The Anatomy of a Church Split

Growing up as a kid in Southern California, I was scared to death of earthquakes. Come to think of it, I'm still not very fond of them. We would do the drills in school - I called them the "run and hide" drills, but the teachers had a different plan. They wanted us to get under our desks and put our hands over our heads. Each time I did that I wondered what possible good was the hands over my head thing? Was that going to stop the ceiling from smashing me like a bug? I was fortunate all those years. We had some aftershocks that broke windows and shook things off shelves, but nothing major. Nonetheless, I remember the news, TV, and movies showing real footage of the panic and chaos of earthquakes. The most memorable picture was the street splitting in two, swallowing up everything and everyone...and there was nothing that could be done - or it seemed that way.

That's what a church split can feel like. The church splits down the middle - opening up and swallowing everyone who didn't rush to get on one side or the other. My desire in this article is to share some general thoughts and preventative measures about a church split. And in the next edition, I'll talk about surviving a church split.

Let's jump in with some general thoughts.

* Not all splits are bad.

Don't misunderstand me, I'm not for church splits. But a split is not necessarily a bad thing. God can bring good out of chaos. He can redeem what we mess up.

One way to look at a church split is a poorly handled church-planting project. There is a fine line between a church split and a church plant in terms of outcome. Obviously, no one would recommend the ugliness of a church split in order to plant a church. However, I have seen traditional churches so deeply stuck in a rut, that a split is the only way they would ever break loose from their plateaued comfort zone and do something of reproductive value. The result, even though not done in the right way, could be a new church or a revitalized old church.

If you are part of a denomination, there is a good chance that part of your history and heritage contains a "split" initiated by godly people who simply had a different idea of how things should be done. Again, I am not supporting a church split, so don't write me on that note, I just want to say that it can be used for good.

Ok, let's get back on track...

* The catalysts behind church splits.

Church splits are almost always connected to issues of leadership, relationship, and vision - not Bible and theology. Churches tend to spiritualize the issues and start quoting verses, but when you look under the covers it's always about things such as: the direction of the church, how the church is being run, and, if you really want the underbelly of it all, who is upset with who. In smaller churches, it's often about power and who's in charge. In larger churches, it's often about money and how it should be spent, or the long-range direction for the future.

If the primary leadership is weak and the direction of the church is unclear, pressure will begin to build. In fairness to those who may be seen as troublemakers (and maybe they are), if there is a void in leadership someone will step up into the gap. Bank on it. And that someone may have different views about "how we should run this place." The stronger the surrounding leaders, the faster the pressure will build. If the church is in a comfort zone, and perhaps in a plateau, this pressure can be sustained for quite some time. But if there is any life in the general church leadership, the pressure will soon build to a point where something is going to crack. The church may not open up and swallow people whole, but trouble is brewing.

Relationships that have soured and gone south are the next largest cause of church splits (and not wholly disconnected from the leadership/vision issue). Conflict is a normal part of church life, but unresolved conflict is neither healthy nor godly. Leaders cause motion and motion causes friction. Friction that causes the church to move forward is healthy. Unresolved friction turns to conflict and unresolved conflict will begin to produce church splitting pressure. In many scenarios, this never reaches earthquake status. This more commonly plays itself out in unhappy people leaving just a few at a time. But don't fool yourself. What is the difference if 150 people leave over the course of 18 months or all at once? One is a slow leak and the other is headline news, but both stories leave you with 150 less people and emotional turmoil.

In the case of the slow leak, the problem continues, underground, while the pressure builds. Eventually, enough people will leave to cause a financial crisis (although it's not the real issue) and then something may be done. In the more dramatic scenario, the chaos is greater but the solution comes sooner.

Churches will always have problems. There is no such thing as a perfect problem free church if it has more than one person in it. So don't become paranoid and see a "split a-comin'" every week. But do keep your leadership antennas up and discerning about unhealthy and/or prolonged problems.

* Preventing a church split

There are a number of ways to help prevent a church split. Let me share with you the top five preventative measures.

1. Clear vision.

The vision/mission of the church must be clear and deeply embedded into the fabric of congregation.

2. Strong and godly leadership.

There is a difference between a strong leader and a bully. Strong leaders are godly, and can be tough-minded when necessary; bullies just want their way.

3. Unity among the body.

A unified body comes from a spiritual sense of community and shared journey. This is obviously connected to the vision, but in a real sense, this is where the people buy into the vision at a grassroots level. It's one thing for the leader(s) to cast the vision, it's another thing for the people to embrace it together at a heart level.

4. Solid relationships.

I have already mentioned grace and forgiveness. They are worth mentioning again. These two components are the backbone of healthy church relationships. With some risk of writing yet another "list," let me add honesty, trust and acceptance into the mix. These five relational components will serve you and your church well.

5. Prayer.

Don't need to preach at 'cha here! May I just say one thing? You cannot pray too much!

* The greatest proactive measure to prevent a church split.

I believe that God never intended for any living thing to continue to grow forever. I first discovered this powerful truth while reading Christian Schwartz' book Natural Church Development. First, we have no record in all of Christian history of any church that never stopped growing. It's a law of nature. Nothing God created was designed to grow forever. Think with me about this idea. There is no tree on this planet that never stopped growing. If that wasn't true, we'd have trees that are miles high. There is no person who, in all his or her life, continually grew larger! (Although I've seen some basketball players that make me wonder!) There are no animals that never stopped growing. Perpetual growth was not what God had in mind.

Reproduction, however, is what God had in mind for all living things. Whether it is an oak tree, or a human being, or an elephant, they were all designed to reproduce their own kind. A church is a living organism and no different in design.

The point is not to put some kind of lid on your church growth, but instead focus on how God wants you to multiply your ministry. The most common form of multiplication is church planting, and I still think it's one of the best ways. But there are others, from the newest experiments in satellite-linked churches, to teaching churches, to adopting a struggling church and helping a turnaround take place.

Ask God what He wants you and your church to do. And don't make the mistake of thinking you have to be big to begin. It's amazing what God can do in these scenarios. People who may be seen as a problem in your church can become pioneers of new and fresh works.


This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter 'The Pastor's Coach' available at