Years ago, a group of church members hosted a gathering for new members, and both my husband and I attended. Over appetizers, they asked how we were enjoying the church and if we felt welcomed. I assured them we had; in fact, another church member, D., had invited us to lunch with her family the following week.
A silence followed. The woman to whom I had replied pursed her lips and exchanged glances with another woman there. A third dropped her eyes and gave a little, amused cough. It was the fourth who spoke. “Oh, honey,” she said kindly. “I wouldn’t go to that.”
“To lunch?” I asked. “Why?”
More glances, silent conversations happening all around me. The third lady gave me a pat on the arm. “Just trust us,” she said. “There’s certain people you don’t want to get involved with at this church.”
“Why?” my husband asked. “What happened?”
Another set of glances and unspoken signals. “We don’t believe in gossiping,” one said primly, “so I really can’t say. Just giving some advice.”
I moved on with my meal with bothering to question further. I knew I’d run into the Shadow Church.
Most churches have a Shadow Church: you’ve probably encountered one yourself. The Shadow Church is the underlying structure of conflicts, drama, and gossip that stratifies and divides a congregation. The Shadow Church churns out passive-aggression. It traffics in innuendos and implications. It manipulates and influences church culture. And it does all of this under the guise of plausible deniability.
The Shadow Church is usually composed of several core groups or powerful individual members with key interests in the church, who see themselves in opposition to other groups and as protectors of something fundamental about the church itself. It is characterized by an “us” vs. “them” mentality, perpetual conflict and arguments (that can almost all be traced back to an older source or previous incident), loaded comments, leading questions, and quiet, “just-between-us” gossip.
You know you’ve bumped up against the shadow church when:
- you’re warned away from people or families for no particular reason that anyone will elaborate, or for vague reasons that make no immediate sense
- you hear disparaging comments about “those people” who protect the pastor….or who want to oust him….or who only care about the choir…or who only care about the food…
- you can sense tension between individuals and groups at events without knowing why
- debates during church meetings are a proxy for battles being fought beneath the surface
- the gossip mill is constantly churning, with water-carriers carting back “well he said” and “well she said” in a way that encourages conflict rather than smothers it
- passive aggressive comments and implied insults and contempt abound
- you’re advised to “pick a side”
- you receive, at any point, the history of a conflict that sounds like it began ten years ago
- anger and resentment over old wounds still festers, and bitterness is prominent
The Shadow Church usually emerges from a particular conflict. A group of people loved a particular pastor, or didn’t. A group of people torpedoed an event, or started a new one. Someone wasn’t asked to something. Someone felt belittled. Congregants picked up the phones and the gossip started flowing. Motives were ascribed. Old incidents took on new meaning. Participants divided into camps and eventually the particular conflict became something deeper and more dangerous, a series of divides over How the Church Should Be Run and Who We Can Trust and Who The Good People Are and Who or What The Problem Really Is.
If you’re new to a church, you can go years without seeing the Shadow Church – but when it rears its ugly head, it’s impossible to miss. I got my first full view of it when a small group of a previous congregation opted to ignore the church vote against a particular pastoral candidate, rewrote the bylaws to elect him, and opened an outraged debate on the church floor. As church members made accusations, dredged up ancient hurts, and called each other everything but a child of God, the youth group sat in the balcony behind me – where they’d enthusiastically elected to watch the proceedings – and cried.
That’s how the Shadow Church kills the congregation from whence it came. It suffocates itself to death in old resentments and battles over power and culture. It welcome new members not by embracing them, but by immediately forcing them to “choose a side,” warning them of perceived problems in the church, giving them a list of people to avoid. It avoids direct discussion, gentle but honest speech, and godly rebukes that result in healing. It would rather torch itself to the ground than reconcile. And there’s nothing Christlike about it.
That church I mentioned earlier? The one that warned me away from D. (whose sin, by the way, was accepting a deaconess position she had been offered, without considering that another woman might want it)? It died less than a decade after that incident. The membership couldn’t withstand the strain. Everyone was so repulsed by the venom and conflict they left. New members never stayed. It collapsed under the weight of its own resentment.
So if you run afoul of the Shadow Church, as I did, walk away. You’re not obligated to play the game, and the fewer of us that do, the better off we’ll be. Getting conscripted into power struggles, accusations, and endless rehashings of the past isn’t going to serve Christ. It only does a disservice to you. So don’t get sucked in. Speak honestly, turn your ears away from gossip, don’t report what you hear, and don’t get caught up in the drama. The fewer who are willing to play the games, the faster the flames collapse.
We’re here to nourish a world in need, not to eat ourselves alive.