Congregational Leadership: A Ministry of Reconciliation

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

— 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 ESV

There is a TV commercial playing these days in which an insurance company advertises, “We know a few things because we’ve seen a few things.” After several years working with pastors and congregational leaders, Bishop Bradosky and I can say, “We know a few things because we’ve seen a few things.”

One of the things we’ve “seen” and come to acknowledge is that often congregational leaders (pastors and lay leaders) have little experience addressing disagreements, tension and conflict. Without this experience and knowledge, actions are undertaken that actually increase the tension and heighten the conflict. Some of these actions are holding “secret meetings,” attempting to keep the pastor, other leaders or the congregation “in the dark” for fear of a negative reaction, and trying to force council members or pastor out of office rather than dealing with the situation in a positive way.

It is all too common for congregational leaders (again, pastors and lay leaders) to approach and deal with tension and conflict from the perspective of power and authoritarian strategies, rather than Christ-like love and straightforward communication. Unfortunately, the ways of the world are often the “fall-back” position of leaders in the church. When we don’t know how to handle disagreements, we try what we learned in the secular world. We ignore the ministry we have been given by God — the ministry of reconciliation!

In every instance of tension, disagreement and conflict in the church, the overarching goal must be to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation. The goal is never to “get one’s own way” or to “push one’s own personal agenda.” Sadly, this often seems to be the goal. Does the congregation belong to any one individual? Can any one individual or small group of individuals dictate strategy, direction or decisions of the congregation as a whole?

Some members of the church claim authority or decision-making power based on the fact that they are charter members or “big givers” in the congregation. Pastors sometimes claim such power and authority based on their office as pastor, failing to work together with other leaders for the good of the congregation as a whole. Such attitudes hinder open and honest communication, finally leading away from a ministry of reconciliation.

In the passage above, St. Paul was writing to the Corinthian congregation where there was ongoing, significant conflict. It appears individuals and groups of individuals were involved, with some writing Paul to ask for assistance, advice and counsel.

The entire “Corinthian correspondence” reflects the ongoing conversation between the apostle and the troubled congregation. In Chapter 5, Paul reminds the divided parties that as God reconciled the world to himself, through Christ, we have been given a “ministry of reconciliation.” In all things, in every way, we are to work for reconciliation — in the world, in our homes and families and, yes, in the church!

Paul speaks directly to those who are at odds in the church in Corinth, saying, “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” In the midst of congregational conflict, Paul is saying that they are to be reconciled to God, as they are working toward reconciliation with each other.

And what does this ministry of reconciliation look like in the local congregation? Jesus describes this himself in Matthew 18, where he teaches a specific strategy for dealing with conflict between believers. At the same time, our Lord provides us with godly principles that offer faithful, fruitful, Christ-like ways of handling issues, concerns and difficulties within the community of faith. In a real sense, Jesus is describing the “ministry of reconciliation” which is to be the hallmark of the Body of Christ. Here are principles presented by Jesus:

1. Don’t globalize conflicts or disagreements. Deal with such situations “one on one” if possible. Don’t involve others in personal conflicts.

2. If one-on-one conversation doesn’t bear fruit, go to church leaders and the congregation — always with the goal of reconciliation.

3. Have conversation openly and honestly with all involved parties — this is the only way to resolve conflicts and issues. Refuse to participate in “secret meetings” aimed at complaining about persons or situations. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. … Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:11, 15-16).

4. Be clear about shared responsibility and shared decision-making. Council and pastor together comprise the congregational “leadership team.” They are called to work together for the good of the congregation as a whole. No one person may usurp the authority of the whole. Similarly, the congregation has certain shared responsibilities. No person or group of people may usurp the responsibilities of the congregation.

5. Bear in mind that the goal within the congregation is always reconciliation. Repentance, forgiveness, and speaking the truth in love are all aimed at reconciliation.

We are called to be ambassadors for Christ — in every thought, word and action. What we say and do are to be shared in the light of Christ’s own presence, not in darkness or shadow. May our congregations be communities of faithful disciples where leaders model straightforward, direct, loving communication aimed at reconciliation!

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