms became the reality for me and the rest of our leadership. Instantly, many of us began enduring massive and uncontrollable repercussions on multiple relational and spiritual levels. We then found ourselves wading through the waters of deep introspection.
And then there were the innocent bystanders–the church body. My heart broke for these brothers and sisters just trying to understand, keep the faith, and stay strong. The beginning of picking up the pieces was an exhausting proposition. Intuitively we knew the Lord was more than capable of bringing comprehensive healing and restoration to His Church. But it seemed so unreachable . . . impossible. It quickly became abundantly clear that the newly fractured relationships were both the earthquake and the aftershocks as we all attempted to climb out from the rubble.
Not Just a Nightmare
You may not have to imagine what I’ve just described. You might have already lived through a crash of your own or are even living it now. Endless questions are surrounded by disintegrated trust and perceived betrayal. “How did this happen? Why did this happen? What was my role in this mess? What do you want me/us to do, Lord? How do I/we heal from these feelings of loss?”
There are many layers to the onion that is a church split, all of which appear permanently devastating at first. But for our purposes here, how do we as Pastors, church staff, and volunteer leadership navigate a massive church change? What can be learned and implemented to reveal warning signs, hopefully preventing a church crisis from ever happening?
Here are three church leadership essentials for a relationally healthy church staff. These essentials can bring HOPE to a sometimes hopeless work environment. All of these essentials depend on each other, and should function harmoniously together.
Reflecting back on our church staff before the split, I can now see and recognize the depth of our dysfunction. Safe spaces for openness and vulnerability were not available. It wasn’t modeled, causing many to find other places to be transparent. Secret meetings, “venting” frustrations, and even cloaking genuine struggles with others on the church staff via “prayer requests” was commonplace. I was complicit, but now understand the toxic environment that contributed to those behaviors.
The first essential for a healthy church staff is transparency. Transparency is defined by Webster’s 1828 dictionary as “that state or property of a body by which it suffers rays of light to pass through it, so that objects can be distinctly seen through it”. If a thing cannot be “distinctly seen”, then that thing is, by definition, unseen. Lack of transparency erodes trust, because without this important group trait, there is ambiguity and vagueness.
A church staff without transparency is inherently vague, unpredictable, and typically filled with distrust. If you are currently on a staff with a vacuum in the area of transparency, this will eventually (if it hasn’t already) lead to widespread distrust, people working in a silo ministry environment, and increasing amounts of private meetings and hidden conversations. The secretive nature of the staff you serve on will only continue to grow without transparency.
Paul writes in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” To bear each other’s burdens demands transparency. If I don’t know your burden, I cannot bear it with you. And he continues in Ephesians 4, stating in verse 29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Translation . . . Open up! Be honest and vulnerable with those you interact most closely with in your life. God designed it to be spiritually profitable and fitting for His children (and certainly a church staff!) to exercise authentic transparency.
It’s difficult looking back and realizing how rogue things had gotten prior to The Crash. Pastors, church staff, and leadership had no real accountability. Sure, we had accountability meetings with supervisors, staff evaluations, and good intentions were even written into the church bylaws. But it was never a sincere value, never a deep dig. Tough, yet loving, spiritual-health questions never really came.
The second essential for a healthy church staff is accountability. I can say unequivocally if you are reading this and you’re on a church staff where this has not been a priority, a crash is coming. We cannot know how big or small, but it’s coming. Spiritual accountability must be intentional and comprehensive. I hear so often, “Oh, I can hold myself accountable”, or “God’s Spirit holds me accountable”. While these sentiments seem very ambitious and optimistic, as these methods play out from a practical standpoint, they don’t work. If we could hold ourselves accountable, we would never need accountability. The word accountability, by definition, implies that another person is involved. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines accountability as “the state of being liable to answer for one’s conduct; liability to give account, and to receive reward or punishment for actions.” Who are we “answering to” or “giving an account to”?
Furthermore, God’s plan is for us to hold each other accountable. Sure, we get the check in our spirit when something seems amiss or awry. The Holy Spirit certainly operates as our Convictor, Counselor, and Encourager. But God’s ultimate desire is that we have human accountability in our lives. Consider the accountability represented in God’s Word between Moses and Aaron, David and Jonathan, Naomi and Ruth, and Paul and Timothy, to name a few.
God has always used accountability as a way to strengthen and mature us for the shortcomings in us that we’re typically unable to recognize. Proverbs 27:17 asserts, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Again, in James 5:16 we read, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Ultimately, we ought to desire spiritual accountability, welcome it, and eagerly pursue it.
The reality of shallow or non-existent relationships became abundantly clear as consequences of The Crash played out. Andy Stanley coined the phrase, “Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.” Nothing truer could have been said about our Pastors, church staff, and leadership as we approached The Crash in 2018. Prior to that moment, I now realize we had a somewhat functional work/ministry relationship, but not earnest personal relationships with each other. I’m not talking about being best friends with everyone on staff, but rather a personal desire and subsequent effort to know each other, and bring a deeper level of care and consideration as we served together. No one really knew each other’s hearts, so no one fully trusted each other when crisis came.
What is fascinating about this final church health essential is that neither transparency nor accountability are even possible without it. God is a god of relationship. If a relationship doesn’t exist with Him, it likewise rarely exists with each other.
We know the importance Jesus Himself placed on relationship as he conversed with the Sadducees and scribes in Mark 12:29-31. “Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
God’s heart for relationship was vital and intentional from the very beginning. Genesis 2:8 says, “Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”
A lack of relationship fosters relational unpredictability. If you don’t really know everyone on your church staff well enough, you likewise won’t know how they respond to crisis. Typically, responses of those you didn’t have relationship with can completely blindside you. Thoughts like, “Were we ever truly a team?”, or “I assumed things were okay” are prevalent when a relationally-stunted team walks through trauma. Consider ways you can build relationship with those you serve in church leadership and staff. It will fulfill the Lord’s desire for His church and act as a protection when your team walks through difficult seasons.
Healing & Restoration
Thankfully, healing, reconciliation, and hope continue to come as a result of The Crash. God always provides the restoration that leads to hope. But as is the case with most crashes, it could’ve and should’ve been avoided. There are irreconcilable differences still floating, unaddressed and fractured relationships that may never recover. But I thank God for the lessons I’ve learned and the growth that has taken place in my life because of what transpired. God never wastes pain or personal crisis.
If you aren’t better on the other side of a traumatic event you’ve faced, it’s on you. The Lord wants to refine and sanctify you through the most painful circumstances of your life. It doesn’t matter in what capacity you serve on a church staff as it relates to the importance of health and functionality. Prop up the tenets of transparency, accountability, and relationship in your current church experience. These are high values in God’s economy. These essentials are emphasized in His Word and can bring healing and hope to a hopeless situation. Hebrews 10:23 “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.”