A reader asks:
What are some ways of creatively dealing with a perpetually antagonistic, negative parishioner/lay leader/fellow staff member -- someone for whom "the answer's always NO!", and whose negative attitudes have a tendency to rub off on others?
Hmmm, bury your head in the sand? No? Perhaps that’s not helpful. Let’s turn to three of our beloved Matriarchs and gain the benefit of their experience in these difficult matters.
St. Casserole gives us a healthy and humorous perspective:
God gave us a sense of humor for just this circumstance. These negative folks abound! And, they are hilarious! We'd miss them if they left us for more fertile crabby territory!
Several strategies: make sure you know their spiel thoroughly. After paying rapt attention either in a group or asking to visit with them in private (pay them healthy attention! you aren't afraid! you are fascinated!), repeat their miseries back to them. This does several things: you are acknowledging their perspective in a respectful manner and you will be able to think through their objections. You don't argue with them. You listen and reflect what they say back to them.
In an affectionate way, tease them about their tendency to be negative. Don't feel affection for them? Pray for them until you do. Ministry is hard work.
When I see “Ann” (the poster child for "I Despise Everything this Church Does but I Am Here Everytime the Doors Open") at the church across the street, I ask her how she is. I want to know. If I begin giggling with delight about her complaints, she smiles with me. I'm not dismissing her complaints but laughing with her at her world view. She hasn't liked a pastor, church secretary, church member etc. etc. in the 15 years I've known her.
Careful with your irony here. It's cruel to taunt people. The genuine affection developed by prayer for and attentiveness to the "Ann" in your midst, gives you the light touch to laugh and enjoy the "Ann" without hostility.
All this takes time and for people-pleasers, like many clergy, we feel rejected or down-trodden by the nay-sayers. Mais non! Come at them from a different angle and be their loving preacher. You don't have to agree with them, support their negative junk or get sucked into their world view.
Ministry, as I mentioned, is hard work. And, funny.
Jan of A Church for Starving Artists starts by admitting that none of what she suggests is ever easy and is probably impossible except by the grace of God:
*Pray for them -- that they will 1) not damage the church, 2) go away, and/or 3) find themselves on the road to Damascus.
**Pray for yourself -- that you will 1) be protected from the negativity, 2) be your best self even in the presence of their antagonism, and/or 3) always be able to afford regular therapy/pedicures/massages/vacations.
***Always take witnesses when you confront them. Confront in love and truth. And if necessary, ask them why they are there if everything is so terrible/wrong/disturbing to them.
****Last resort: I have a colleague who finally confronted a negative member and said, "You seem very unhappy. Maybe you would be happy in another congregation." (Or maybe he/she would also be unhappy in another congregation.)
Finally we hear from Abi, who has both advice and resources. Thanks, Abi, for the book list!
Aye, yi yi yi! Now that is a difficult one.
If it is a fellow staff member it would seem the Senior staff person needs to deal with this person, or the committee that deals with staff positions. It may be this person is depressed or it may be this is a chronic problem. As a leader the Senior person might want to deal with them. If they are under you, you might want to spend some time with them. Gently asking them about their attitude, their feelings, what's going on? How can you help them? Perhaps they don't want the position, but can't or won't say no, and may need some assurance that it is okay to step down.
If it’s a lay leader then maybe one of the lay leaders needs to deal with them in a loving yet firm way.
Sometimes we don't know how negative we are, and sometimes we do. Either way, it needs to be lovingly confronted and dealt with. I think if the person refuses to admit their feelings or dilemma, then you as the leader might have to say, you know you are just not the leader for this committee or this age group or whatever it is, perhaps there is another place your gifts and graces can be used.
I don't think we at the same time want yes people all the time or Pollyanna positive, we need the truth, and the truth spoken in love. Perhaps they need to know how to say “no” themselves in a loving and caring way.
If things can not be resolved, i.e. the staff person doesn't get help or improve, then they may need to be let go. Lay leaders or committee chairs may need to be removed from their leadership positions.
Parishioners, you will have those who are negative. I have them talk to me. And then I say okay, you have had your say now. Let it go. Or that's a good point let me deal with it.
The bottom line seems to be making sure the negative person has had an opportunity to be heard and to know it, to be clear about our own approach rather than clouded by our frustration, then to take appropriate steps if continued negativity impacts ministry. Your polity and mine may vary, but there is almost always a means built in to address those who clearly ought not be in their positions anymore, whether those are lay folk, staff or other ordained clergy. The hard part is discerning when that moment has come and having the strength to use whatever our process is correctly rather than being dragged into negative patterns ourselves.
Also, remember to pray!
If you have a question for our Matriarchs, please send it to Ask the Matriarch, along with prayers for Gallycat, whose medical difficulties continue.
Now, here’s the Booklist:
Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict
Speaking the Truth in Love
How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems
Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What
Hope in Conflict: Finding Wisdom in Congregational Turmoil