Several times over the course of our ministry, my husband and I have witnessed church members argue or gossip about church issues in front of an open classroom door. Those times have left marks on our hearts like unwanted tattoos, for we know how such talk can leave even greater destruction in the spiritual future of the children who overhear the harsh, ugly talk.
Church conflict is never pleasant for anyone. In the case of when a minister is forced to leave, the conflict can set a church back for decades. I know more than a handful of people who have a minimal faith in Christ, but steer clear of associating with a church because they observed upheaval in their childhood church at an impressionable age.
Church conflict, while destructive and inevitable because church members are still sinful human beings learning how to set their minds on things above, can be minimized if a congregation is willing to follow the pattern of the Scriptures. When church conflict occurs, the church must be united on at least this important front - to protect the faith of the children. Here's how you can do it:
1. Shield the children from gossip and disagreements. So many times, I've seen adults talk about church problems in front of a classroom of children as if the children are deaf. Other times, I've heard volunteers explode in anger at each other in the middle of a class session. Children hear and understand more than we think. Our negative talk about people they hold as role models infuses their spirits with negative emotions they are ill equipped to handle. They may then lash out at those adults, not even understanding why.
Absolutely avoid talking about church problems in front of children. if someone does start to gossip or vent, have the courage to say, “Please don’t talk about this in front of the children.” According to Jesus’ directives in Matthew 18:15-17, church conflict should be kept as self contained as possible. It is more essential to secure the long-term faith of your children than to keep the short term peace with another adult by remaining silent or getting sucked into a destructive conversation.
2. Pray for discernment and wisdom. If the children do hear or do need to know that a volunteer or minister is leaving, pray to know what to say, how much to say, and for discernment of how the church conflict is affecting your child. God will give you wisdom (James 1:5,6).
3. Be honest if the conflict blows into public knowledge or your children are directly impacted. When my husband was summarily dismissed from one congregation, our girls couldn’t help overhearing the angry hurt voices of the over twenty people who streamed through our house during the next week. We decided it was better for them to hear the truth from us rather than a one-sided story from others. We also coached them on how to handle comments from schoolmates and church people they encountered around town.
Honesty, however, is giving a full picture, the positive as well as the negative. In each conversation, we tried to leave the girls with feelings of compassion for others, hope for the church and faith in our future. At your child’s level, share how you see God working through the conflict. My girls were awed when we told them an e-mail listserv representing another denomination was praying for our family.
4. Be objective. I struggled against spewing my own feelings in front of my daughters. While I needed to be open about the situation, I realized I had to distinguish between the facts and my opinions. I also needed to follow Paul’s advice not to allow “unwholesome talk” to come out of my mouth, but only what would build others up (Ephesians 4:29). That included encouraging my children and building others up in their sight. I learned through Colossians 4:6 to speak graciously about the people who had hurt us.
5. Use the conflict to teach spiritual truths. This is a prime opportunity to teach children about forgiveness, anger management, faithfulness to God no matter what the cost, and about spiritual warfare.
Several days after the dismissal from our church, my older daughter flared at the situation. “How could the church leaders do this to us?” I told her about the concept of spiritual warfare found in Ephesians 6:11. “Satan does not want the church to succeed and grow. He will do anything he can to thwart growth and destroy congregations. It’s our job, through Christ, to not let him get the best of us.” I knew my words had struck home when, several hours later, she designed a computer-generated graphic of Ephesians 6:11 and quietly hung it on the refrigerator. Months later, when she overheard two woman arguing before a church meeting, she whispered to me, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood . . .”
How serious is this? Church upheaval, with a few misguided conversations, can shipwreck a lifetime of teaching. As children's ministry workers, we're not merely teaching bible stories to our children. We're not just teaching ethical standards. We are teaching them about the transformational power of Jesus Christ to save and change lives. We teach by verbally sharing that message and by living it.
Think of a heat t-shirt transfer. Just as the heat of the iron softens the glue and makes the transfer adhere to the fabric, the trials of church conflict offer you the opportunity to make the message of the gospel stick to the spirits of the children you teach. Make it real, make it objective, share your confidence that in spite of all, God is over all.