Resisters Are NOT the Enemy

June 16th, 2022

In many arenas of life, we neatly divide people into two groups: friends and foes. Sports pit one team against another. American politics are defined by two opposing parties. So whenever differences of opinion arise in a church or ministry, our tendency is to identify people as “for us” or “against us,” and then label the latter as enemies.

The increased polarization in our society heightens this tendency. Attacking people who think differently than we do has become acceptable. While the church should be acting as a positive influence by showing the world how to handle differences, the sad truth is that society is having a much greater influence on the church. How should we respond to resistance?

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The Anatomy of Resistance

Leaders are not called to maintain the status quo. Their job is to lead their organizations toward a more vibrant future. This is especially true in today’s church and ministry contexts, where settling for the status quo is actually a path towards slow death. But whenever change is in the air, resistance is sure to follow. 

What is resistance? It is more than a person on the leadership team asking hard questions. This is simply part of the process of thoroughly examining a proposal before making a decision. Nor is it a couple sharing their concerns about a plan with their pastor, which is part of the process for building understanding and buy-in. 

Actual resistance can take many forms, ranging from mild to inappropriate and destructive. Some people may speak or vote against a proposed change. Others may pull away from the church—resigning from volunteer roles, ending financial contributions, or moving their membership. While any resistance is disappointing, these actions are within acceptable boundaries.

In more extreme cases, resistance is guided by a political playbook rather than a biblical one. People opposed to a change may share inaccurate or misleading information to influence a decision. They may get personal, attacking the pastor and other leaders by questioning their motives or integrity. If the proposed change is approved, they may actively undermine the implementation to keep it from succeeding.

In light of these unacceptable behaviors, how can I maintain that “resisters are not the enemy”? My assertion is based on two beliefs. The first is that resistance is normal. John Kotter, a leading expert on change, says, “Irrational and political resistance to change never fully dissipates” (Leading Change, p. 132). It would be wonderful if everyone in a church focused on the collective benefits of a proposed change, but individuals tend to look through the lens of “How will this affect me?” If they conclude the personal impact will be negative, they are likely to resist.

My second belief is that the people who are resisting change love their church. They are not trying to harm or destroy it. In fact, they often resist because they believe the proposed change will hurt the church. They may not be right. Their defense of the status quo may be the real danger. But don’t confuse questionable logic with evil motives.

On top of this, when change is in the air, people get anxious. As stress rises, people lose their ability to wrestle with all the facets of complex decisions. Instead, their brains shift into “flight or fight” survival mode. If you find yourself wondering why a church member was acting so “stupid” or “irrational,” remember that this is normal behavior in the anxious swirl of change.

Leaders who try to squelch disagreement under the banner of “Let’s all just get along” often add fuel to the fire of resistance. Churches need to allow healthy conflict in which the pros and cons of a potential change can be prayerfully considered. If debate can’t occur in the open, it doesn’t go away; it just goes underground, where resisters will find plenty of unhealthy and unbiblical models for conflict.

A Pastoral Response to Resistance

What should you do if people who oppose a change are acting like your enemies? Regardless of their intent, a starting point is to take a cue from Christ’s teaching: “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27–28).

It is easy for me to copy and paste these words from an online Bible. It is much more difficult to put them into practice. But consider the alternative. The secular approach to enemies is to keep them at a distance or go to battle, doing whatever is necessary to beat them. That response almost guarantees a tit-for-tat reaction from the person on the other side of the issue. A small difference of opinion can quickly escalate when leaders put on their battle armor. Responding to them in love is the best hope for changing their behavior, even if it doesn’t change their opinions.

In this context, loving the people who resist change means listening to them and demonstrating care for their concerns. Sometimes listening to resisters in love will generate solutions. But even when that doesn’t happen, a loving response often softens their anger and blunts their attack. It really is true that “a sensitive answer turns back wrath” (Prov 15:1).

Loving and listening to resisters is an important pastoral response, but not the only response. In many cases, the resisters are a small minority. Ministry leaders have a responsibility for the entire flock and for the vision that God is calling the church to pursue. They may need to say, “I hear your concern and understand your pain, but we still believe this is the right change to make.”

A pastoral response is the right way to engage with resistance, and it can alter the trajectory of a change process. But it is not easy. Resistance hurts; there is no way to avoid this. The weight of resistance—the tension, emotion, and conflict—is simply too much for any one leader to carry. That is why God’s words to another leader are important to keep in mind: “Be brave and strong … because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). When we remember this promise, we can also remember that resisters are not the enemy.


This article is excerpted from Mike Bonem’s forthcoming book, The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry (Fortress Press, 2022). Used with permission from the author.

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