The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Must a Congregation Always Be United in Agreement with its Leader?

How do congregations survive if there is a schism in their attitude toward their religious leader? A house divided WILL fall.

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

Unfortunately this is an all too common occurrence in many religious communities. In the history of Islam we see that it was this very issue that caused the only major schism between Muslim sects. The split between Sunni and Shia was not over any strictly theological issue but rather a disagreement about who the leader of the Muslim community should be. It is very difficult for a community to survive a major difference about its leadership without splitting apart. Sometimes the best case scenario is that one group remains a part of the community but is bitter and disengaged until eventually the wounds begin to heal. In light of this, I think it is the duty of religious leaders to do everything in their power to inspire unity within their congregations and to not be sources of division.

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

I disagree with the premise. Religions are like amoebas. We have been dividing and fractioning faster than an overachieving 4th grader. And out of all those schisms great spiritual movements have emerged. Remember that Jesus, Buddha, the patriarchs of the Christian East and so many Hindu saints have created new movements out of preexisting movements. Sometimes the new faction thrives while the old one wilts. Sometimes vice versa. But there are plenty of examples of both surviving quite well. 

This does not mean that such events are pain free. I have great sympathy for the people involved. But I recognize the human condition well enough to know it happens to the best of us.

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

In the Unitarian Universalist faith, the congregation will hold a special meeting to vote to call their minister. UU ministers are told to only accept a call that is 95% or higher in favor of their call. This is because new ministers need solid support if they are to lead the congregation successfully. Churches thrive when there is harmony and mutual respect between leaders and congregations. Churches can also navigate difficult times and disagreements. And there are times when congregations become divided over whether to follow their leader or not. When that becomes the case, the congregation can vote the leader out. But again, UU ministers are advised to resign before the vote to avoid dividing the congregation into sides. In all this trust is paramount, if the trust is broken it is very hard to repair and continue to serve in good faith. 

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

I am a member of a religious institute known as the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) because we are followers of Saint Dominic. We maintain one group after 800 years. Because our founder, Saint Dominic, envisioned a way to evolve and change, we have not experienced a schism in the Order.

Schism occurs when there is no method of growing and changing. Sometimes one may not be pleased with the pastor of the congregation. One may choose to leave (schism), or one may choose to recognize that my presence will outlive the person in question. Simply back off and build your relationship with God. Is this not ultimately growing and changing?

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

Prevention is the best medicine! 

Three practices are important to address the devastation of disagreement with a religious leader:

First, religious leaders must commit to the health of the religious community being more important than their ego and need for power. 

Second, strong lay congregational leaders must be nurtured and empowered to provide sound leadership, to respect boundaries, and to place the peace of the whole above the certainty of one side being ‘“right”. 

Third, a congregation is part of a connectional system charged with conflict resolution, mediation, and power to counsel with, potentiality move or even dismiss the pastor around whom the schism is swirling. 

Religious communities are organized in a variety of ways. The PCUSA has an extensive church constitution which is sometimes mocked for its tightly assigned roles and practices. One only knows the importance of rules when they are needed to foster peace. 

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

Experience teaches that to some extent there is always a schism in the congregation in attitudes toward the local shepherd of the flock. Human nature guarantees that some will like him, and others will not. It should not matter so long as the minister is faithful in performing the duties of his office. The pastor does not exist whose personality, gifts, appearance, and choice of necktie will please everybody. Likewise, there would be no congregation at all if the members don’t decide to get along with each other and work together in ​spite of their differences. 

In fact the time to worry is when a minister sets out to captivate and dominate his congregation by creating a cult of personality around himself. Such man shows himself to be a fraud and a menace. The Lord Jesus Christ says, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers unto the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). If there is to be a popularity contest, the false prophets and teachers, the wolves in sheep’s clothing, will win every time. 

My response:

In congregations in which there is a diverse membership reflecting a spectrum of political and religious views and practices, it is inevitable that at times the membership will disagree with the religious leader. Yet, the role of the rabbi sometimes requires him or her to take difficult positions. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of a 19th century movement placing personal character development at the heart of Judaism, said, "A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no man (i.e., has no standing)."


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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