The following response paper will dialogue with the main points from Susek’s Firestorm filtered through the Bulgarian reality, and will examine their effectiveness among ministry teams in the context of the Bulgarian Church of God. Several presuppositions must be taken under consideration in order to understand the Bulgarian context of ministry. They are the severe economical and political crisis which followed the fall of the Communist regime along with rapid liberation of the church and consecutive revival that have led to unexpected church growth. These factors, combined with generally low ministerial training, have lead to conflicts in a number of churches causing continuous tensions, church splits and even denominational schisms. While the majority of evangelical churches are still experiencing ongoing revival, the above failure conflicts have most certainly brought disappointments and loss of motivation along with the resignation of ministers and the exodus of congregational groups. The reasons for this have been widely speculated, since the practice of exodus interviews (29) is unknown and therefore inapplicable.
The growth factor (26) has proven to be a cause for Phase 1 conflict. While the church was underground, believers maintained very close relationships between each other. The rapid growth of the church, however, has limited the relationship dynamic and the personal approach between pastor and congregation as well as among members. Although, the church is successful number-wise, relationships in large congregations are usually difficult to maintain by pastors who are working second jobs since the congregations are unable to support them, have limited ministerial training and operate under a postcommunist church mentality. To prevent the negative effects of these dynamics, our ministry has dedicated time and resources for quarterly training sessions for the members of our team. As a result, our ministry team has been able to successfully deal with several conflict situations, and the number of churches for which we provide pastoral care has grown from 11 to 17 in the past three years.
The characteristics of Phase 2 have strong implications in the Bulgarian context as due to the underground history of the church and other identity formation factors, most church conflicts are treated with avoidance. Therefore, along with the training, our ministry team has been able to use prayer and fasting as suggested in Phase 2 (38). Through the quarterly training seminars, our team has successfully trained and involved more than 30 leaders and laity within the local congregations in an around the year chain fasting that stops only on major Bulgarian holidays. Even then, some may chose to fast for the services or special needs. This has worked well with the suggested training in spiritual warfare from Phase 4 (53).
The suggestion for crises counselor from Phase 3 will not work in Bulgaria at this time simply because there are no evangelical crises counselors available. The Eastern Orthodox Church which historically has predominated in Bulgaria does not use such methods. Among many other demanding roles (168), the pastor then becomes the only consultant which the church can use. In the context of church conflicts, this practice has not proven to be as effective as needed. As a results strong dependency on God, supernatural interventions and miracles that derive from the practices of the underground church have remained the main strategy in dealing with church conflict.
The exodus of small and large groups from the church in Bulgaria has been a process which has intensified in the past five to seven years. This dynamic has become so strong that is not rare for a local church to lose 30-50% of its congregation while gaining new converts. As a result the general size of the church has remained the same, as new converts have taken the place of the groups that have left. The most common postexodus formations are home groups with ten to twenty members who operate on individual bases separated from the church.
The legislation process described by Phase 5 is rarely used in the Bulgarian church context. The few cases resolved that way has harmed the church more than it has helped. Therefore, the role arbitration (58) is usually taken by the national or regional overseer. In these cases, church properties and resources have not been a major problem since most congregations do not own but rent a building for their meetings.
Rebuilding as suggested in Phase 6 (60) is an urgent need. The idea for interim pastors (66) is not practiced since usually there is a shortage of ministers, and often one pastor takes care of several congregations.
The four pillars (TRIM, 69) identified by Susek are true for the Bulgarian reality. Also true is the incompatibility between the pillars of the pastor and the congregation, which are indeed the most common grounds for conflicts and separation. The hiding behind strong characteristics is a general approach toward relationships and ministry, since both church and minister have very little accountability one to another. This is a new dynamic caused and enforced by the state religious laws. Fortunately, many congregations are returning to the old model of accountability which existed during the time of the underground church.
The unresolved psycho-social needs (86) described as a factor in Chapter 8 are a big part of the Bulgarian context of ministry. The economical and political crises have created an environment of high unemployment and emigration where not only individuals, but the majority of the Bulgarian nation is beginning to loose hope of recovery. The failure of personal and professional realization has been projected over the church as last resort for these needs. Every time when the church has been unable to respond to such dynamics conflict has been inevitable.
Other common causes for conflict within the Bulgarian church are described in Chapter 9. Resistance against authority (90) is an undividable part of postcommunist mentality. The rapid church growth factor (91) is also present through the postcommunist revival which the church has experienced. Marketing the church (93) is beginning to gain speed as well. Freedom (94) has been a main issue for the church liberated from the Communist Regime.
Chapter 12 suggested two important dynamics that can help the conflicts within the context of the Bulgarian church. The first one is the choice between the peacekeeper and peacemaker which can compensate for the hesitation which many Bulgarian pastors experience and which turns to avoidance. Secondly, a statement of purpose for fighting the firestorm would also be of a great importance.
As Chapter 17 suggests, an honest assessment of the damage must be completed before healing process starts. This is very much true for the Bulgarian. Many pastors and churches are still in the beginning of the story of forgiveness and reconciliation told in Chapter 20. They are in the place of hurt, but have not yet made the step toward healing. It is time for the processes described in Chapters 18-22 to be applied. I do disagree with the statement in Chapter 21 about rebuilding spiritually from ground zero. I am not persuaded that during a spiritual storm we go to the bottom of our spirituality. On the contrary, I do believe that we have just enough spirituality within us to ask and give forgiveness, to give and take a second chance and thus reconciled with people and God to continue fulfilling the vision with which He has entrusted us.