COVID conflict in the church

“We’re doing quite well” was the initial response we received most often from pastors, youth leaders and a school principal regarding conflict in their setting. There were differences of opinion and tension they said, but these didn’t seem to affect the operations of the church or the atmosphere during services.

At the same time there is a sense of fragility in the churches.

Several leaders commented that they had unity on the surface but weren’t confident it would survive the next challenge or difficult decision. A few characterized current tensions as highlighting what had already been there, or as one respondent phrased it “COVID threw gasoline on existing embers.” Almost all had seen their congregations shrink, but several also saw something beautiful happening. And almost all leaders interact with a few people in their congregations, or formerly of their congregations, who are angry and vocal.

Currently, most disagreements relate to government restrictions rather than to the vaccine itself. Most churches have chosen not to require proof of vaccination. They adhere to regulations, but several stated they don’t police their congregations. Having said that, there are some disagreements regarding the vaccine itself. For some people being vaccinated feels like an act of disobedience to God and a sense that they would be caving to cultural or worldly pressure. And for others, vaccinations were an essential act of caring for vulnerable people around them.

Pastors themselves had very different approaches to the vaccines and vaccine mandates. We heard the story of one, who despite growing up with the constant reality of vaccines and boosters overseas didn’t bother with flu shots as an adult in Canada until a 26-year-old co-worker died in an H1N1 outbreak several years ago. He says he hasn’t missed a flu shot or COVID shot since. We heard from another who is very wary of government overreach but who most of all, is concerned that the Christian community is weakening its ability to discern important issues and stand in the face of them.

Youth and Young Adults

We discussed some of the characteristics of the divisions including whether the youth and young adults had the same range of views and were experiencing the same level of tension as older adults in the church.

Almost without exception, leaders reported that the opinions of younger members of the church family mirrored those of their parents, with the same range of disagreement among themselves. However, there were some noteworthy variations.

One difference specific to students was that, compared to adults, they adapted quite easily to the rules. They don’t struggle with wearing masks for the most part, whether in the classroom or in youth meetings. They’re used to rules, one of the leaders reported. They’re used to not being in control and that extends to government rules as well. There are exceptions to this however, for a few students who have additional challenges. For them, it can be the last straw making life almost unbearable. And all of them have experienced disappointment because of the isolation, sports cancellations, and the cancellation of events including EMC’s Abundant Springs. An observation made by some leaders was that when the group is together, they are fine. They’re in a different world and are able to put aside the inconvenience of masks, enjoy each other and focus on the reason they’re together. When they are apart however, the focus shifts and the “story” builds. Parents may well see a different side of their child and the student who is easily compliant when together with other youth may completely ignore rules when they’re in another setting.

Some students have taken the opportunity of individual conversations online to ask spiritual questions they would not have asked in a group setting.

An observation made regarding young adults, was that they held their convictions just as strongly as older adults but seemed better able to hear and discuss different views. In some cases, even though convictions were getting stronger over time it was without hard feelings, and there was respect for those who chose differently. In a few churches the different opinions showed up within a young married couple or in a romantic relationship. This didn’t seem to create problems for the couple, but it sometimes created significant stress between the couple and their parents as they were torn between respect for their parents and their own desire to move in a different direction.

Several people we spoke to observed that the differences they saw were not necessarily attributable to age itself but reflected things such as integration into Canadian life, education, and life-experience, such as experience with corrupt or heavy-handed governments in their country of origin.

Not every family is navigating the restrictions with unity and respect. Several people we spoke to mentioned concerns over the sharp disagreements they saw within families, particularly between adult children and their senior parents. In more extreme cases these were characterized by belligerence and a desire to punish the other for their views.

Is reconciliation happening?

When asked if reconciliation was beginning to happen in their congregations, the leaders we spoke to were usually hopeful—one stating that he had great hope—but in general they were not confident.

It is hard to see any growth in understanding between people with different views some said. One group had met to find a way to work together and while this had seemed effective at the meeting, in the end they were just as divided or even more so. A suggestion we heard, in reference to the attendance losses they had suffered, was that maybe separating into groups where people thought similarly would be an advantage because the constant judgement when they met in the same service interfered with worship.

A congregation could look unified to a visitor we were told, and while this might be an improvement from earlier in the pandemic, it didn’t actually reflect greater unity. Instead, people just avoided those they disagreed with. There is a lack of regard between people who hold their views strongly towards other members of the congregation was another observation. Friendships have been impacted negatively, and people don’t seem to be bending for each other.

