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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Ask the Matriarch: Grace and Toxicity

This week's theme: What do you do when grace fails you in dealing with difficult staff members and parishioners?

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.

From Troubled:
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."

Required Reading
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?"

Online Resources
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!


  1. Well done, GC!! I love how it flows and seeing the perspectives of contributor, questioner, and editor dance in and out.

  2. Great questions and GREAT answers too.

    The robe thing was interesting to read. IMHO living with the (awful) choice won't be so hard in the long run you'll get used to them, but I really liked the tip of giving a choice of three in the future. In that way you choose things you CAN live with - and then allowing a group to choose from those :) which is always good.

    I'm not a pastor yet- and am sure I've done my share of making life difficult for pastors - so this is good to read from that perspective too.

    And I love the recommended reading.

  3. sound and sensible advice-well done all...

  4. Love it. This has to be the very best thing this ring has done EVER.
    Thank you thank you thank you.

  5. I have a question:
    How about the balance when the Sr. Pastor uses you, the woman associate, as a punching bag? I can't leave the church at this point, but I can't stand to stay.
    What to do?

  6. This really is an awesome feature. We are so fortunate to have the experienced pastors answering questions and professional editor Gallycat for this great work.

    I'm in a work situation with someone who feels to me like a "pathological antagonist." Although I don't work in a church, I shall take much comfort today from muttering "pathological antagonist, pathological antagonist," to myself.

  7. If you have read my blogs, you will know I'm in a difficult appointment. I prefer the "systems theory" approach because it focuses on the behavior and not the person. For me, it means that I don't have an "me vs them" mentality. Sorta like "love the sinner, hate the sin." I endorse all the books mentioned especially "Don't Call them Jerks." However, I would add David Augsburger's (another Mennonite!) book "Caring Enough to Confront."

    Don't look at conflict as always bad thing. Sometimes it is the opportunity and the impetus for change and that's a good thing!

    Um ... about the robes: You can offer your opinion (I do - a lot!), but remember that's just what it is - your opinion. They're adults. Let them live with their choices. They will be looking at those ugly, bad-butt things long after you're gone!!! And you can smile and say to yourself "I told you so ... "

    Be blessed!

  8. Galley Cat, well written, I like how you started this with What do you when grace fails.

    I like the comments and added ideas, resources. One you left off was Peter Steinke's work on Healthy Congregations, he uses the systems theory to look at churches, taking Friedman's work even further. Some denominations have resource people who use this to help the Pastor in difficult situations and to help the congregation become healthy.

    Net, you just need to become one of the matriarchs, good comment. I want to say this about the pathlogical antagonist, it is not calling a person a name or labeling a person. The pathlogical antagonist is part of the system and the system has chosen to let that person control, rule, threaten them, but the system has needed that person, ergo, an unhealthy system whether, work, family, or church. But sometimes you better know what and whom you are dealing with. I guess having dealt with a lot of pathologies on the Psych units,and as a counselor, I do sometimes lean that way. It was really hard for me to learn the systems theory and apply it. This last year I was in a group that was studying and presenting cases using the Peter Steinke's work. When I moved I had to resign from the study group. I hope to get back into it, once things are more settled where I am.

    To anonymous, send your question to the email link ask the Matriarch over on the side bar, tell us you want to remain anonymous, and the Matriarchs will pray and answer you question the best we can.

    Thanks again Galley cat, good job, well done! It reads like a book. Might we save this an put together a book?

  9. Oops, RevAbi: I had that in there and accidentally edited it out. I'll restore it. Sorry about that.

    This is what I get for going out for coffee with friends and suddenly realizing that it's 11 p.m. and I still haven't gotten my AtM out yet.

  10. Great stuff, all!

    I guess it's time to take Friedman's book off the To Be Read Shelf and open it up...I had never gotten past the intro, for some reason.

    I like the suggestion about giving the person three choices--reminds me of when my son was little. I didn't ask him what he wanted to wear, I asked him if he wanted to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt...made life much easier.

    Off to read!

    PS I'm Bat-Blogging today! Up momentarily...

  11. I love this series and have started looking forward to what each week's advice will hold. Gallycat, your writing/compiling skills are masterful. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

  12. I support the idea of compiling these for a book later on- it is very much needed "out there"

  13. Lordy, this is good stuff. The advice and the presentation makes me ever so happy. And PPB nearly made me fall out of my chair with the hymn selections. Ha ha.

  14. Rainbow Pastor, that's where it comes from. I used to be a school counselor. Kids (and people acting like them) sometimes need their choices limited for them. Ask a child "what do you want to eat?" and you may have to say no. Ask a child "do you want chicken or pizza" and you get to say yes.

    I think all of us want choices, particularly when we're feeling insecure. The key is offering choices that you're willing to live with. When you reject a choice made by someone that you gave a choice to, you lose trust.

    And if it's a three year old, you get a tantrum.

  15. There is an old film out there put out by, I think, Lutheran Brotherhood, before the Thrivent merger, called The Anxious Church. I saw it during a workshop I attended on crisis communication in a church setting. The film dealt quite a bit with the "pathological antagonist" personality, and pointed out that these are quite often people who for various reasons feel disempowered and unlistened-to in their own immediate personal lives, who find ways to exert power elsewhere in their circles of affiliation.

    One of the points made in the film was, as has been noted in a previous post, to be open and transparent with what's going on to peers, to church council members, to one's superiors. The film also stressed giving the person a fair, full-attention hearing...but sticking to your guns instead of caving or using equivocating language.

