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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - The Drama Grandmama

This week's question concerns one of those people who threatens to suck all the energy out of a congregation and its members. Even if we haven't dealt with these particular circumstances, most of us have tried to minister to people whose need never seems to be filled. How do you show care to someone such as this, while still caring for the wider congregation and drawing appropriate boundaries?

One of our parishoners is a single custodial grandmother with three active little grandchildren who struggles to wrest order out of the chaos of her life. She's someone who, as a friend of mine would say, the 70's didn't treat well, who has battled substance abuse and various dysfunctional behaviors in her own young adulthood. Now she has permanent custody of three kids maybe 6 to 11 years of age, who've had a host of medical and emotional problems. She works third shift, which poses additional challenges to her attempts to raise her grandkids. So she, as they say, has some serious issues.

Our problem as a congregation: This woman has a tendency to dominate every church conversation and turn it into a litany of her own personal problems and needs. She's driven people out of our Bible study because instead of discussing the texts in question she uses them as jumping-off points for long monologues about what's going on in her life at the moment. (One of our study dropouts told me, in some frustration, "I signed up to learn about the Letter to the Romans; not to sit in on one person's group therapy.") During morning announcements, she'll stand up and talk about a personal problem or need -- for instance, the other week when our confirmation-class kids thanked the congregation for their support of the kids' fundraiser, she got up and said, "I just want to apologize for not coming to your event because...." and launched into yet another tale of woe.

This lady is hooked into the social services system, and help from her local school system, so we know that she's already getting various types of help for her grandkids; she is not totally without other supports in the community. We help her with things like camp scholarships for the kids, and I know individual members have also given the children school supplies, clothes and other items. We've also given the grandmother some references to other programs that may be able to assist her with specific family needs. So we're trying to help this family; but sometimes, frankly, the melodramatics and pushiness get in the way.

How can we gently help this woman manage her neediness, for lack of a better phrase, in a way that respects the needs and feelings of other parishoners, many of whom struggle with their own difficult life situations? Thanks for your suggestions.

Sunday's Coming writes:
This is a tough one: it sounds as if your community is giving this person so much and I'm sure lots of us recognise the issue you're facing. As you recognise, to her it feels that she's not getting enough - so she's taking up time in inappropriate places.

Maybe time is key here: is there a way of giving her a regular time that she knows is hers? With just one or two trusted people - not problem-solving but just listening, supporting, praying. Make it clear to her that this is her space, and not all the other spaces in church life. Here she can let her guard down, but in other places it is not always appropriate to unload quite so much. The message is we want to listen to you - but we want to listen here, not in Bible study and other places that have other things to do.

Of course you need to be clear about boundaries - one of the things I frequently have to remind myself is that I must not offer someone something that cannot be sustained - better to offer to meet once a month for an hour and DO that, than to offer an afternoon a wekk and get exhausted and unable to continue after a short time.

mompriest offers:
This is a challenge for two reasons: One; the "Church" and it's members want to be "good" Christians, which means supporting and helping this woman. Two: the woman has very poor boundaries. The first thing is that the Pastor in charge and a lay leader need to have a conversation with her and share the experiences of the parish - that folks are leaving adult formation classes etc. when she shares too much about her life. It may be that she just needs someone to tell her that she is giving too much information in a public forum and that that kind of personal sharing is best done one-on-one. Offer to meet with her for three sessions and then let her know that three sessions are the limits of what you can do (perhaps because you are not trained and insured to provide long term therapy), then give her a couple of referrals to therapists that work on a sliding scale.
Then in addition to laying this teaching/boundary on her the Pastor in Charge needs to teach the rest of the lay leadership on how to provide appropriate responses. If she stands in the middle of a service and goes on a tirade then one of the lay leaders needs to be primed to stand up and say something like, "N.N. knowing that we are all praying for you, you need to continue this one on one, please see me after the worship service." Let her know ahead of time that if she goes off on a tangent in any public setting, whether a class or worship, that one of the lay leaders will intervene in this manner.
The rest of the parish will be grateful, especially if it is done firmly but with compassion.
The key is for the Pastor in Charge to be firm, clear, compassionate, and to have lay folk who are comfortable and able to do this - or folk who are willing to rehearse this so that they are able.

