Leaders are change agents, and change causes conflict. Change often comes through a visioning process. Receiving, developing, casting and implementing a vision stresses the system. Systems like homeostasis. Some visioning experts say that 20% of church members will often oppose a vision. Leaders do well to heed Jesus’ warnings in Luke 14 about the cost of discipleship: “For which of you intending to build a tower [insert ‘sanctuary, education building, etc.’] does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?” (v. 23) “Or what king [insert ‘pastor’], going out to wage war against another king [insert ‘change the worship style, leadership structure, etc.’] will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?”(v. 31)
Change costs time, money and discernment. And it certainly costs conflict for the congregation and the leader/change agent. This article focuses on the cost of personal conflict that change brings to the change agent.
Jesus experienced the pain of leading change. He started his public ministry by vision-casting in Nazareth from the scroll of Isaiah about the poor, captives, blind and oppressed being the focus of his Kingdom ministry. His neighbors were amazed at his gracious words (Luke 4:22). But when he added the 2 Kings story of Elisha healing Naaman, the Syrian leper, clarifying that this Kingdom vision was bigger than Israel, his neighbors tried to throw him off a cliff. During his short ministry religious authorities considered him in league with the devil. His family came to fetch him back home. Samaritans and Gadarenes did not want him around. Ultimately, resistance to him forged an unholy and unprecedented alliance among adversaries – Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans and a mob – to kill him.
The changes that come from visionary leadership indeed create conflict. Count the cost! Be prepared! Have a plan for self-care as well as congregational alignment! The best leaders in the Bible certainly experienced change, conflict and danger from the visions they received and cast. Before Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush (Exodus 3) God was not an acknowledged part of his life. But on Horeb an avalanche of God fell from the “mountain of God” into Moses’ life: a talking angel of God, the fire of God in the bush and the voice of God calling him by name. God revealed God’s history, name and compassion. God promised land and provisions. God revealed God’s self. Up until then Moses’ story was all about Moses. After that vison it was all about God and God’s people.
Talk about change! The shepherd became a deliverer. The hiding murderer became a leading rescuer. Vision changed Moses’ life! And vision changed human history. The Israelite slaves would possess the Promised Land. The greatest act of the Old Testament, the Exodus, began with this vision.
But look at the personal conflict this vision brought to Moses. He had to face his stuttering, his criminal record, his fears. He had to return and face Pharaoh ten times. His life was constantly in danger. Pharaoh and his army pinned them to the sea. The Israelites were hungry, thirsty, vulnerable, irritable, idolatrous and dismissive of his leadership. And how they “murmured.” Moses faced a lot more than 20% of the Israelites being “non-aligned” to the vision! But the people and the land were worth the price.
Peter had the same experience after he received the vision on Simon the Tanner’s rooftop in Jaffa (Acts 10). For his entire life, Peter had only ordered off the menu in Leviticus 11: no pork barbecue or fried shrimp. But this vision changed all that and more. A new way was opened from heaven. It showed that the church was not to make the Body of Christ exclusively Hebrew.
Peter was already staying with a ritually unclean Hebrew tanner, but immediately after this vision he moved into a much bigger world. Peter welcomed and housed the Gentile messengers from Cornelius, the centurion. Then he traveled to Caesarea and shared the gospel with Cornelius and other Gentiles. They received the Holy Spirit and were baptized. Peter stayed with them and ate with them several days.
But this change also brought Peter significant conflict. When he returned to Jerusalem the circumcised believers criticized him (Acts 11:2). After sharing his story, the critics were silenced, at least for the time being. These anti-change “Judaizers” remained a major source of conflict for both Peter and Paul. A group of them came from Jerusalem to Paul and Barnabas’ home church at Antioch and caused no small dissension and debate (Acts 15:2). This led to the watershed “Jerusalem Conference” (Acts 15) in which, the issue was supposedly finally settled: you did not have to become kosher to become a Christian. But critics “come early and stay late.” While Peter was with Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, some Judaizers arrived and Peter as well as Barnabas withdrew from table fellowship with the Gentile believers (Galatians 2). Paul rebuked them. It is unclear whether this compromise by Peter preceded the Jerusalem Conference. Regardless, it shows how hard it is for the best of visionary leaders to withstand the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
I bare in my body the scars of those slings and arrows. I pastored five congregations over forty-two years. We built, renovated and expanded many “towers” and waged many “wars.” I experienced the truth of Jesus’ words: you must be prepared for the often painful cost of receiving, developing, casting and implementing a vision! Here are a few suggestions:
- Know that you are in good company when the slings and arrows come at you. Read the Bible. The best visionary biblical leaders experienced significant personal pain because of the conflict their visions produced. The visioning cliché is true: “Resources follow vision.” We need to count the cost and make another visioning truism equally cliché: “Conflict follows vision.”
- Take it to the Lord in prayer. That sounds pretty cliched as well, but my devotional life has been critically important to dealing with personal conflict. It is a little embarrassing to read in my prayer journals how often I wrestled with the angels over church conflict. But I survived because of those prayers. Psalm 62:1 has been a favorite verse in my journals: For God alone my soul waits in silence; from God comes my salvation.
- Have a support system: A spouse or close friend; a tenured, wise pastor or coach; a pastors’ support group; trustworthy key lay leaders; the Center for Healthy Churches – these were key supports for me. I would have never made it without them.
Conflict is part of the price a leader pays for change. Other parts of the price are finding the support you need through the Bible, prayer and others. Change is costly, but it is worth the cost!