The Challenge of Unity: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Philip Huan

(A modified form of this article was published in Eagle’s Vantage Point magazine, May 2013)

SO THAT OUR READERS KNOW WHAT YOU DO, CAN YOU SHARE WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH CHURCHES IN SINGAPORE, PRESENTLY?

I started out as an itinerant preacher for a season but have slowly evolved ministry into a strategic consultancy for churches. To date, I have preached at, coached and guided church boards, senior pastors, key-staff and lay-leaders for over 50 churches locally since 2006 through my ministry “ChurchLife!” (www.churchlife-resources.org)

WITH YOUR CONCERN FOR CHURCH-GROWTH, WHAT IS YOUR OBSERVATION OF THE DIFFICULTIES OF MAINTAINING UNITY IN CHURCHES?

Unity is one of the key challenges faced in growing churches almost across all denominations or sizes. The trigger for this challenge is often a juncture-point of growth that requires some change in the journey of the church. Therefore, such scenarios vary with different church settings.

For example, a church-plant may face a unity-challenge when it grows to a point where fast-paced changes are needed to develop the next level of cell ministries or service ministries.

A mid-sized church (200-600) may face a unity-challenge when it stalls at a certain size. Clergy and lay-people alike may try to contribute to growth albeit in different ways. Those different approaches, if not properly managed, may lead to conflict between various parties.

A larger-sized church (1000 and above) may face the unity-challenge similar to that of the mid-sized churches, however since there is usually a clearer organization and strength of the leadership in larger churches, such conflict may result in the replacement of specific individuals or small groups.

DO YOU FEEL UNITY IS A CHALLENGE MORE FOR SMALLER CHURCHES THAN LARGE CHURCHES, OR VICE-VERSA?

There is a potential for conflict regardless of church size due to differences in personalities and opinions. However, the impact of that conflict may differ.

In smaller churches that do not have a robust system of governance, a conflict may be multi-partied leading to a parting of ways between parties of equal strength. This could have serious impact on a small congregation.

In larger churches, the growth and stability of that church may be indicative of a stable governance and strong leadership base. A multi-partied conflict is less likely. Usually, one party is stronger and has greater ability to chart direction through the conflict.

In denominational churches, governance may be extremely robust with systems that span beyond a local church. Hence, conflict can be addressed by denominational parties outside the local church and may be managed without significant impact on the denominational system.

LET’S GET MORE SPECIFIC TO A CHURCH: WHAT ARE THE FACTORS THAT OFTEN LEAD TO CONFLICT AND DISUNITY IN RELATIONSHIPS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL?

The Board/Elders or the Senior-Pastor’s team are often the strongest leaders in a local church. Conflict at that level can be the hardest to manage. Conflict below that level can usually be guided or forestalled by the top-most leaders. Hence, the top-most leadership of the church is critical is setting the culture for managing conflicts.

There are many factors that may cause conflict, but let me just share 3 ideas which are adapted from Larry Osborne’s book, “The Unity Factor”:

1. Breakdown in doctrinal agreement can lead to disunity…

Whether one emphasizes more on the Old Testament vs. New Testament, or charismatic practices vs. conservative tradition, or grace vs. law, strict exegetical use of Scripture vs. devotional use of Scripture, (these are just some examples) these nuances may have many practical implications for ministry.

I know of a leader that was very enthusiastic about a pastor’s ministry until she realized over time that the pastor’s use of Scripture differed from her conviction. After some time, that enthusiasm began to wane and later led to several disagreements.

2. Breakdown in friendships can lead to disunity…

Through the difficulties of the church journey, when something happens that leads one party to feel “let down” or betrayed, that can lead to the fragmenting of relationships. It is difficult to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with someone who has hurt and disappointed you.

I know of a pastor who felt side-lined by a senior colleague. Over time it became a hurt and later led to a separation of ways.

3. Breakdown in agreement of ministry philosophy can lead to disunity…

Should we build the service as priority or the cells?

Should we make this a cell-church or a church with cells?

Should we take a prophetic-intuitive approach or a systematic-organizational approach?

These types of questions relate to philosophy of ministry. There can be great frustration when leaders with different philosophical convictions try to make decisions together at cross-roads.

Someone once described it akin to 5 people wanting to travel to Malacca but one wants a scenic drive, another wants to take a relaxing cruise, while yet another wants to fly in the shortest time. Leaders may want to reach the same destination—a healthy, vibrant church—but often there can be only one overriding philosophy at any one time.

ARE THERE WAYS YOU COULD SUGGEST TO ADDRESS THESE DIFFERENT “BREAKDOWNS”?

We need to begin with the conviction that unity reflects God’s heart and invites God’s favour. Unity is like “precious oil poured on Aaron’s head…there the Lord bestows His blessing”! (Psalms 133)

Someone who joined a church observed the leaders working in unity, reaching people for Christ and giving their hearts to doing God’s work. He remarked, “I really sense God is doing something special here, there is no politics, only a genuine desire to do God’s work!”

We must be sensitive when we perceive a fraying of relationships, and to discern the underlying cause. Here are some ideas I suggest in addressing underlying causes of disunity:

In addressing doctrinal differences, I would advocate learning surrender to the whole counsel of Scripture rather than selective emphases. Usually differing emphases are precisely that—the placing of emphasis on different parts of the Bible. If we can acknowledge that there are emphases also found in Scripture that are different from our convictions, we can learn to make allowances for different ideas. If we can hold together a range of different emphases within our teams, it will broaden our experience of Scripture beyond our own individual horizons of experience.

In addressing friendship fragmentation, I would advocate honest conversations, healing and forgiveness. An honest sharing of feelings and affirmation of value in relationships can be very healing. Someone once said, “There can be no lasting relationships without forgiveness”. How true, especially in a journey together as spiritual family!

In addressing differing ministry methodologies, I would advocate learning and growing together. Many times God teaches a leader a new thing. However, the leader moves ahead into it while leaving other leaders behind. It takes a value of unity to slow down and facilitate learning as a group so that the “spiritual family” moves together. Conferences, books and discussions with consultants / mentors are ways to help leaders to move together.

IN CLOSING, ARE THERE ANY THOUGHTS OR RESOURCES YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH OUR READERS ON GROWING IN UNITY?

As you phrased it, unity must not only be guarded but “grown” as well. Friendships, doctrinal and ministry convictions must not only be guarded, but their quotient developed and grown over time. Friendships can deepen; so can ministry and doctrinal convictions be reaffirmed and strengthened as a team serves together over time. Leaders should see this as a necessary “unity quotient” to grow together with other skills and dynamics of the team. Ultimately, I believe it hinges on valuing unity above the “speed” of doing things. We are often too impatient for results rather than patient for friendships and growth. We try to change things at the expense of relating to “bring every one across the finish line together”.

Some of my ideas are partially adapted from Larry Osborne’s book, “The Unity Factor”. I also discuss this issue of unity under a chapter, “Changing the Right Things at the Right Pace” in my book “Enduring Church Growth—Issues of Leadership & Followership” (Armour Publishing).

No matter what we achieve in ministry, ultimately our love and patience with one another is a powerful and godly witness to others who watch the church!

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. (Philippians 1:27-28, ESV)

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