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?).
From Jan who blogs at A Church for Starving Artists
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 here...is 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 www.wesleyunitedchurch.ca