EULESS - The message in black letters went up late last year on a sign in front of the low-slung brick church.
"Forgive us," it read.
What started 25 years ago with the first of many small disagreements had ended in a major conflict at North Euless Baptist Church. The nastiness had caused the pastor to leave, split the membership, fractured families, started vicious gossip and at one point nearly prompted a fistfight.
The congregation had dwindled to 50 members - 50 furious members on the brink of closing the church's doors.
Then things changed. Some members think it was the work of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe dawning maturity. Or desperation. Or the sign.
The members of North Euless Baptist Church confessed their sins to one another. They wrote letters to the more than 100 members they had driven out, asking each for forgiveness.
The church was reborn.
"I don't think I've ever in my experience seen a church do what they did, and go well beyond what they could have done," said the Rev. Tony Dyer, a specialist in conflict resolution who was brought in to help the congregation.
North Euless Baptist's troubles were more dramatic than most. But every day, congregations deal with conflicts that prompt clergy to leave under pressure. In the Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, in 1986 about 88 pastors per month were fired by their congregations; by 1996, the number had jumped to 140. Other denominations are seeing similar increases.
"All the conflict in our culture is running through our congregations," said Dr. James Wind, president of the Alban Institute in Bethesda, Md., a think tank and consulting group for congregations of various faiths. "There's a huge collision of expectations, so congregations become very hospitable environments for conflict."
When Tony Dyer walked into North Euless Baptist Church on a Wednesday night last May, he could feel anger radiating from the members.
"They were ready to shoot each other," he said. "They had their guns out andtheir fingernails back, and they were ready to go to battle again."
Then came the ping-pong scandal.
Someone put a ping-pong table in the social hall, recalled Louise Walton,who, along with her husband and four children, was among the church's first members. Young families thought it was a great idea, but older folks thought it was ungodly. So some of them left in a huff.
Membership rebounded, but, looking back, members say, it was a sign of thingsto come.
Through the rest of the 1970s and '80s the church went through a three-step dance that became uncomfortably familiar. A loved and respected pastor would stay for several years, followed by a less popular pastor, followed by a transition figure who tried to mend whatever problems had surfaced.
At one point in the early 1980s, for instance, the congregation brought in a pastor who had come from a different denomination and who, members say, didn't clearly understand Baptists. To make matters worse, they say, he visited female members of the congregation in their homes, which led to charges that he was a womanizer.
After nine months, he left. But not before six of the congregation's 11 deacons and a large chunk of the congregation left, too.
In another case, this one during a time in 1993 when North Euless was thriving, Kent and Katie Hopkins found the church. But on the morning they were planning to join, the pastor took them aside and told them he was about to announce his resignation. The Hopkinses went ahead and joined anyway.
Such was the instability that punctuated the church's history.
The following year, North Euless called the Rev. Clark Stricklin to be itspastor. He was 30, a gifted evangelist with a wife and four small children. "He could give the best invitation to bring people to the Lord, but in a church you have to deal with administration and people, and Clark wasn't as good at that," Mr. Hopkins said.
Congregants concluded that their pastor didn't listen well. It didn't seemto matter that he was young. Or that they owed him a chance to work out the kinks in the relationship.
"Some of us weren't mature enough, and I'm guilty," Mrs. Walton said.
"And our fault was that we turned to gossip," said Mrs. Hopkins. "We didn'tknow how to confront him, and he didn't know how to deal with us."
By the fall of 1996, the whispered criticisms became so overwhelming and thebickering so intense that some of the deacons decided to work out a deal with Mr. Stricklin so he could leave peacefully. Others wanted him out immediately.