Churches, we want to believe, are happy, fuzzy places where everyone is loved and valued. That’s what we preach and teach. That’s what most of us expect from the church as well. But sometimes, churches become very contentious places. When that happens, it’s hard to focus on the church’s basic missions of ministry and spiritual growth. Often, even the most active church members end up dropping out – feeling betrayed, hurt, and even demeaned.
When I was a teenager, my family attended a Methodist church that became a battlefield. A small group of people tried to run off a much loved pastor, then another group tried to run off a much loved music director. My father was chairman of the “hiring and firing committee,” and our phone often rung off the wall with vitriolic complaints against church staff. The experience marred my fledgling spirituality for years, and for a long time, I was too scarred from the experience to attend any church at all.
When church communities become contentious, everyone suffers. Even those not in the line of fire (like teenage girls with no dog in the hunt) end up disillusioned, angry, and suffering from at least some form of grief resulting from the experience. Those directly involved surely suffer devastating emotional blows, and people who tend to them or find themselves cleaning up the emotional and spiritual fallout often end up depressed, angry, or burned out as well. Membership and attendance usually drops like a brick. Worthwhile ministries are neglected or lose funding and support. Everyone loses, including those to whom the church hoped to help.
In my humble opinion, the source of my much contentiousness in church communities is the attempt by a few individuals to exert their power and will over others, with no regard to the feelings, opinions, or worth of others in the communities. These individuals become convinced that they are right (about whatever the issue happens to be), and no other opinion will be tolerated or even heard. Those with other opinions find themselves ignored and marginalized at best, insulted and kicked out of the church community at worst.
We all know this is not what the Gospel is all about. This is not at all what church communities should be, no matter what your theology might be. And attempts by sinful church leaders to establish their own little fiefdoms are antithetical to everything Jesus preached and taught.
If you find yourself the victim of church contentiousness, it’s hard to know where to turn. Some of us “take a break” from church and leave for a long or short time until we feel healed and ready to try participation in church community again. Some of us find sources of spiritual growth on our own or commune with the trees, birds, and other nature wonders. (Birds and squirrels generally don’t argue with you, which is comforting to those of us burned by church feuds.)
If you find yourself wanting to create a church community in your own image, please remember that this is not what church is about. It’s about, in fact, surrendering your will to God and keeping the needs of others first and foremost on the agenda. Everybody really does matter, and everybody’s opinions really do matter. The church includes you, those you don’t particularly like, and even those people you really can’t stand.
And if you find yourself the victim of such contentiousness, please remember that healing can take place. It may take a long time, but redemption and resurrection are also what the church is all about, too.
Cynthia Coe is the author of Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us and the novels Ginger’s Reckoning and Runaway Kitty.