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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Power Play Edition

Our question this week arose as a comment in the ATM column two weeks ago...

Despite being in full time ministry 15 years now, I have just recently come into a charge where the unofficial female lay leader, who happens to be church secretary (and wants to be my personal assistant) is severely threatened by my presence - and she has her own band of supporters who also make life difficult. I'm doing my best to be squeaky clean and professional and not get caught up in the power games that are ongoing but I resent the energy it is sapping when there is a huge parish to be served. Any advice?

From Sue, who blogs at Inner Dorothy
I often wonder why so much of our professional energy is taken up with "putting out fires" when it could be used in so many other, more Spirit-filled ways. But alas, such is parish life. I think you are doing exactly what I would recommend. Do your ministry, be professional and do everything in your power to disarm the power games. In my experience, if you don't engage in the games/battles for power, they fizzle out very quickly. Soon the unofficial female lay leader will look behind her and find out that she's out there with her banner waving, but no one will be marching behind her. Instead they will be admiring your maturity, professionalism and strength of character.

I know - all of that is easier said than done, but it's worth the effort. Ignore the nonsense and punch a pillow when you get home to let all the frustration out. Trust that God has your back and keep on with your ministry.

Karen suggests that anyone in this situation review a few good books on "Churches as Family Systems"--and perhaps pay for a consult with someone who specialized in this field if you think the situation is bad enough.

Mompriest from Seeking Authentic Voice also recommends a very useful book: Antagonists in the Church, How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict” by Kenneth C. Haugk.
There are many complicated and not so complicated reasons why people pull “Powerplay” maneuvers . Sometimes it is a fear of change. Sometimes it is a need to control. Sometimes it is just someone who has been waiting for an opportunity. And sometimes it is a person who is an active Antagonist.

The Characteristics of the antagonist: Is his or her behavior disruptive? Is the attack irrational? Does the person go out of the way to initiate trouble? Are the person’s demands insatiable? Are the concerns upon which he or she bases the attack minimal or fabricated? Does the person avoid causes that involve personal risk, suffering, or sacrifice? Does the person’s motivation appear selfish? The antagonist has a negative self-image, is aggressive, narcissistic, rigid, and authoritarian to a greater degree than a “normal” person with some similar characteristics.

Conflict with an antagonist cannot be addressed in the usual “healthy” ways because they are not healthy people; the antagonist is not interested in healing the relationship, they are not interested in the healing that forgiveness can bring; the antagonist will not change; they act this way in church and in other areas of their lives out of a sense of low self-esteem;, but churches have a way of tolerating this bad behavior longer than most other areas of life.

Any meeting with an active antagonist has the potential to be reduced to a three ring circus with the antagonist the ring-master. The primary concerns of the antagonist at every meeting are: How can I control? And How can I disrupt? These may not be conscious concerns.

The response to an antagonist:
  • Follow Established Policies;
  • Use Clear Channels of Communication and Teach Healthy Communication;
  • Have Job Descriptions;
  • Use a Broad Base of Responsibility;
  • Discipline that Works – whatever your denominational discipline procedures are – follow them;
  • Let People Know What you are going to do before you do it;
  • Have a United Front;
  • Have a support group for the church staff (and vestry?).
Of course the person may not be an “Antagonist” in which case some healthier responses may work. These include setting some good boundaries and building trust. Focusing on the needs of the church and building on the strengths of this situation are more important than catering to the person who is demanding attention and detracting everyone from the work that needs to be done. The mission of the church comes first.

From Jan who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists
Dear Sister,
This is one of those really difficult issues that makes us question:
- Is it ever a good idea to have parishioners in staff positions? (it's hard to fire a church member) - Are some lay women angry at clergywomen just because they too would like to be in professional ministry and aren't?
- Can you change a system that doesn't want to change?

First you need to pray your head off. Ask God to give you the demeanor, the words, the wisdom to handle this. (You know this part.) Then, you need to put on your big girl pants and have a meeting with this secretary and your personnel chairperson or someone else (preferably a man or someone she respects) and share that you are in a difficult situation in that you are both her supervisor and her pastor.

