Oakes, minister/church relations consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina who spent 22 years in the pastorate, said pastors and staff often become targets for anger when anxiety leads to a sense of insignificance and loss of control.
“When someone is attacking, they’re really verbalizing their own pain,” Oakes said. “They feel freer to vent their pain in church because ‘the pastor is supposed to love them anyway.’”
Oakes has developed a process called “Spiritual Directions” that he has utilized in 75 churches to help them work through conflict. Calls for help have increased in recent months.
When everything around them is changing, Christians often cling to an unchanging local church for security, Oakes said. So, when church leadership suggests change, the anxious member feels the last leg of security kicked out from under him.
People want to feel they have control of at least one aspect of their lives during these times of economic recession; fighting two wars; unemployment rates creeping up; the cost of getting to work getting out of hand; presidential elections; climate change; inflation; and the security of Social Security, affordable health care and timely retirement suddenly at risk, Oakes said. So, they try to exert that control in church, which often causes conflict.
To avoid conflict that can disrupt ministry, split a church, ruin local witness and hurt individuals, Oakes suggests several cautions:
• Take a long view. Don’t react to the current situation as if it’s the first time such a thing has occurred in the life of your church.
• Communicate. “Almost without fail churches with a problem have a breakdown in communication,” Oakes said. “Our church culture has created an environment in which a ‘victim’ can make a few calls and put the church in absolute chaos.”
Oakes said the right response to such a call is to ask the caller if he has talked to the person with whom he is upset. If not, Oakes urges the church leader to take it no further. “If a person doesn’t have the personal integrity or level of concern to address his issue personally, the church should ignore it,” he said. “It’s petty.”
• Respect every voice. “A lot of what feeds anxiety in church is when people feel dismissed or marginalized,” Oakes said. “It comes when they feel their viewpoint doesn’t matter and no one cares what they think.”
Oakes has seen in the Spiritual Directions process that even if people don’t get their way, they appreciate being heard and their anxiety level is diminished.
“We respect every person’s perception of their reality,” he said. “We trust the congregation, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to find the line of truth through all the perceptions and commit to that.”
Concerned about corporate pain leading to problems in church? Look for signs of low energy, bonfires of controversy, rapid turnover in leadership, inappropriate use of religious language and scapegoating, Oakes said.
“Any conflict has Bible-quoting advocates on both sides,” he said. “And they stand by their verses.”