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Thursday, March 18, 2010
Ask the Matriarch - Life in the First Call Edition
Our question this week is predicated by a situation which sheds some light into the nature of this first-call congregation. The question your editor has bolded is one that is asked again and again in nearly every context. Perhaps that is what so many of our matriarchs have a prodigious amount of insight and support to offer.
So it is less than a month since we had our annual meeting where the congregation approved a budget which included paying me Synod Guidelines (minimums) and apparently a few people have approached the president with the desire to call a special congregational meeting to rescind my raise. Luckily my president told them that wasn't an option. But I doubt the issue is settled. I told my president and council that if a meeting is called to rescind my raise I will take that as a sign the congregation wants me to leave and begin filling out my paperwork. There is a handful of people who are chronically crabby about everything under the sun, I am a first call pastor with a lot to learn but I don't think there is a pastor alive who could make these people happy because their unspoken expectations are ridiculously high. So I have recently decided not to even try to placate them anymore and to turn my energy to the things that are life giving and growing in this congregation. There are a lot of people very excited about what I am doing and the possibilities it is creating. I think one of the reasons this group is so agitated right now is that they have lost influence in the congregation and are lashing out all the more.
How do you balance being the pastor to a handful of chronically crabby people without letting them always bully the congregation into short sighted and self serving decisions? I should note the patriarch of the congregation is annoyed with this group and for the most part excited about my ministry.
Earthchick, who blogs at earthchicknits.wordpress.com, offers the first of our many responses: Wow - that is some heavy stuff, especially for a first call. But I just have to say that I think everyone of your instincts about this is RIGHT ON. It sounds like these folks are feeling displaced and unhappy that they no longer hold the power they once did. If that's the case, then I think you are right to put your energies into what is giving life and growth to this congregation, rather than spending it on worrying about pleasing people who, frankly, seem unpleasable.
How to pastor the chronically crabby people while protecting the larger congregation? That will take ongoing discernment, courage, strength, and a sense of what your calling really is. I think you have a good start on it - you are clear about what the realities are and you are refusing to bow to the dysfunctions. It sounds to me like the rest of the congregation really needs you to be their leader and their advocate, and it sounds like you are ready to be that. Keep choosing that. Love the crabby people, pastor them as they allow you to, but don't be threatened by them. It's wonderful the your president and the church patriarch both seem to be on your side. You might want to consider having some honest conversations with one or both of them about the simmering resentments.
Best wishes to you. It is not easy, but it sounds like you are well-grounded and well-equipped to deal with this.
Bullies work by making people feel isolated, catching them when they’re vulnerable, by always being ready to push for what they want at meetings. As one potential target of this bullying, you need to know you’re not alone, get the arguments out in the open, make sure you have the support you need.
It might also help to talk to the known bullies one at a time: if they have unspoken expectations, is there a way of getting them – one-by-one (with the president or ‘patriarch’, too) to a meeting with you to talk through their unhappiness/expectations/crabby thoughts? Perhaps you could say something like ‘X, I feel you aren’t completely happy with my ministry here and I’d like to know what you’re thinking and feeling – can you & I, plus (your supportive person) meet to talk and pray together?’. They might of course refuse – but (God willing) you might just find there are some of their crabby thoughts you can do something about.
Example: I once had a church member who said ‘I hate it when you wander around during the sermon’ (my reaction: I prefer to be close to people when I talk with them and I dislike the symbolism of using the pulpit as a place to talk down to people) - but when we talked it was because she was getting quite deaf and found it easier to be able to see my face all the time – which she could when I was in the pulpit – so I decided to compromise & use the pulpit.
Of course there may be some issues on which you don’t want to compromise but you might just get the chance to explain your side of that issue to them.
Hope this helps a little – and prayer, too: get people you trust to pray for you & for them (chronic crabbyness is a nasty spiritual condition!).
A great book on the subject of conflict in congregations is Antagonists in the Church by Kenneth Haugk. I’ve found it to be a very helpful book and have suggested to lay leaders in the church as well. If you have a personnel committee or a parish-pastor relations committee, it would be good to make them aware of this situation, if they’re not yet already aware. If the appropriate people in your higher governing body are not yet aware of this situation (or even if they are) it would be good to be in contact with them. You’re doing well to focus your energies on that which is life-giving, but it’s also important to keep appropriate people aware of your struggle and work on a plan together to address it. I’m not sure what the real issue is, but if “ridiculously high expectations” are a part of the problem, then it’s appropriate to make sure that you, the leadership of the church, and the congregation as a whole are all apprised of what the healthy, agreed-upon expectations are. Get help in communicating those realistic expectations across the board and then be as non-anxious as you possibly can in meeting them and attending to your call. I’d also suggest that you and at least one supportive leader talk two-on-one to the crabby. Sometimes giving people the chance to be heard is a help—but do so with a “witness” and advocate who can help provide balance and perspective.
And finally, from a matriarch who may wish to post this anonymously...(if I am mistaken in that, please accept my apology)
You may feel that your colleagues got better ministry opportunities than you did. Your Church of the Chronically Crabby is a wonderful first call learning arena for you. I think the best of us get several of these churches during our careers. We learn, first hand, how to motivate and lovethe Chronically Crabby which allows us a level of ability other pastors do not achieve.
First, you are doing a great job if you realize that the C.C.'s are self-serving and short-sighted bullies. Bullies love church because so many pastors will do ANYTHING to avoid conflict or confrontation.We pastors don't come with thick skins at first, the C.C.'s teach us how to hear beyond the crabbiness, ignore the petty and find the disciple underneath all the muck. Our thick skins develop, over time, as we put aside our self-doubt and defensiveness, and begin to move forward discerning God's direction, despite the people around us.
I suggest you develop a plan to take care of yourself. If you want to fill out your paperwork to move, do this. Once you've done this, put the paperwork aside. Then, begin getting help with your anger at these crabby people by talking with a trusted colleague regularly. In addition, add these things to your weekly self-care list: make yourself listen deeply to the C.C.'s. You may know their complaints as well as you know the Gospel of John but this time, listen as if you are interviewing them for a NYTimes article.
Next, each week do something for yourself. Get a pedicure* or manicure, go have a massage, take a long walk without your cell phone, make something complicated in the kitchen or do a craft. The point is to develop places where you do something apart from ministry. You may be raising a child or running a household now but I'm suggesting you add to your to-do list things just for you. If you think you do not have time, you are mistaken.Self-care allows you to do all you do better.If you are not spending time reading the Bible devotionally, praying and finding quiet places to just stare, do these things. Now is the time to develop the Well of rich refreshment you need now and 20 years from now. Generations of Christians in tough times lean on God and the people of God for help.
*In the early days of RevGals, when we met each other in person, we took pictures of our feet to post in our blogs. The feet pics allowed us privacy from posting pictures of ourselves on the 'net.Even more important, feet pics showed off our pedicures. Some of us got our first pedicures after joining RevGals because pedicures became a symbol of our self-care. Then we got silly with the names of the OPI brand nail polish and laughed about "Waitress Red" and "Cajun Shrimp", both bright colors we loved. We spent our hard-earned money on frivolous pedicures and felt better (happy feet were our response to "blessed are the feet of those who preach the Gospel")
An embarrassment of riches here indeed...but I am sure that our readers have perspectives and suggestions that will encourage and bless our sister. Please use the Post a Comment to join the conversation.