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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Ask the Matriarch - The Vituperative Parishioner

From time to time, we hear about our friends dealing with people in the parish who make life difficult for other parishioners or the pastor or both! We lift you up in prayer, friends. And this week we highlight one such situation.

But before we go on to that, two items of housekeeping. One, a tremendous thank you to Listing Straight for holding down the fort on Ask the Matriarch while I was turning my life upside down and rifling through all the pockets. New house, new job, new car, and summer-of-kid-growing-an-inch-a-week now all accounted for. I have my health back. (And for these blessings, I give thanks!) Listing Straight will continue to help out with the column when I can't make it, but thanks to that shiny new job you now get Gallycat AtMs bright and early Thursday morning.

The second item is that it's been a while since we added any new matriarchs, and with our ever growing population, I thought I'd extend the invitation to members of the ring. If you are a RevGal with at least 10 years experience in ordained ministry and have an interest in participating, please let us know so we can add you to the question distribution list. All questions are kept confidential. Questioners and potential answerers can write us at

Now, on to this week's question. This parishioner, in his 70s, has been a member of her church forever, it seems:

He has been a pillar of the church and chair of the Trustees for years. However, old age, Parkinson's disease, anger, etc.
have made him borderline abusive. He called one of our members who hasn't been coming to church and told him that his mother's memorial garden needed to be ripped out and re-sodded because his family wasn't taking care of it the way they had promised. During this conversation, Trustee guy called Absent Guy "A traitor to the church".

I know that there are some anger issues involved in Parkinson's (my grandfather died from this disease). However, I think that he crossed the line. I'm really at a loss about how to handle this. Salvaging Absent Guy's involvement in the church is very doubtful (He has already begun attending another local church). My question is how do I curb the tongue and actions of Trustee Guy without causing some kind of rift in the church?

Earthchick writes:
This kind of acting out has to be confronted. If I were in this situation, I would first contact my Pastor Relations Committee to let them know of what was going on and the fact that I was going to be confronting the person. I would listen to any concerns they might have.

In our church structure, we also have a lay leader who serves as Moderator. I would bring this person into the loop as well; alerting her to the situation and listening for any insight. I might also contact the head of the Trustees to advise him/her of the problem (unless this guy himself is the Chair; I couldn't tell from your question if he is still serving in this capacity). If I felt uncomfortable confronting Trustee guy on my own, then I would ask the Moderator to join me in the conversation.

I think that talking with the PRC, the Moderator and, possibly, the head of the Trustees would go a long way towards heading off potential rifts in the church over confronting this guy. Obviously, it depends on the dynamics of your church system, and you do need to make sure to listen to any concerns that any of those leaders raise. But I would also be very clear with all of them about how damaging this sort of behavior is, and how it cannot go on unchecked.

This is part of pastoral work that I feel I was least prepared for by my seminary education, and yet it is so necessary to be able to step in and deal with people who are acting in inappropriate and hurtful ways. I wish I had more specific advice about what to actually say to this guy, but I don't. I do think the specific incident needs to be brought up to him, for it to be pointed out to him what exactly what inappropriate and why, and for it to be expressed clearly that such behavior is hurtful and unacceptable. There may be some fallout from such a conversation, and it certainly won't be easy. But I do believe it's necessary, and if you can pull some other lay leaders into the loop ahead of time I think the fallout can potentially be minimized.

Jan says:
Yikes! Whatever you do, do it with two other church leaders, particularly leaders who are trusted by the Trustee. Let him know 1) that what he did was inappropriate and against the core values of your church and 2) what the next steps will be.

You can name him a Trustee Emeritus and thank him for his ministry over the past several years, explaining "We can't have you speaking on behalf of the church and speaking so destructively." Make no compromises on this. You know that he loves his church and because he loves his church, he will want what is best for the whole. (Declare this. Don't ask him if he agrees.)

If Trustee has family members who can back you up -- all the better.

Write a letter of apology on behalf of the church to Absent Guy and remind him that the Memorial Garden continues to be a lovely tribute to his mother. Also mention that the Trustee is suffering from some issues related to illness and his harsh words were 1) out of character for him, in terms of how the church has known him for so many years and 2) completely out of line. You apologize and mention that your first wish is for him to be fed spiritually. You completely understand if the circumstances means that he and his family are better fed at another church.

Yes, this is a difficult situation, but you can show what you and your congregation are made of by reaching out in love and compassion to all involved. This doesn't mean letting (even sick people) get away with abusing others. You can value people by holding them accountable. Maybe Trustee Guy and Absent Guy will both leave your congregation. But the others will see that you are modeling and expecting compassion. And they will know that you are striving to make the church safe for all.

Karen adds:
You don't mention what denomination you are in. In mine, trustees have terms and cannot serve more than two terms consecutively. Is there a natural end to his position on the trustees? Can you suggest to whatever board or nominating committee or whatever will be deciding who is on the next slate that due to his increasing ill health it would be unkind to ask him to serve again? This won't totally solve the problem: he will probably still make inappropriate, abrasive remarks to church members--but if he's not a trustee anymore, these remarks won't have power of office behind them.

Does he have family with whom you can approach this as a pastoral care concern? Something like, "Your Dad seems very depressed lately. I'm worried about him. How is it for you and the rest of the family?"

The fact that someone reported this incident to you shows that other people are concerned about this too. Enlist their cooperation in working on a solution rather than allowing them to make it your problem.

Finally ...
For some additional reading on dealing with difficult parishioners, we have a few past columns that might be helpful:
Contagious Negativity
And our second AtM ever, Grace and Toxicity.

What say you, other RevGals and BlogPals? Ever had to politely say, "It's time to retire?" Or did you have to take firmer actions?


  1. I have not yet had to ask someone to step down, but the day is fast approaching for both our organist and our treasurer. The organist cannot/will not cooperate with the director of music, but she is a volunteer so cannot be fired! The treasurer is also a volunteer who has taken to seeing all of the church funds as his funds and becomes loud angry and inappropriate when asked to sign checks, even refusing flat out to sign them at times.
    Thank you matriarchs for the advise, I'm sure I will use it soon.

  2. When my former office admin became anxious and bitter on the job, requiring more pastoral care on a daily basis than was either wise or faithful, I finally had to "give her permission to quit". Of course, this works best when the person really wants to give up the leadership role but doesn't know how.

    I began by acknowledging her pain and frustration and helping her to see that there was a way out: quitting. Then I helped her to see a way to do this that was responsible both to her needs and the congregaton's needs.

    The work-load cost of having the office empty for a week or two was mitigated by the peace that entered the building when she last left as an employee.

    cpclergymama:I should think that even volunteers can be given permission to "retire." Throw them a party! Make them feel special! There were probably many years there that they were indeed good and faithful servants until something went sour for them.

  3. The advice to bring others in to this issue is right on target. Do not (ever) meet alone with someone who is abusive or has the potential to be so. In addition, the trustee chair, lay leader, and/or pastor relations chair need to be brought into the loop immediately, and to be a part of any action that is taken.
    That said, whatever is done needs to be done in love and with sensitivity. It's a difficult situation to find yourself in, and you're in my prayers, as is cpclergymama.
    I really appreciate the advice about the letter to Absent Guy as well.

  4. Update: The Trustee Chair is being replaced as of Jan. 1. That caused its own problems but I agree with the advice that it is better with him not having the power of the office behind him.

    I am still working on all the other issues. Thanks for the advice.


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