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April 8, 2013

Women in Church Combat: A Cautionary Tale

We must move away from “engaging the enemy” and toward fighting for a common cause



Lillian was a strong, charismatic woman who founded her church’s women’s ministry. Her vibrant personality made almost anything she tried a success. She was like a beloved sergeant in the military—close to those under her care, an advocate for them with the church leaders above her, and militantly passionate about their growth and development. She had created an atmosphere in the ministry that challenged and excited women. They came just to be around her and supported anything she tried to institute in the church.

The trouble began when she was diagnosed with cancer and had to resign from her position during chemotherapy. She struggled as she saw her beloved ministry pass to other hands. Because she’d been the only head of the women’s ministry, she felt very strongly about how it should be run. She tried to communicate this clearly to church leaders, but in the end, she had no choice but to watch her position be handed to the most willing but, in her opinion, unqualified person.

Tabitha was delighted with the opportunity to take over the women’s ministry. She felt Lillian’s ideas were outdated and suited only for the older women of the church. She couldn’t wait for the opportunity to gear things toward the younger women who had never been much engaged in the activities Lillian had planned.

That’s when the battle commenced.

Instead of seeing Tabitha as a replacement sergeant for her troops, Lillian saw her as the enemy who infiltrated those under her care, intent on leading them into destruction. And instead of seeing Lillian as a wise woman with years of experience, Tabitha saw her as a sentinel who guarded her “city” so zealously that no one could go in or out, turning it into a police state.

Unfortunately, no one recognized the battle lines being drawn.

Church Battles Are a Covert Operation

Any historian will tell you that modern warfare is much more complicated because everything is covert. No longer do soldiers line up on a battlefield and shoot at each other. Instead, warfare has become a mind-bending puzzle of hide-and-seek, of gleaning intelligence, and of trying to outsmart the enemy.

The same is often true of church battles. A church battle can rage without the church at large even knowing about it. Other members of the church had no idea of the conflict between Lillian and Tabitha. Even the church leaders were largely unaware that the two women were slowly arming “troops” of their own to support their “mission.” These troops consisted of those who worked closely with them. Both women were strong leaders, so they easily convinced those around them that their ideas were right and that it was noble to fight for their cause. It wasn’t difficult for each of them to form a “band of sisters.” But everyone was in camouflage, so the larger church didn’t recognize that the troops were coalescing.

Intelligence Infiltrators Abound

Lillian saw the changes Tabitha was attempting to make and immediately wanted to know more of what was coming, so she regularly pumped information from a friend who remained on the ministry team. She gathered as much knowledge as she could so she’d know how to combat Tabitha’s ideas and restore her ministry.

Unknown to Lillian, Tabitha followed the same pattern, gleaning as much as she could from Lillian’s friends about what she was thinking. She began to see her as a threat and to plan how to disarm her. They engaged in round after round of one-upmanship.

Snipers Patrol the Perimeters

When each woman realized the other was actively collecting information about her, the retaliation began. They moved from just gathering intelligence to appointing others to fight for them. The church at large began to catch rumors of trouble when those closest to the two women began to target one another and the fighting spread. Soon the church leaders found both women and men coming to them with complaints of having been wounded in the direct line of fire or by shrapnel flying in all directions from a “bullet” going wild.

Watch Out for the Weapons of Mass Destruction

It wasn’t long before church leaders recognized that the violence was escalating and soon would be an all-out war. The church increasingly defended one side or the other, and the women’s ministry ceased to function normally as everyone battened down the hatches for the coming battle. Both Lillian and Tabitha began moving from just making their point of view known, to wanting to win at all costs. And if that meant the annihilation of the other, so be it.

Call a Peace Conference

So what hope is there when a church conflict has reached this point? Of course, the best thing would have been if those closest to the two women had recognized the first glimmer of conflict and set up negotiations to avoid all-out war. But the trouble with strong leaders is that they often don’t have anyone to keep them in check. And in a church, the problem can be even worse, because each person may feel as if God is on her side—and those who follow them begin to feel that going against them is like going against the Almighty. But a wise leader or follower will realize that everyone needs checks and balances—and correction. So if you are following someone who is drawing battle lines, be proactive enough to step in and confront that person so violence doesn’t escalate. You will find plenty of Scripture to support your efforts. “Blessed are the peacemakers” has never been so true as in church conflict.

But what if the battle has commenced to the point of annihilation? Then the destruction is going to be much greater. Just as in a real war, if it’s reached that point, the fallout will be immense. You will have to do the painstaking work of rebuilding and instituting peace initiatives to bring healing and renewal to your church. You will be wise to follow the example of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to allow both sides to air their grievances and to find ways to connect and move forward together. Look for further help in resources such as Managing Conflict Well from BuildingChurchLeaders.com.

After the excruciating work of rebuilding a ministry is done, make your new emphasis the fact that you are a team of soldiers laboring for a kingdom that far outweighs individual ideas of what ministry should be. And if we don’t work together for that common cause, the true Enemy will have the upper hand. Such a focus will redefine what women in church combat should really be fighting for.

JoHannah Reardon has had experience as a women’s ministry director, a pastor’s wife, and a longtime church leader. She blogs at johannahreardon.com and is the author of seven fictional books and two devotional guides.

Related Tags: Conflict; Peace; Reconciliation; Relationships

Comments

It is sad that I have seen and experienced this story line play out far too often in church. Unfortunately for women, it seems to boil down to insecurity. For men, the breaking point is oftentimes their ego. Either way, the problem is sin, our selfishness and self righteousness and our unwillingness to think of the needs of others above ourselves. Also, this is the result of a poor theology of God. Our Father owns all things and that means there is enough room for everyone to thrive, really there is. We must believe that so we can live as our authentic selves, allow others to do the same, and maintain the spirit of unity and the bond of peace.

It's the job of the pastor to recognize conflict and diffuse it. Too often, though, pastors shy away from doing their part in negotiating peace.

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