Diane writes:
I think this is a tough one precisely because the church wants to be a caring, supportive community, and so it's hard for us to know what to do. We feel that we should be endlessly compassionate, and do understand the kinds of hardships that people have do deal with.
I don't have any easy answers, because there many be, as well as the financial and physical hardships, also mental health issues that are part of the reason this woman is behaving the way she is. In a Bible study session, I might want to initiate a really strict policy for sharing (no one shares twice until everyone has a chance). I've had issues with people who monopolized the conversations/discussions for different reasons, and used "gimmicks" (such as having people hold an item while they are talking and passing it along to the next person when they are done).
It might be helpful for this woman if she also spent some time helping others, although re-reading her issues, I'm not sure if she would be able to do that. However, doing some volunteer activity herself might give her a sense of what others go through.
I'm looking forward to what others say! I think the church can be firm, but loving, when she tries to take over every conversation, but I also know that this is easier said than done.

Karen writes:
You could take a direct approach and simply tell her that it's simply not helpful to focus on her family's problems in public worship or bible study, but that anytime she wants to talk you're available. Then pull out your calendar and say, "Let's make an appointment, how's next Tuesday at 3pm?" Then make a prior arrangement with your sanest deacon/elder etc. and the next time she tries to hijack worship say, "Wow Jean, that sounds really difficult. Alice? How about you and Jean go back to the library and pray about this while we get started with worship . . . " You could make a similar arrangement for bible study.

These are all suggestions that involve a caring, firm approach that takes seriously the needs of the congregation while seeking to minister to the individual. What thoughts do the rest of you have? Have any of you successfully dealt with someone who threatened to drain the congregation, or turned people away with his/her neediness? Share your experience!


  1. We had a similar experience in my home church. The idea of derailing the monologue by suggesting an off-line conversation helped sometimes. what we ended up doing which worked for a while until she got ticked off about something and left the parish was to assign a Stephen Minister to her. In fact, there were a sequence of them, since she tended to burn them out after a few months.

    If the person in this story is like the one we worked with, there were serious mental health issues that complicated things a bit - I'm glad this person is in the social services system, although she should be getting some help as well, not just the gandkids. This story is a reminder that the church is the hospital for wounded souls, and sometimes a specialist is required to help with the healing.

  2. I love the title of this post!

  3. This is a great question - even though we dont all have This Person, in our church, surely every church community takes more time/energy/space than seems fair.

    First of all, I would say dont be afraid to interrupt. We usually wait for a person to get to the end of a thought (or at least take a breath!) before talking, but I think sometimes we just have to stop a chronic "sharer" in their tracks.

    I have a person like this in my Bible study. One day, I talked with him privately after class about how when a person who has a lot to say talks all the time, it doesnt leave space for those who need to take more time to think. Then, I asked "will you help me make space for the others in the class?" and he agreed. Now, when he starts talking on and on, I interrupt him with "let's make space for others thoughts" and then I call on someone else by name. I think it helped to have a "key phrase" like that.

    I'm not sure that I agree with Mompriest (just this once!). When a person is issue-laden, I dont think it helps to come at them head-on like that, it often jsut leads to defensiveness and YOU feeling like the bad guy, which is the last thing you need.

    I DO think having a few people to pray with/for her regularly is a really great idea. Then, when she starts to de-rail (in worship say), you can interrupt right where in your written accoutn you put the ellipses.... to say "that sounds like something to bring in depth to prayer group" and then firmly, "Thank you, Grandma" and then call on someone else.

    In fact, I bet LOTS of us could use such a prayer group! Maybe we all could get them even if we're not in and making trouble.

  4. I've heard people like this called "EGRs" (Extra Grace Required). And it's true. They do! BUT... the Church is for all people not just one who is needy and hurting, and worship is about taking a moment to get out of our own little world and focus on God and all that God can and will do. So I think limiting behaviors and groundrules are important.

    Another thought would be that you have another way of offering the personal prayer requests and announcements than having an 'open mic'... so prayer requests get written on index cards, announcements are passed to the worship leader BEFORE church starts, etc. A few weeks of "experimenting" -- call it "streamlining your summer service" -- to break the habit.

    While I appreciate this woman's huge needs, I think about the people who come once and say, "I can't take a church like this" and leave -- and maybe they have needs too.

    just musing... brain may or may not be properly engaged...



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