Replant Reality: One Battle Away

By Bob Bickford

Replant-Revitalization Reality: In many declined congregations, at least one significant “battle” must be fought in the war of moving the church forward toward health. Revitalizer/replanter don’t back down, resolve to stand, God will direct and protect.

Recently I toured the World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. It is a fantastic destination and extremely well put together. As you walk through the exhibits, you’ll be struck by the extraordinary sacrifices from everyday folks in an effort to protect and defend freedom and democracy. Lives lost, countless cities wrecked and the indelible marks of conflict are preserved for all to see, understand and learn.

Of the many takeaways from our time there, one stands out to me: The outcome of one decisive battle can set the stage for the war to be won. On its own, a battle may seem like one of any number of conflicts in an overall war, yet a victory or defeat in one decisive battle may lead to ultimate victory or loss.

Battles in the church often follow this pattern.

Let’s define battle: one conflict in any number of conflicts, large or small, occurring in the church, which by itself will not lead to the church’s demise but whose outcome contributes to the overall trajectory of the church.

These battles can lean toward health or vitality; they also can hasten decline or even demise.

In a declined church, one which has exhibiting trend lines of decline for decades, battles like these are usually common. The causalities have included lay persons, leaders and likely pastoral staff and their families.

In the church, no one welcomes or seeks out a battle; they know the costs are potentially high. Yet when a battle is brewing or underway, too many pastors and church members run. By nature, most folks within the church prefer peace. It’s understandable, in fact it is our calling: “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom. 12:18)

Sometimes, to obtain real lasting peace, you must be willing to stand up when a battle threatens or takes place:

  • An individual threatens a pastor by changing the locks or stops paying church bills
  • A group refuses to let the pastor fix the baptistry
  • A breakaway Sunday school class uses their time to advocate against a change, rather than study God’s word
  • Someone uses the church directory to send anonymous letters, critical of the church and its leadership, to congregation members
  • Secret “unofficial” meetings are held to orchestrate votes of no confidence or hatch other plans to force a pastoral transition

Sadly, each of these is a reality experienced by me or pastors I know. How should we respond in the face of battles like these?

Don’t Ignore battles. As much as we’d like to put our head down in sermon prep, pastoral visitation or administrative tasks, conflicts like these never get better, only worse. You can’t sweep sinful behavior under the rug. It will only get worse.

Pray for wisdom. One important truth to remember is that most of the time you are fighting against more than just differences of opinion and preferences. In dysfunctional churches, you are battling deficient discipleship, an errant view of pastoral authority, idolatry (the love of anything more than the love of God) and a host of other challenges. At their heart these are spiritual issues, and you need divine insight, patience and wisdom as you face them.

Confront the Antagonists. Someone who disagrees with you is not automatically being an antagonist, but someone who rejects authority, ignores bylaws and process, someone who spreads gossip, lies and devises schemes in secret is not just a person who “sees” a church issue differently than you or the leaders do. A person like this is an antagonist and must be rebuked, confronted and corrected.

Follow a biblical process. We have the blessing and benefit of the Scripture, which helps us understand the right ways for resolving conflicts when we experience them. Be biblical in your approach and follow any additional instructions that may be present in your bylaws. But know this: It’s never appropriate to ignore the Bible in favor of the bylaws, just as it’s not legal to ignore the bylaws altogether.

Be brave, bold, and courageous. You and I likely were not trained how to do church conflict. If we served as interns, maybe we discussed it with a ministry mentor. But you only get real battlefield experience by actually being in some battles. When the conflict is intense or when battle signs grow ominous, don’t expect to not have concerns or even be afraid. If you respond that way, congratulations – you’re normal. But don’t run, back down, give in or give up.

Be sure you are fighting the right battle. We’ve all had someone older and wiser exhort us to “pick” our battles and “not die on every hill.” They are right, but at the core, these statements acknowledge that sometimes it is appropriate to stand ground with conviction and engage in conflict. Not everything is worth battling for, but some things are. If you don’t stand when it’s needed, you’ll likely lose the war.

I pray God gives you the wisdom, understanding and courage to lead strongly when you’re tempted to turn and head to safety.  The church needs that from you, and God has placed you there for that very purpose.

Published July 6, 2023

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick