The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Firestorm: Preventing and Overcoming Church Conflicts
Ron Susek (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. 1999). 253 pages.

Firestorm is a book about conflict in churches, examining the dynamics of church destruction from within. Using real-life experiences, it discusses the life-cycle of a church firestorm.

For many of us, the very mention of conflict and churches is troubling. The idealist in each one of us is uncomfortable with conflict in the church. To many of us, a mark of a healthy and righteous church is love and an absence of conflict.

The realist in each one of us, however, knows that people sin. And people have opinions. In time, there is enough sin and difference of opinion in every church to cause it to rupture at its seams via a "Firestorm."

The author's choice of metaphor (firestorm) is especially real to anyone who has seen catastrophic wildfires. Destruction in a church is like that-- devouring with such fury and force that it defies anyone to stop it. When the fury is over, ruin and loss and shock are all that remains.

We cannot prevent natural disasters. But if we are wise, we can learn to prevent conflicts in churches from turning into firestorms that ravage something so dear to us and the Lord.

Negative Traits Discussed
The means of destruction lurks in all churches. On just about every page of Firestorm I found a mention of something I've personally seen or experienced in a church blowup. This stuff is real. Below, I've identified and categorized some of the destructive church dynamics Susek discusses, just to give a feel for the level of appreciation of the problem that the author provides:

  • Cultural
    • clashes of church cultures
    • impatient idealism
    • corruption of motives for doing "good"
    • treating individuals as a means to an end
  • Party Loyalties
    • lack of maturity in handling differences
    • pressuring people to be on "your side"
    • how politicizing the issues prevents them from being solved
    • how a party spirit leads to group evil
    • how everybody thinks they are 100% right in conflicts
    • winning and saving face becomes a priority over spiritual behavior
    • how minor issues turn into "major doctrinal issues"
    • disregarding the body of Christ for one's own agenda
    • how church conflicts end up with three sides (no matter which group you are a part of, two groups of people are opposed to you.)
  • Corrupt Leadership
    • unspoken agendas and ambitions by key individuals
    • leaders who use their position and stubbornness to always get their way
    • the dark side of spiritual achievement
    • how leaders play to their strengths and dismiss the legitimacy of things they are not good at or don't like to do
    • how openness and humility can be used against someone
    • passive resistance to heavy-handed leadership
    • misuse of the pulpit to attack one's critics
    • using people to advance one's own agenda
    • mistaking sheep for wolves
  • Sparks that ignite the firestorm
    • somebody has "had enough." Instead of dealing with the issue, they now have to "win" or at least "not lose."
    • tit-for-tat dynamics
    • censorship of subordinate leaders in a power-play
    • the formation of parties
    • unsettled, ancient issues rising to the surface to magnify current issues
    • how rapidly damage can occur when certain events take place
    • the role of Satan
As stated earlier, this discussion of these and more items comes in the context of real-live church blowups. One church the author worked with had an attendance of 3800 with significant programs, property and community impact. Within a week after the blowup, the attendance dropped by a third. Within a year, it was down to about 550. The church was sued, went bankrupt, lost all of its assets, and found a fraction of itself meeting in a gymnasium. The magnitude of destruction was staggering.

In addition, several portions of this discussion touched on topics I've written about in more detail. The discussion of group evil reminded me of the work of Stanley Milgram. The portion about the dark side of spiritual achievement reminded me of The Dark Side of Spiritual Leadership.

Reducing the Damage and Cleaning up the Mess
Susek has some great ideas on how to prevent a firestorm from spreading and devouring. He includes a discussion of implementing Matthew 18, and some bold advice for elders and leaders attempting to deal with these issues (provided, of course, that they are not the issue!).

One novel idea is the concept of an interim leader. The basic idea of this role is to come into a challenging situation (before, during or after the firestorm) and help the church deal with its problems and set the foundation for the future. An obvious benefit to this is that someone with a short-term, problem-solving approach is less like to get devoured and more likely to be effective than a leader with a larger vested interest in the issues. This is because leaders are so often the focal point of church conflicts. Such an interim leader can help the entire church (not just the leaders) work out its issues.

One might think that finding interim ministers would be difficult. But he identifies a growing group of ministers who specialize in this very ministry. He also mentions that retired ministers make good candidates for this work because of the experience and shrewdness that can come with years of ministry.

Susek discusses other important ideas like the strategic use of the pulpit and tranforming the congregation's focus from "my side winning the battle" to solving the problems. Again, an interim minister can come in and deal objectively with issues. This seems to be more than a novel idea. The benefits of such an interim minister are evident in reading through the discussion.

Another key Susek discusses in weathering a firestorm is timely and courageous spiritual leadership. Most elderships hope to minimize damage by waiting to take action. But, in the author's experience, when elders wait too long to take action in a right and godly way it almost always leads to more damage being done.

A Few Drawbacks...
When I recommend a book, I don't normally specify items in that book that I think are problematic. (I usually just say where I agree and what is good about the book. I expect my readers to know enough to pick through the bones, and usually there aren't too many bones anyway.)

This book didn't have too many bones either, but one bone deserves mention. In a couple of places, the author suggested that one's difficulties in life might be a result of either their (or even an ancestor's!) sin towards a spiritual leader in the past. While the book generally shoots pretty straight with the negative contribution of leaders to church firestorms and rejects the old "touch not the Lord's anointed" cop-out that many leaders use to fend off legitimate criticisms, these remarks seemed weird and unscriptural to me. Mistreating anyone, including a spiritual leader, is wrong, but I'm not persuaded it would "curse" one's whole family line. I wonder if the author thinks that leaders would also be cursed for life for mistreating sheep? It is a lot more helpful to concern ourselves with treating other right because of God than to wonder about multi-generational curses or bad karma from past situations.

Preventing Firestorms
If you have people in a church, you will have sin in that church. And sin can lead to destructive firestorms. A ravaging firestorm may not be in your future, but if you think it can't happen to you or your church you're naive. One of the sure causes is that things look good on the outside, but there are things going on beneath the surface that will sooner or later explode. Thus, the best weapon against a church firestorm is wariness of what can cause such a storm and working towards a healthy church environment where issues are deflated and put to rest before they can wreak havoc on the church.

I wish this book didn't have to be written. But along with the realities of human evil, one inevitable reality is the certainty of sin in the church. Because of these realities, the topic of Firestorm is necessary.

Copyright © 2003 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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