Editor's Note: Our questions this week have been edited for length and to ensure confidentiality. If your question is featured, I will make sure you receive your answers in full by tomorrow morning.
How do I deal with two long-time members who are trying to cause problems? There have been harsh words—one told me that the reason our membership was declining was because I was a “terrible pastor," and they have accused the current leaders of “pushing” them out of the positions of leadership.
They've complained that they were no longer receiving emails about church activities, cc’d to the next person up in my church hierarchy. Turns out they had been removed, in error, from the email list. I responded that they had been returned to the list, thanking them for drawing it to our attention, and ignoring their threats of demanding mediation. Their conduct since then has included patronizing remarks from one of them implying that I was not qualified to be in my position, with a tone that says, “this is my church, not yours.”
I hate conflict. I don’t want to be a doormat, but I don’t want to allow my own anger and hurt at them to prevent my doing what I should be doing as their pastor. Yet even though I try to draw them in, it's always their way or the highway. I have tried to point out that the church is not theirs, nor mine, but God’s, which gets pooh-poohed by these two, who think that talk of faith is not practical enough.
I have dealt effectively with controllers before, but these two have me stymied.
Also this week, from Stumped:
I asked our one of our ministry directors to form a committee to select some new robes. She (and the committee) selected something I really, really don't like. I've given my opinion again, but they have decided to go ahead and purchase the awful robes.
She has been here much longer than I have—maybe 20 years? And when I got here several years ago, I was told that she had "quite a power base." She has sway over the administration council; they are all relatives or people with whom she's had a relationship a long time.
This is not the first time I have had issues with her. We occasionally (but continually) get into conflict, really, power struggles over all sorts of things. My first Sunday, I selected three particular hymns and had the secretary publish them in the bulletin. During the service, she told the congregation that there had been a typo and did three completely different hymns.
She once told me that she has no respect for "women who think they can be pastors." She only responds to me when I "act male"—that is, when I take out the Pastoral Authority and use it like a bat. I really don't like doing that—in fact, I can't stand it. What should I do?
Let's start by tackling both these questions at once, and then we'll look at some of the specific issues. One of the things you will all be tickled to note is that the matriarchs answer these separately and then I edit them together—but they totally agree on what should come first.
You're No. 1
Your first priority should be to take care of yourself—with double exclamation points!! As Susan from Sense and Nonsense notes, "Know yourself as a unique and beloved child of God. Have fun, laugh, play. Whatever it is you do to remind you that you're you, triple the time you spend at it."
RevAbi agrees in spades. "Do some things to relax, let go. Go to a spa, get a facial, manicure and a pedicure. Go see a movie, Go for a walk. Let go of the anxiety. Take your day off—in fact take two or more. Get yourself calmed down. Now repeat after me, this is not your problem, this is theirs. This is not your problem, this is theirs." Doing so will help you clear your head of anxiety and approach solving the problem with a fresh perspective.
Even you, as trusted counselors, may at times need your own trusted counselors—as RevAbi notes, a therapist, spiritual director, mentor or peer that you can pray with, meet with, support and be supported by, and be accountable to. Susan notes that your troublemakers are "hooking some of your stuff"—pushing your buttons, finding your hotspots. "Talk with someone who knows you well who can help you reflect on it and strategize ways for you to not get hooked.
And be sure to give the higher-ups (of whatever authority) the downlow. "Be sure your judicatory continues to know what is going on," writes Peripatetic Polar Bear. "This situation sounds like it will fizzle out, but if it doesn't, you don't want them blindsided (plus they may be able to offer you some much needed pastoral care!)"
"Have a heart to heart with your board, too," she writes. "There's no need to get nitty gritty with them about all the he-said, she-said, but let them know there's a conflict, the steps you've taken to try to mediate it, and that you expect it to fizzle out eventually. Enlist their help in damage control and in letting you know what's going on. Having been on a church board where a similar style of argument was going on, I was just relieved to have it in the open, to know the pastors knew, and to know they were responding. That way I could do rumor control."
This may well be something we tie into this column every week. Starting next week, I'll be sure to post links to the titles our Matriarchs recommend. Susan says to get your hands on Edwin Friedman's Generation to Generation. "The first couple of chapters have saved my sanity more than once," she writes.
One of Friedman's recommendations is to have complainers write everything down, she adds. "You don't have to read it. It's not good for your self-esteem. Just put it right in the trash. They feel like they're getting their message to you, and you get the satisfying "thunk" of that crap hitting the can."
"Also, I recommend Never Call Them Jerks by Arthur Paul Boers," Susan continues. "All the other books on antagonists or clergy-killers or well-intentioned dragons made me paranoid."
RevAbi, however, mentions those books exactly: Antagonists in the Church, How to identify and deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C. Haugk and Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack by G. Lloyd Rediger. But the one she recommends most highly is Healthy Congregations by Peter Steinke.
Use Multiple Choice
For "Stumped," Peripatetic Polar Bear shares a good way of ensuring that bad choices aren't made: set them up with "3-year-old choices;" in other words, give them choices, but spell them out and keep them simple. "Arguing about the robes at this point at this point is futile," she writes, "but in the future, ask 'of these three robes, which do you select?'" By giving her this kind of choice, you can help her feel somewhat in control without giving her total control. But if there's ever any more questions about what music to choose, try this one, PPB suggests: "I'm torn between Don't Pick the Ugly Robes, Jesus and Jesus loves Women Pastors for a closing hymn next week, what do you think?"
Susan writes: "The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center is an excellent resource for especially tough situations. They offer telephone counseling in addition to to excellent workshops and mediation for pastors and churches."
RevAbi offers these links:
Dealing With Difficult Employees
Dealing With Difficult People
Dealing With Two-Faced People in Your Church
Dealing With Pathological Antagonists
Keep Them in Prayer
Don't forget, notes PPB, to continue to hold them in prayer. "Reach out as needed, but disengage from the toxicity as much as possible," she writes. "It's about something other than you. They ate something that tasted bad, and now they're barfing and you just happen to be the person in front of them."
And meanwhile, we revgals and blogpals will send speedy prayers your way, for Stumped and Troubled, and anyone else who feels pulled in bad directions. If anyone else has something they'd like to share, feel free to comment.
Stay tuned next week, when we'll be examining first calls and staying grounded after ordainment!