Five Ways to Help Your Church Remain United

We've all faced conflict as pastors. It isn't easy. Nothing breaks a shepherd's heart like seeing the sheep squabble. It's your responsibility as a pastor to lead the church in a united effort. According to Jesus, the witness of your church is at stake. God can work through a lot of deficiencies in your church, but he won't work through disunity.

So as you try to keep the sheep together, here are five principles to keep in mind.

1. Maintain an attitude of acceptance. Don't major in minors. Don't insist that everybody agree on every minor detail. Some topics are disputable. Paul tells us this in Romans 14:1-23. He gives an example of food and tells readers not to let food preferences get between them and other believers. He tells believers to maintain an attitude of acceptance.

Aren't you glad we're not all alike? God loves variety. When conflict breaks out at your church, your first task is to figure out if it's over a disputable issue or an essential. If it's essential, deal with it. If it's not, then you need to lead the people involved to accept one another's differences.

We tell all of our new members in Class 101 that we strive for unity in the essentials and freedom in the non-essentials. It helps people see from the beginning that we value acceptance at our church.

2. Focus on your common purpose. What unites a church more than anything else is a common purpose. That's why we insist that everyone who joins Saddleback go through our membership class. That's where we lay out the purpose of our church. We want people to know where we are going before they get on board. Your church isn't the only game in town. More than likely there are other good, Bible-believing churches that employ different styles in your community. Tell people what your church is about so they can decide from the beginning if it's something they want to join in on. It'll save you a lot of potential disunity later.

3. Control your tongue. As a pastor, whenever anyone comes to us with gossip, we need to stop it before it starts. We also need to make sure the other leaders of the church do the same thing. The Bible makes it clear that gossip is a sin. When you listen to it, you become a partner in that sin. Ephesians 4:29 says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

What is gossip? Gossip is when you're sharing a problem or criticism with someone who is neither part of the problem or part of the solution. If they're part of the problem or solution, then it's legitimate to share it with them. Otherwise, leave it alone. We need to preach on this from the pulpit and continually remind our leadership about it. It's that important.

4. Teach your church to support the leadership. Hebrews 13:17 says, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you."

I don't know about you, but this verse scares me to death. The Bible says that one day I will stand before God and give an account for how I watched over the souls in my congregation. Pastor, that should scare all of us. That means I must live life on my knees praying for wisdom. God will hold me accountable. And he will hold you accountable as well.

With accountability comes authority. If you don't have the authority, you can't be held accountable for it. God gives pastors authority to make decisions, to lead the direction of the church. We need to teach our churches the biblical basis of our authority. We don't do this to prop ourselves up. We do it because the unity of the church is at stake. And that matters dearly to God.

5. Practice God's method of conflict resolution. Matthew 18 gives us the procedure we're to use when someone is blowing it. In the passage, Jesus says: "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV).

People often come to me as the pastor when they have a problem with another person at the church. I always ask them if they've talked to the person with whom they have a problem first. The first step of conflict resolution is to go to the other person. Don't let people go behind their back – even if they're coming to you.

Then, the Bible says, if the other person won't listen, take someone else along and confront them. If they still don't repent, you bring them before the whole church. If there's still been no repentance, you treat them like a pagan – like an unchurched person. The church still needs to love them. They can even attend the church. But you've got to make it clear that for them to be a member of the church, certain behavior is expected. Following what God's Word says can flat out change lives. I've seen it happen over and over again.

Jesus tells us that a church that sticks together is a tremendous witness to the watching world. You see, it isn't normal for people from different backgrounds and social statuses to come together as a family. But it happens every day when local churches work together to do God's work in the world. People who aren't believers see that unity. And it's attractive.

I pray that your church will have the kind of unity that honors God and draws others to the cross.

______________________________________________

Rick Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., one of America's largest and best-known churches. In addition, Rick is author of the New York Times bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church, which was named one of the 100 Christian books that changed the 20th Century. He is also founder of Pastors.com, a global Internet community for ministers. Copyright 2005 Pastors.com, Inc. Used with permission. All rights reserved.