Other leaders we spoke to were more hopeful, though they were aware of the potential for fracture in their congregations. Quite a few stated that they had never lost unity, but as one pastor said, everything is on a fine thread. An example of this lack of security is that whether we were talking about a church where almost everyone was vaccinated or a church where almost nobody was, the few members of the congregations who were in the minority hid their vaccination status from the rest. They are afraid, we were told, of being excluded and of having anger directed at them.

Although there are important concerns, leadership teams are thinking carefully and strategically about how to hold the church together. Even though they often aren’t in agreement with each other, they choose to be respectful and to speak with one voice. One pastor said he had shared with the congregation the difficult decisions they were being asked to make and what the implications of the decisions were. He believed that sharing honestly, clearly, and directly what the complexities were had helped increase the congregation’s patience which had been wearing thin. He spoke highly of the congregation and their determination to maintain unity. Another pastor similarly credited the fact that there had been no secrets and no agenda—that they had never been aggressive about their views—as things that helped them stand together.

A few leaders observed ongoing efforts in their congregations to extend grace and understanding, for example after a heated discussion. Others noted that where initially disagreement had divided families and there was angst over the holidays, there was effort being made to treat each other with respect and understanding.

“It feels heavy but there is slow positive progress” was the observation of one of the leaders.

If you could say one thing?

Finally, we asked if the leaders could say one thing to us what that would be. Here, in summary, is what they said.

  1. Keep the big picture in mind. It is so easy to focus on the immediate circumstance, but how will this look five or ten years down the road? Our relationships are more important than our difference. What does this look like in terms of our witness to the community? The church isn’t the only group that is being asked to sacrifice.
  2. Listen to understand. Hurting people want to be heard. We need to forgive our enemies.
  3. This is a secondary issue but it’s super-hot and hard to see as secondary. We need to see those we disagree with as a brother or sister. My worldview has been shaped and so has theirs.
  4. Let the Bible and ministry of Jesus—his heart of humility—be the foundation for how we respond.
  5. Choose the hill you’re going to die on. There are things that are important but unless it’s sin, we need to work together. If the church wants to grow in the Lord, we need to set aside our opinions.
  6. To borrow a line from Hunger Games: “remember who your enemy is.” Satan is our enemy and there’s nothing he wants more than to create hatred, enmity and division.
  7. When it comes to COVID take a middle road and not the extremes. In my experience every church with major issues has taken a hard line. Leaders in churches be sensitive to the culture in their congregation.
  8. There is freedom in deciding to go along with the decision of the church even when we disagree. We are subject to the family of God.
  9. In teaching about rights, we also need to teach about responsibility. We are responsible for each other. We need to love our neighbours—the Lord has asked this of us. Spend as much time praying for leaders as criticizing and talk to people about the Lord. We are responsible and will stand before the Lord.
  10. The call to love supersedes and underlies all other commands. Is it too simplistic? It’s back to basics—to love our enemies regardless of what we expect in return.
  11. While we do not ask people to give up their convictions, we do ask them to walk in the character of Christ. We see people rising up to this challenge in a beautiful way.
  12. Even though we are familiar with Shalom and can quote the great command, it takes a lot of personal and emotional work to embed these in our spiritual DNA. We need to learn to use healthier modes of conflict resolution.

In the interviews and this report, we’ve gone through in some detail the present state of the churches as they wrestle with COVID-related issues and some of the fears and concerns they have. But to end the report we need to go back to the beginning. Most churches are doing quite well. In fact, what was clear in all the conversations was that leaders and most members of their congregations were working very hard to ensure that conflict did not divide or define them, and for the most part they were succeeding.

Thank you to

Abe Berg, Straffordville Evangelical Mission Church

Craig Cornelsen, Picture Butte Mennonite Church

Jim Crawford, Taber EMC

Ruth Friesen, Fort Garry EMC

Gary Giesbrecht, Coaldale Mennonite Church

Jason Heide, Steinbach EMC

Glenn Loewen, Portage Evangelical Church

Ward Parkinson, Rosenort EMC

Ed Peters, Island Gospel Fellowship

Alain Reimer, Evangelical Fellowship Church, Fort Frances

Arlin Scharfenberg, Rosenort EMC

Kendra Thiessen, Community Bible Fellowship

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