Prepared for Broken Peace, Part 1: Protecting Worshipping Groups from the Effects of Disputes

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“I didn’t join this church so I could fight all the time!”

That seems axiomatic doesn’t it?

People don’t form churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship for the express purpose of having conflict.  Yet disagreements between spiritual people, regardless of their religion, are inevitable.  The most sincere worshippers are going to differ with each other at times.  Still at other times, unscrupulous people who deliberately want to stir up conflict will creep into the midst of a body of otherwise peaceful adherents.  Indeed, Jesus and others have warned about “wolves among the sheep,” and people who lead religious groups for “dishonest gain.”

Is your religious group prepared for those times when the peace breaks?  Is your religious group equipped to handle internal conflict?  Do you, as a worshipping body, have procedures in place to handle a would-be predator who seeks his or her own interests, and not the interests of the body? 

Here we touch on a few key issues that a worshipping body, or other religious group, should consider to prepare itself for conflicts that will inevitably arise.

1.         Predation:  A Real Problem  

For as long as there have been religious groups, there have been people who take advantage of the weaknesses of some of them.  Predators exploit weakly organized religious bodies for personal gain.  Because synagogues, mosques, temples and churches are usually welcoming places, there is generally little or no vetting of prospective worshippers.  Most of the time such infiltration is slow and insidious.  But predator-caused damage may be severe and can lead to the disintegration of the local worshipping body. 

Strong accountability structures provide some defense against predation. These structures help organizations identify potential predators with carefully established qualifications for various leadership positions.  They provide the means of ousting such predators when they are identified.  In a well-structured organization, even the highest-ranking leaders must answer to someone.  No one should be exempt!

2.         Well Planned and Documented Organizational Structures

Few people understand the importance of well crafted, and carefully followed bylaws until their organization is immersed in conflict.  Our firm’s attorneys have witnessed many cases in which well-drafted organizational documents and the organization’s commitment to follow them would have spared the organization years of litigation and great expense. 

It is therefore crucial that the organization’s board of directors review with legal counsel the structures represented in their corporate documents, and think through various challenging scenarios, for example the following:

  • A member of the ministry staff is alleged to have engaged in serious wrongdoing.
  • A faction develops, and over time the faction gradually stirs up conflict.
  • The organization’s directors disagree evenly and sharply over an important issue, such as a building campaign.
  • An individual or group challenges the authority of the clergy person, or other designated, ordained, spiritual leader.

Though no one wants to think about these hypotheticals as possibilities, wise leaders will anticipate them and ensure the group’s governing documents provide means for the orderly handling of these matters.  Such documents will include provisions that:

  • Define reasonable means by which officers, directors, and clergy are appointed and removed.
  • Clearly identify how people become members, and how their membership may end.
  • Identify members’ voting rights, if any.
  • Give clear instructions on notice requirements.
  • Describe procedures for conflict resolution.
  • Detail conflicts of interest policies.
  • Provide accountability mechanisms for all persons in leadership, including board members, clergy, and officers.

Addressing these concerns proactively frees leaders to think carefully about their roles in the organization, and instills the confidence in others who that take their queues from these leaders.

To be Continued in Part 2...