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Leadership controversy with character and grace.
Spring 1998


Character Forged from Conflict

Someone has said, "Without conflict, there would be no New Testament." Out of controversy arose revelation from God.

And without conflict, where would most denominations be?

Take the Southern Baptist Convention, whose resolution last year to boycott Disney was their most recent cause of conflict.

A Southern Baptist, Jim Henry, pastor of First Baptist Church of Orlando, was put in a particular dilemma by the resolution: his church is a five-minute ride from Walt Disney World. A recent past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Henry explains, "Hundreds of people in our church are employed there, so the whole Orlando community was watching me." The Sunday after the resolution passed, Henry had to address the issue from the pulpit.

From racism in the sixties to boycotts in the nineties, Jim Henry has gone through conflict and emerged still passionate about church ministry. Leadership editors David Goetz and Ed Rowell called on Henry to find out how conflict has forged his character.

Recently you were in the center of conflict over the decision to boycott Disney. How did you respond?

Jim Henry: I couldn't come home from the Convention and act like it didn't happen—though I wish I could have taken a sabbatical. (Laughter) I knew I was going to come to loggerheads with a lot of my brothers and sisters.
I prayed about it. When I addressed the issue the Sunday after the resolution passed, I gathered all of the reasons of both sides and tried to present them fairly, because people were asking, "What do we do? How do we respond?" I presented the biblical perspective, as I saw it, and said, "Here's where I'm standing. But you're going to have to decide for yourselves."

What motivates you to take a stand in a potentially explosive situation?

I always engage conflict when the health of the church is threatened. As a pastor, I must protect the sheep.
I've done that a few times in public, as I did following the Disney resolution. My wife calls them my "white papers"—I write what I feel the issues are and then bring my thoughts to the people: "Folks, this morning I'm going to talk to you before I preach to you. This issue has come up, and here's the way I see it."

Why do you choose "white papers" rather than some other approach to the conflict?

I have to take time to think through the issue, then walk people step by step through how I came to my point of view.
Earlier in my ministry, people were better listeners. Today, people are used to sound bites, condensed versions, rapid-fire images. Few people are trained in critical thinking or know how to think through the issue in its context. People feel an emotion and boom!—they form an opinion.
The white papers slow things down and make sure that positions are thought through. Plus, when I present my white papers, what I actually said is captured in print and then on tape.

When did you first encounter conflict in ministry?

Around the time James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, I was commuting back and forth to New Orleans to seminary and preaching at a small church on the weekends.
At a business meeting, with just a handful of people present, a friend made a motion that the church fire me. According to parliamentary procedure, as moderator, I had to call for a second to the motion. So I did: "Is there a second to fire me?"

You called for a second to the motion to fire you?

No one seconded the motion. There was silence.
My wife was keeping the nursery. I walked in after the meeting and burst into tears. She said, "What's wrong?"
Instead of saying "he," I said, "They were all voting to fire me as pastor."
She said, "What did you do?"
"I told them that next Saturday I am going to visit every home and ask for their vote. On Sunday, I'll report to the church. If the majority say no, I'll resign and won't split the church."
My wife said, "Let's just go home. Tell this church to forget it." She was furious.
I said, "I can't do that. We'll go home, but I'll come back next weekend."
We agonized about it all week. Wednesday night a deacon called me. "Pastor, we had a meeting at church tonight. You're still our pastor. Just come see me before you go visiting Saturday."
Later that week, he told me that the man who had raised the motion to fire me had recruited people to remove me in a special business meeting—before I could do my door-to-door survey. My critic said I was a "nigger lover"; he patched together pieces of my sermons that made me look like I was out to turn our church into a black church.
Some deacons heard what he was planning, and they went to see people, saying, "Please, let's wait and hear what our pastor says." But Wednesday came, and quite a crowd came ready to vote.
Two or three godly deacons said, "The Baptist church has always believed that the pulpit is a free place where you can preach the Word of God as you see it. Our forefathers died for this right. Our pastor preaches the Bible. We move to stand with our pastor as a man who preaches the Word of God."
That was a brilliant parliamentary move. The church voted yes.

What runs through your mind when you consider entering a conflict?

That I'll get hateful letters, volatile phone calls, that some will leave the church. I've got to be geared up mentally and spiritually to accept that. Whatever stance I take, I will be misunderstood.

How do you decide when you have to enter a conflict?

I ask myself questions, such as:

  1. Who else could handle this?
  2. Does my information come from trusted sources?
  3. Is there Scripture that addresses this situation?
  4. Whom will this impact?
  5. Is it right—for me? For our church?

Even after asking all these questions, I can't say I'm always sure. But I'm learning to discern the prodding of the Holy Spirit.

When have you acted on one of those proddings?

The church had a Christian school that went through eighth grade. We had to make a crucial decision about starting a high school. That cost money and meant a commitment to parents that we'd have this school for the next four years.
Before a critical meeting, the headmaster asked me to attend. Some people didn't think we ought to have the school; others thought it was our greatest ministry. There was a lot at risk. I prayed, Lord, I don't know what we should do. Show me.

Conflict has the marvelous effect of keeping me from becoming proud.

I came, sat, and listened. The crowd was divided. After listening to everyone, I knew the only person who could relieve the uncertainty was the pastor. I stood and said, "I've listened to and appreciated all the voices we've heard. It seems to me that we should go ahead, follow through, and have a high school."
That meeting brought closure. Right or wrong, a decision had been made. Some people didn't like it, but most rallied around it.

Have you ever waited too long to step into a controversy?

I don't know if you ever really know if it is too late or too soon.
I began to hear that a staff member had problems in his marriage. I trusted others to check it out, and they felt the situation was being handled. But it was never resolved. In retrospect, if I'd stepped in sooner, I think we could have handled the situation better than we did. I think I could have lessened the hurt it caused our church.
On the other hand, a pastor must rely on others for information and base decisions on what is considered reliable.

How do you get reliable feedback?

I never allow anyone—staff, deacon, or member—to bring up a charge on hearsay: "I've heard this about … "
I ask, "Did you go to them to verify it as true?"
The person who first hears a rumor is responsible for checking it out. Only when it has been verified do I get involved.
Recently a person was making accusations against people, especially staff: "He snubbed me." "She doesn't want me using my gifts in the choir." "He was cold toward me and won't return my calls."
In every case, my secretary, or whoever took the complaint, would ask if she had gone to the person who offended her, and she would say, "Yes, but they refused to be reconciled."
So we went to the accused people to hear the other side. It didn't take us long to identify that she was the source of tension, so a small group of church leaders sat with her and made it clear she could no longer make random accusations and expect a hearing.

When you relocated First Baptist from downtown Orlando to the suburbs in 1981, you were criticized heavily. What were the sore points for people?

Some just didn't like my style of leadership. I had been here only three years. I'd not married enough people or led them through times of challenge and grief.
Others felt we were deserting the downtown area and thus missing our mission.
Others felt a personal loss. Their kids had been married there. Their parents' funerals were held there. Memories were there. But rather than grieve the losses, some just got angry.
The church leadership, though, was probably not clear enough about its motives for wanting to relocate.

How did you get through the crisis?

The defining moment came when we brought a recommendation to the congregation to buy twenty-four acres of land north of where we are now. We had a miserable meeting that lasted until nearly midnight. We finally took a vote, and the church declined to buy the land by a slim margin. The church had already voted to relocate, so the whole project seemed to go up in smoke.
I couldn't believe some things said about the process from some of our people and the media. I was disappointed. A big part of me wanted to call it quits.
In that failure, my only options were to quit or trust God. When I drove away late that night, I said, "Lord, you've got a plan. I don't know what it is, but you stopped this for some reason, and I'm going to trust you for it." I went home and went right to sleep.
We started over. We found another piece of property and had more conflict because some who were prejudiced didn't like that the piece of land was next to an African-American community. Before the vote, I decided that, because of the conflict, the church needed more than a simple majority. I prayed, "Lord, we need at least a two-thirds majority."
We gave the congregation three options: yes, no, or "I'll go either way the church votes." We ended up with 66.66 percent voting to purchase the land. Today we're on 150 acres and in a much better location than the original piece of land the church voted not to purchase.
The decision to move was costly, though. In the process, we lost more than 700 people.

Often conflict in church comes from conflict somewhere else.

Have you been able to develop a church culture that handles conflict redemptively?

The staff member I mentioned earlier eventually declined to talk further about his marital problems and left his family for another woman. What made this situation particularly painful for me was at that time, I was also counseling a couple who was going through marital difficulty. I found out that this staff person was the reason for this couple's trouble—he was involved with the wife.
At that point, we had to decide how to deal with the pain publicly. We couldn't afford for anyone to think staff members are held to a different standard than anyone else. We had ordained him and felt we had to publicly revoke his ordination. We needed to send a message that the love of Christ compels us to hold one another accountable, that conflict will be dealt with, that sin will not be allowed to cripple our fellowship.
But even while handling conflict aggressively, I try never to send anybody away without saying, "The door's always open."
Within the last few months, a man called who had been a deacon. He had spoken harshly about our relocation in 1981, and he and his family left our church in the process. When he called, he said, "Do you remember me?"
I said, "Yes I do."
His health is now poor. He reminded me of the things he had done and said, then added, "I had a bad attitude. I called you to say two things. First, I was wrong. What you did was the right thing to do. Second, would you forgive me?"
I was emotional. "Of course," I said.

In the midst of conflict, how do you keep from becoming obsessed about personal criticism?

My secretary screens all letters, so I never see the anonymous hate mail. That keeps me from worrying about many things I can't do much about.
But when our church relocated, the conflict surrounding that process resulted in my wife receiving anonymous letters attacking her character. That was hard to understand; she's not the kind of person who stands up on the church floor and speaks her mind. A friend said, "If the Devil can't get to you, he'll try to get to someone close to you to get to you."
We threw the letters away, and, honestly, today I can't remember what they said. The Lord has helped me selectively forget things. My quiet times with him have helped me not grow bitter, to fight the urge to retaliate, and to trust him.

Given all the conflict you've endured, how have you kept your enthusiasm for God's work?

I recognize that often conflict in church comes from conflict somewhere else, either currently or way back. The church or the pastor merely becomes the lightning rod for it. I try to understand why my critic is upset. But I too have to be willing to say, "I was wrong."
When I've taken an ugly shot, inevitably the Lord will send an encouraging phone call or letter. In Nashville, I took a stand on a moral issue and was threatened with a lawsuit because I had spoken up in a city council meeting about it. They threatened me with defamation. Was I scared!
Right after that, a guy whom I barely knew came to see me at the church. He said, "Pastor, I just came in to pray for you today. You mind if I do that?"
So we knelt, and he put his arm around me. He prayed, "The Lord says 'a thousand shall fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand. They will not come near you.' Thank you, Lord."
There was no way he could have known what was going on. He walked out, saying, "Whatever happens, it's going to be okay." And it was. That's how God ministers to his children.
Conflict has the marvelous effect of keeping me from becoming proud, thinking I don't need God. I'm reminded in these situations where my strength comes from—Jehovah Jireh.

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