Boundaries are crucial: she cannot be your employee and your parishioner in the same breath. (Example: I once told our nursery director - who was a church member - that she could no longer do something and she came back with "I need you to visit my sister who is really lonely.") Stay on point with this sister in the Lord.

Next, you need to have a meeting with this secretary and her posse. This is required. They will not want to meet, but they have to for the good of the church. "I know you care about our church and for the health of the church, I need to meet with you." Again, take at least one leader with you who is supportive. And just share the truth: I am the pastor. If we are going to thrive in this ministry and serve God and this community, we are going to have to work together. My role is ___. Your role is ___. I really want to work with all of you but I've found it difficult because of: (share specific comments or situations that made it difficult to do your ministry.) Be authentic and direct. Favorite mantra: "In a healthy church . . ." as in 'In a healthy church the staff doesn't gossip about the pastor." Get a coach or counselor.

And if this doesn't improve - you probably should leave for your own sanity and well-being.

And from Earthchick at Earthchicknits
What an unpleasant and potentially dangerous position to be in, not to mention a toxic working environment. It's hard to get specific advice without knowing the specifics of what is going on, but in general I think the course you have chosen (being professional, not getting caught up in the power games) is a wise one.

Is there a pastor relations committee and/or personnel committee you could talk with about this? I have found that it is so important not to deal with this kind of problem alone. If you can bring others into the loop (without slandering the secretary), you may find your own energy less sapped; members on such a committee may also have more history with the secretary and could add a helpful perspective as you grapple with how to deal with her.

In your position, I would also want to do my best to reach out to her "band of supporters" on an individual basis - help them get to know you as their pastor, rather than in whatever light she is casting you. You may also want to consider documenting (confidentially) any problems you are having with the secretary. You never know when a written record of events might be necessary when dealing with personnel issues.

There's a lot of excellent advice there an insight or experience that you might add? Please use the comment function to join in the conversation.

May you live in God's amazing grace+

image courtesy of


  1. Jan is absolutely right. You have to meet this head on or it will eat you alive. I love ignoring things and hoping they will go away but it won't work in this situation. And my guess is there was no way to anticipate this before you got there.

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  4. let me try again...

    Mompriest said it... job description. If a job description isn't in place... how do you ever justify asking someone to leave... or change... or do something better? If a job description isn't in place... what is the basis for not gossiping about who's calling the church... who's not coming to church?

    The job description give her boundaries... and gives you a way to enforce those boundaries. If she isn't willing to sign a covenant to say that she will follow the new job description... then she goes. If she doesn't follow the new job description she goes. If she does agree and follows the job description... then the ball is back in your court to deal with how you "feel" about her.

    If she already has a job description... then read it (until you know it by heart basically)... and start making sure she is following it. If she is... great. If she isn't start documenting what she's doing incorrectly. Then personnel committee can figure out a) training; b) corrective conversation; c) dismissal; d) whatever needs to take place... which may include coming back to you and saying... we think you need to change some things.

    The other part of the job description... is the annual review. She needs to set goals each year (that match the goals of the congregation)... get feedback for the previous year... and know what's expected of her in the upcoming year. When she walks in the room that day for the review... she should NOT be surprised at what she's told. Because she should be getting praised for what she's doing right... or help/correction on her growing edges... every day.

  5. AMEN to the job description and expectations. Also, since she is a church member, she may need to be reminded what is "job" and what is "ministry" -- example...

    - she types and proofs and produces the bulletin (job)
    - she takes apart altar arrangements and delivers them to shut-ins each Sunday afternoon (ministry)

    - she prepares giving statements and mails them to parishioners (job)
    - she teaches middle school Sunday school (ministry)

    - she staffs the reception desk 20 hours a week (job)
    - she sings in the church choir (ministry)

    I have found that church members who are exerting pressure usually are doing so in areas of their ministry, not their job. It's one of the reasons that I encourage my volunteers (care ministry) to sign a one-year commitment every fall, as well as agree to a sabbatical every so often.