    Anyway...I can't do justice to all the good advice in the film, but it's helpful. And the story line ("worship wars" in a congregation, with a new pastor caught in the middle and the former pastor being pressured by some parishoners to get involved and "fix it") is one that a lot of us can relate to from past experience.

  16. I saw a film like that in an LMPC training. They had a follow up film showing healthier behaviors. One of the systems tenets is that this isn't necessarily pathological--behavior like this is inherent in every system. The only person whose behaviors and attitudes I can manage is me. One person behaving in a healthy way can influence a system. Unfortunately, we have our church systems interacting with our judicatory systems interacting with our immediate family systems with our family of origin systems. This is why we recommend books.

    In my last church, I had to have others around me to say, "We have a savior. You are not him. It is not up to you to save this church." My conference system is not set up to provide the support a pastor needs to stay the course in a church experiencing conflict. There are times when it is necessary to shake the dust from your feet.

  17. The film you are talking about is part of Peter Steinke facilitator training for Healthy Congregations. I have the videos.

  18. I'm deeply disturbed Stump's description of the ministry director who had the nerve to tell a female pastor she has "no respect for women who think they can be pastors." That really does blow me away. I've been on both sides of the pulpit, and I'm a lay staff member now. I cannot imagine staying a staff member if I EVER expressed such a profound lack of respect to our pastor (a woman) or anyone else! There is no excuse for such a thing! Honestly, I think that kind of blatant disrespect for ANYONE expressed by ANY staff member ought to be addressed by the group that functions as your church's personnel committee. I know you said she's been around for 20 years, Stumped, and that could be a difficult factor. But you're there, so it is not a theological "no-no" for a woman pastor to serve that church. Therefore, that kind of attitude is absolutely inappropriate in a staff member. They must deal with it, or the perception that this individual has the right to treat you (or anyone) this way WILL continue. I don't have any suggestions to offer for how to accomplish this "meeting of the minds," unfortunately. I just know that any church that actually condones that kind of behavior from a member of their staff is in a really bad way. :(

  19. Good discusion. But now it's time for a lighter moment. Got this in an email from one of "my nuns" today. (She's 93 years young and emails me every day!) I altered it slightly to fit the RevGals arena:

    Up for Church:
    One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her [daughter] and tell her it was time to get ready for church, to which she replied, "I'm not going."

    "Why not?" she asked.

    I'll give you two good reasons," she said. "One, they don't like me, and two, I don't like them."

    His mother replied, "I'll give YOU two good reasons why YOU SHOULD go to church. (1) you're 59 years old, and (2) you're the pastor!"


  20. Psalmist, you're exactly right that a church that condones that sort of behavior from a staff member is in a really bad way. However, it is the reality in many, many churches. And it's not just with women pastors. Ask some of our clergy brothers what kind of hell long-tenured church secretaries or musicians have put them through. Particularly in a church where the pastor's tenure is short (less than 5 years), church members don't want to hear anything negative about staff members who have "carried" a church or a ministry. They'll attribute the problem to the pastor--the person they don't know.

    As one friend of mine said, "We live in a culture where pastors have become expendable." I'm not trying to crush anyone's excitement about ministry. Take it as an incentive to get all the training you can in congregational systems, understand your own family system, and make your self care your first priority.

  21. Susan, I concur with what you and everyone else has said. It's excellent advice and it's a superb reading list. I was hoping simply to be a "barometer" of sorts about the fact that such attitudes and actions are absolutely wrong, no matter when or where or by whom they occur. I am the musician, and I've been the secretary and the youth and children's minister in various church venues--and have been a local (non-ordained) pastor. I'm a cradle Methodist who's pretty much seen it all from within that tradition for the past 47 years. I know I sometimes wondered if I was just "taking too much personally" when I was a rookie, solo pastor and the occasional (fortunately fairly minor) stinky stuff happened. I didn't have a great support system there in the boonies. It would have done wonders for me to hear from a layperson outside my community that "No, it is NOT OK for Susie-Q to express that kind of disrespect to you or to anyone else. If I were a member of your church, I'd stand up at the next council meeting and say exactly that and I'd make my actions match my words. You should not have to contend with that kind of animosity from a fellow Christian, whether a staff colleague or a member of your church. I can't fix it for you, but I will pray that your church's lay members who have their heads on straight will step up and take care of this so you can focus on the tasks of ministry that ARE your responsibility." So Stumped, in case that welcome that kind of a reality check, consider that message given to you by this layperson. :) You and Troubled are both in my prayers.

    I think until the laity of a church hits "critical mass" with an attitude that says "Not on our watch" about condoning such bad behavior in their midst, it's likely to continue and even grow worse. I have seen churches turn things around from that kind of stuff twice in my staff years, though, so I know it CAN happen. However, I wasn't the one directing the changes I observed so I don't know a lot of the details. The only common factors I can say with certainty made a difference were: MUCH prayer, an unwavering commitment to solid worship (including excellent biblical preaching), and a commitment to structured small groups, including good Bible study groups. I really have seen key lay leaders take unpopular, prominent stands about unholy behavior committed by staff members and other lay members. I saw one long-tenured staff member quit, but one staff member and one longtime volunteer treasurer who underwent remarkable spiritual growth, who after a time gave genuine support to the pastors(men) they'd opposed at the beginning of the pastorates I observed. As near as I can tell, a pastor who stays healthy as possible and who facilitates an environment in which the congregation can get healthier, may be blessed with a healthier congregation in time.

    Again, amen about the great suggestions everyone has offered. This feature is a fabulous addition to RGBP!

  22. Psalmist well said, and it needs to be said. However, too many churches are held hostage by persons like this one. And it is time that churches quit condoning such bad behavior.


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