3 Church Leadership Pitfalls That Can Lead To A Split


I recently saw a production of the play, “The Christians." The play’s setting is a megachurch auditorium and follows the journey of a Senior Pastor who makes a theological shift and a subsequently causes a church split. The set was complete with colored carpet, stained glass windows, and a choir loft. In the audience, my view of the stage looked eerily similar to a church I visited growing up.

When the main character said, “Let’s pray,” I caught myself starting to bow my head in response. It truly felt like I was at church. As the story progressed, it began to feel even more uncomfortably real, but not for the same reasons. The story didn’t explore any theological issues, but rather how the relationships within the church were affected when there was turmoil, a church split, and eventual leadership expulsion. 

As I watched, I thought of all the churches and church leaders who have experience this kind of turmoil, pain, and brokenness firsthand. What stood out to me most, though, was the portrayal of these 3 specific pitfalls every church leader should look out for when experiencing change and conflict in their church.

Pitfall 1: Poor Change Management

“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” Proverbs 15:22

In the play, it was revealed that the pastor let no one in on his plan to announce his theological shift. He didn’t consult his elders, leaders, or wife in his decision. I think many church leaders find themselves at a loss when they announce a new vision, plan, or campaign and receive a less-than-gracious response. When there’s pushback to change, we need to ask ourselves, “Did I allow enough input along the way?”

There are several vital steps to implementing change. In John Kotter’s timeless work, “Leading Change,” he writes that one of the many reasons change initiatives in companies fail is because a lack of "buy in” from the staff. If only one individual is spearheading change without a lot of others on board, it will eventually fizzle out or cause conflict. There must be vision buy-in.

Kotter suggests that the starting place for all major change needs to be at the basic level of creating understanding for the need for the change. This means casting vision and receiving input. The pastor character in the play failed to begin with the basic premise that there was even a need for a change, and he caught everyone off guard, thus starting the downward spiral.

Pitfall 2: Saving Face over Having Hard Conversations

We can all agree that healthy conflict on a church staff is good. It allows room for honesty, pushback, real input, forgiveness, and/or healing. Yet we often see churches avoiding hard conversations. This pitfall takes many forms, from allowing toxic leaders to continue, to gossip, to bad staff culture, to discord on all levels of leadership. In "The Christians," the Senior Pastor wasn't accountable to anyone, and the result was a lack of honest pushback and a lack of tough, effective conversations.

Pitfall 3: Lack of Safety Nets 

In the play, by the time the church decided to fire the pastor, the church was already in shambles, people had left, and they couldn’t afford their building any longer. Ouch. Too familiar.

Failure often occurs from a failure to plan.Tweet: Failure often occurs from a failure to plan. https://bit.ly/2a6TO57 via @VanderbloemenSG

The church didn’t have a contingency plan in place if something happened to the Senior Pastor (or in this case, if they went off the deep end). Some churches have succession plans if the pastor leaves or passes away, but what would your church do if your pastor shifted dramatically and suddenly in theology and teacing? Succession and emergency planning is good for all churches, no matter the size of church.

It is clear in the story that the pastor did not have people in his life that balanced his thoughts or his power as a leader, whether that be a spouse, a mentor, elders, and/or a church board. Again, it goes back to poor planning or a lack of someone willing to ask: "What if, and how do we prepare?"

The play was an honest, raw, and humbling view of when a church seemingly breaks down because of ignored areas of leadership and false places of trust. Whether or not you have seen firsthand the devastation of a church leadership breakdown, we can all benefit from self-examination and ensuring our house is in order.

If you’d like to learn more about the play, I very much enjoyed this article by Alissa Wilkinson from Christianity Today.