    Just my penny's worth..

  6. This is so exactly what happened to me when I came to this congregation 6 years ago, except - I was brand new right out of seminary and I didn't have you all to help me through it. I did make it through with the help of supportive church members and regional staff, (who actually did give me mostly the same advice the Matriarchs are providing here today) and lots and lots of prayer.

  7. Thirty years when I was ordained I found the same women/woman in the first church I served. She had worked her way up the female power ladder and then as ordained clergy I landed a rung above in terms of authority and knowledge. These/this woman is in every church. Learn on this one and then the next ones will be easier. You've gotten good advice from the other matriarchs.. I'll be praying for you.. For energy and protection from that which saps your energy

  8. Ps if you do have any kind of Meeting about her and her role do not do it alone... Have someone there for 'witness' and support. Like a personnel committee person or... protects her mis-representing her position or what was said/not said.

  9. After almost 30 years in parish ministry, I would suggest something that might gall you, but it works.

    Being professional only gets you so far in this business. And I think after all of these psychological efforts we have utilized in "the business", I would offer this.

    Most likely, what you call "power plays" from the sec/matiriarch of the congregation just wants you to love her. Yes, even the battle axes really want the pastor/rector to have a special relationship with the pastor.

    This goes against the grain of our ideas of being the leader, THE pastor or whatever. But when it comes to push and shove, most of the congregation wants to be loved by the one who has come to love them. Make the secretary YOUR sectretary--I don't mean for you to be phoney. But we are called as pastors to love the ones that are hard to love. Appreciate her leadership. Give her lots of credit for what she does.

    Pastors are always a flash in the pan of the continuing communities called church. She will be there long after you're gone. Tend the community that is already there and already formulated. You can have much more influence if you work from what is already there than if you come in with all your "professionalism".

    Yes, they want your leadership, but more that that they want you to care for them, lift up what they have been doing for dog's years and bring them to it.

    Of course you are a threat to your matriarch/sec. You think your job is to run the place--something she has been doing quite well without you. But your job is to love her. Your job is not to show your authority. It is to love her back into being the real lay leadership of the congregation which you need. Most of all, take your time. Don't try to clean out stuff unless you are an interim. If you are an interim, you are supposed to clean out the closets. But as pastor--love 'em and then you will have all the authority you will need because they will give it you and you won't have to ASSERT it.

  10. I had one of these...over the course of a protracted part-time interim appointment, she had appropriated all kinds of authority and power...things got more and more toxic (I believe she reported daily to my predecessor, who remained in the near-area) until a well-placed parishioner hired her away, bless him.

  11. Oy this story is universal!

    This was my former parish! The secretary, who was also a member, ruled the roost. She had close friendships within all the committees and organization, and she could do no wrong. When I tried to act professionally, I was accused of being cold and unfriendly. When I stated my needs, and my preferences for procedures, I was told: "This is the way we do things."

    It was impossible to speak honestly with my pastor's committee because they'd telephone her after the meeting, and the next day she'd ask me questions that only an insider would know. There was no confidentiality: they said confidentiality bred secrets which were destructive.This relationship was brutal because the power people on the church board thought she was invaluable. I spent most of my time doing what I could to stay out of the office.

    I sought therapy and was counseled to find another parish for my own health and safety.

    I've been in my new parish for over 2 years, and my former parish still hasn't called a full time replacement- so much for healthy systems.

    I don't know if there is an easy way out of this: as a newly called pastor, you are coming into a system that's been in place for years. Obviously it has worked in the past, and a new pastor brings with her all kinds of changes and threats to the system. Most people have more loyalty to their system than they do to a person they hardly know.

  12. sage1 - I think you raise a really good point - most people are loyal to the system the live in, not the change that a new person brings...and so often the only answer is to get out...

  13. Muthah+ -

    Amen, amen, and amen. Thank you!


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