How to Recover from the Heartbreak of a Church Split

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When a church splits, it’s ugly and painful – no one comes out a winner.

When a church splits, it’s ugly and painful – no one comes out a winner.

I have spoken to many heartbroken pastors who have gone through this experience. I’ve also heard the stories of wounded believers who no longer go to church because of the pain of a church split. It happens way too often.

When I say, “church split” – I’m talking about a large group of people, maybe 20% or more, of a church congregation joining together to leave the church they are currently attending because of a disagreement of some kind.

In the 28 years of being pastor at Oasis Church, we have never had a church split. (We’ve had a few people ‘split’ from time to time, and though hurtful to others, it has usually ended up being a good thing.) I have, however, experienced a couple of leaders over the years who took some of their friends to start a ministry or church, and that has been difficult enough. I don’t know of a pastor who has not gone through the painful experience of a group of people leaving their church in some negative way.

But a ‘church split’ is a whole other experience.

When I was a young boy in Greenville, SC, my dad was a pastor of a small Baptist Church. When I was about 8 or 9 years old, one Sunday morning my dad started to address the congregation about some rumors and gossip that had been going around in our church. Suddenly, a woman yelled out, “They are NOT lies – YOU are lying!”

Immediately, things escalated into shouting and arguing. I was shocked. I had never seen anything like this before. People I used to see at church all the time, people I thought loved Jesus, loved me and loved my dad, were yelling out both accusations and claims of support. The last week, they were singing hymns and praying for the lost, and this week, they were in attack mode.

People got up and left the service. There was a scuffle. A couple of deacons got in an argument that ended with them going outside “to finish this – man to man.” Some people talked about how much they loved my dad and supported him, and others said they had “had enough.” I don’t really know what the real issues were in that situation but it was a shocking outburst.

After a few moments, my mom said to me and my brother and sister, “We are leaving. Let’s go home, now.” Leave? This was one of those exciting moments I’d ever seen in church. I didn’t want to leave now. 

I don’t remember a lot of Sunday services as a child, but I’ll remember that one forever.

What I didn’t know as a little boy was that some people were going to leave church and never return.

To any church…

Ever.

Some people were going to lose their faith in God, in church, and in the whole “Christian thing.” 

In another situation, when I was in my 20s, a friend of mine who was a pastor told me his church congregation was going to vote whether to keep him as pastor or not after the main service on the following Sunday. I went to support and pray for him. The issue in this situation was that he had experienced the “charismatic gifts of the Spirit,” and some of the church elders and members didn’t like it. 

This was another one of those awkward situations. There was a meeting in the sanctuary after service, and there was arguing and accusations. They voted the pastor out of the church. Some people came to him crying and saying how much they loved him and were sorry this had happened. Other people were glad things went their way. Some people left the church, and the pastor moved out of the city to work as an associate pastor with another church.

It’s like a bad divorce.

Have you been through something like that?

Philip Wagner Philip Wagner is Lead Pastor of Oasis Church in Los Angeles and founder of Generositywater.org. Oasis is an innovative and racially diverse church, largely comprised of people in their 20’s & 30’s. Oasis is known for its local and global outreach to the impoverished; especially orphans and widows, and funding clean water projects. Philip and his wife, Holly, started Oasis in 1984, in Beverly Hills with10 people. Today they’ve grown to 3000+ members.

More from Philip Wagner or visit Philip at http://www.philipwagner.com/blog/

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  • The Healed Pastor

    This was very helpful for this do happen to the body of Christ for it happen to our church. It was suprising but God had given us a warning. Yes about 30% left with the one they liked. Yes there were hurtful things that was said about the Pastor & wife. It seemed as though the enemy that we warned & preached about,that we had forgotten that he was the author of confusion & evil works. Alot of times we becomes the instruments of the enemy if we are not careful & watchful ! Differances will always be but God desire for us as His people to handle our church hurt & pain according to His way,wisdom & His word. We learned even from the mistakes we made during this painful experience. Now we are grateful in spite of. We learned so much. The Lord told us to strengthen those who remain. That we did. It brought us closer & God blessed us regardless of what was said against us. My advice: DON’T FIGHT THE BATTLE,ALLOW GOD TO FIGHT ON YOUR BEHALF. This was one of the greatest lesson we learned, to hold our peace! Another one,walk in the LOVE of Christ for it is His love that brings true healing. Sad to say,the ones who left did have many of the ones to “split” from the ones they liked. Sadly to say some even sploit back into sin,families also splited. We must see that if we don’t do things by God’s spirit & timing it causes greater harm.
    The Healed Pastor

  • Rev.Crisp

    what do you do when you see a split coming, other than give it over to God? He is the author and finisher of our faith; is there anything we can do to stop a split?

  • Jo B

    My church split after 17 years. It’s been almost 2 years since then. My question is How do you move on? You get so used to a lifestyle with your home church, and you’ve recovered from the split; how do you move on and move forward?

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