For over thirty years I have been professionally and personally connected to the local church. I have served as a pastor, church consultant, author, seminary dean, and church resource provider. The most painful moments of my tenure have been those occasions where church dissension is great, and where church splits take place.
There is little good that comes from church splits. The residual pain is lasting and the negative community impact is enduring. After reflecting on church splits over my thirty-year tenure, and after conducting an informal Twitter poll, I have nine major thoughts I would like to share with you in this article.
- A church that has split is likely to die. Certainly, many of the congregations will hang on tenaciously. But over the course of a few or many years, the cancer of the split eats away at the health of a church body. I have conducted many church “autopsies.” The beginning of the death of these churches often took place at the point of the split.
- The negative community impact of a church split is great and enduring. I have done interviews of community members where a church that split is located. The merchants and residents often say, “Oh that’s the church that fought all the time until it split.”
- The majority of church splits focus on the pastor. I have seen some church splits where the pastor is clearly the problem. I have seen others where the pastor is the convenient and most visible scapegoat. By the way, pastors who have been through church splits are scarred for the rest of their ministries.
- Church splits typically originate from power groups in the church. The power group may be a formal body, such as deacons or elders. Or they could be an informal group that still wields great power in the church.
- Some church members have actually been a part of several church splits. In other words, they have sown the seeds of dissension in different congregations where they have been members. Be cautious about accepting new members who are not vetted with their former church. Problem church members tend to recycle.
- Church splits are typically preceded by inactive church members becoming active members. It is amazing to attend a church business meeting or conference where divisive issues are discussed. Inactive members come out of the woodwork.
- Church splits are more likely to occur in “country club” churches. A country club church is a metaphor for a church where many of the members have a sense of entitlement instead of an attitude of service. They pay their “dues” to get their way. And if they don’t get their way on every issue, even minor issues, they may sow the seeds of dissension that lead to a church split.
- Some churches still split over doctrinal issues. These types of church splits are not as common as other splits, but they still take place. It was more common in mainline churches in the past, but it is becoming more frequent in some evangelical churches today.
- Some churches still split over financial issues. These issues include disagreements over budget expenditures, mission expenditures, incurring of debt, facility expenditures, and building programs.
There are no winners in church splits. Those who leave typically leave hurt and angry. Those who stay become a part of a church that usually begins a steady, if not steep, rate of decline. And the reputation of the church in the community is damaged greatly—sometimes permanently.
Let me hear your thoughts on this difficult issue.