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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, 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.

From Ruth, blogging at Sunday’s Coming:

I thought the most important word here is bully.

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!).

Jennifer, who blogs at, adds:

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.

May you live in God's amazing grace+
rev honey


  1. I know this is a serious matter, but did anyone else get a laugh when Ruth's comments said, "So I COMPROMISED and (did what the crabby woman wanted)"?? Funny definition of "compromise". The trick is figuring out how to "compromise" without bending oneself into a pretzel. . .

  2. What a wonderful question, and such gracious comments and suggestions from the matriarchs!

    It's a great question because its universal: this is not a unique situation, but occurs in many a first call, and many a second or third calls. I call it the Tyranny of the Anxious, because that's what the Chronically Crabby are: very anxious people who feel threatened.

    The Anxious abide in every congregation, but its the transitions that bring them to the front lines, those times when change arises. A new pastor is always a time of worry, and if perchance the new pastor is a first call pastor, or the first woman pastor, the ripples of fear are furious!

    The poster has great instincts... and the responses are excellent also. I'd like to offer a few of my own because I've walked that path.

    First of all, the best response is to be yourself, your strong, fearless, engaged, connected, loving self. Don't allow the 'fearful bullies' to get under your skin. Frankly, I think they don't want to gain control.. like children, they need to know their boundaries, they need to know who is in charge, need to know who to trust.

    BUT never ever respond the way they present themselves. Always approach them in love. In fact, what they need now is a pastor, so 'gird your loins,' pray up your strength, and make personal visits on every one of the naysayers. Don't go in looking for a fight, but seeking a child of God who has fears and worries. Go.. in love, and prayer. Listen to what is really in their hearts.

    Of course, there will be individuals in every situation who won't want to talk or listen; but there will be many who will be 'converted' because you took the time for them. And.. isn't it all about relationship, and making connections?

    Compromises are a big part of ministry. Be willing to listen; it sounds like the poster has the support of the church council, and that is key.

    Find a support group of other clergy... meet with them regularly for breakfast, or lunch. Situations like these aren't unique.. and things can be worked out with prayer, compassion, and working toward the goal of ministry.

  3. I'd second much of what's been said, and point out also that you might want to be careful about the extent to which the patriarch is REALLY "on your side"... from a systems perspective, if he were really on board will all this (and expressing it), much of the resistance would begin to melt away. My experience with many matriarchs/patriarchs (and perhaps how they got the "job"!) is that they tend to express support to you when they're talking to you, while expressing support to the "crabby people" when talking to them. Just be wary.

  4. I don't really understand pastor cindy's comment on Ruth's comment. Surely, Ruth was saying that an individual's crabbiness might be there for a legitimate reason ? (in this instance an inability to participate in worship because of hearing problems) I don't think making allowances for disability equates with "bending oneself into a pretzel"

  5. just a short response...DIVIDE AND CONQUER. They're not a monolith...although they look like it.

  6. I agree with Crimson Rambler.

    My congregation, like any other, has its own contingent of chronically crabby, anxious old-guard members. But over the past few years we've been able to both cultivate the confidence and talent in some of our quieter members, who've stepped into leadership positions previously held by the CCA's, and we've also increased our membership by being a friendly, welcoming place for new people -- people who in many cases don't have a familial or even geographical connection to our congregation. It really, really, helps to get some hybrid vigor injected into smaller congregations and to invite people into more active roles in the life of the church.

    I'll also hold up what my own pastor does: He's very visible and active in the community. (Among other things, as a volunteer firefighter and as an amateur musician hanging out with local musicians.) His connections often lead to new people coming to our church, and staying. So in addition to networking with your ministerial colleagues, it's not a bad idea, IMHO, to get involved in community activities that introduce you to people in the neighborhood and provide opportunities to broaden your congregational base. has been noted, the crabby/anxious people often bear burdens that contribute to how they engage the world. While it doesn't excuse some of their words or behaviors, it gives you insight into why they're so angry and afraid.

  7. There are some congregation members whose criticisms of pastors lack grounding or are hurtfully expressed--a real problem in church life, and some good ideas here for coping. I especially like the ones that focus on listening to the person's pain and frustration--this is often enough to ease them, and build a relationship--and on learning from valid insights that may be expressed.

    There is also another serious problem in church life: pastors who ignore emails containing valid and respectfully expressed concerns, or respond in very hurtful ways to congregants who screw up the courage to lovingly confront them in person. I have had holy and wise directees traumatized by such behavior, and experienced it myself more than once--along with some much appreciated responses from healthy pastors who honored my feelings and learned from my insights.

    Thus I feel hurt and frustrated to hear namecalling and dismissive attitudes comparing unhappy parishioners to toddlers throwing tantrums and needing time-outs. It is hard to imagine being loving toward, or learning anything from, people one views in such a way.

    As someone who lives with a disability, and parents someone who does, I am also shocked to hear the prophetic critique from Ruth's congregant described as a "crabby thought" from a "bully" who was "unable to participate in worship due to hearing problems" till she "got what she wanted."

    Hearing impairment is a normal human variation at all ages, which is near-universal in later life. As in other cases of lack of just access in church and society, the woman was not prevented from worship participation by her hearing impairment, but by a well-meaning but ableist and excluding preaching practice (in combination with the sound system and architecture of the worship space). Shifting that practice was not a noble compromise, but simple justice and decent treatment of the congregant--and, almost certainly, others who also had trouble hearing but were embarrassed to bring it up. The woman who did should be lauded, not laughed at.

  8. Anon number 2 here (and anon for good reasons) Sorry Sophia and everyone else for not expressing myself more clearly.

    Re-reading my comment I cringe at the phrase "making allowance for disability" - that really does sound patronising and I'm sorry for my carelesness with language.

  9. Anon 2, thank you so much! What a gracious and healing response to my concern...Modelling a beautiful example of the kind of healthy communication we should all be striving for in our communities.

  10. As someone who faced a vote on her salary package six weeks into a first call, I echo the comments about the things that happen in an anxious church family system. Even though the congregation had voted for my package at the denominational minimum, even though the appropriate leaders had signed their names to it, people who did not want to give over the power won during an extended interim time conspired to get me to quit, trying to talk me out of our agreement, out of my family's health insurance, out of our whole arrangement. They did not represent the will of the congregation, but how was I to know that? I had been in the church only a few weeks when this began. I did not know who to trust. In my tradition, the Conference can provide only so much help, having no actual authority over local churches.
    The truth is, there are people in some churches, as in every human system, who are in fact bad-natured or anxious or even inclined to the destructive. There are also people with perfectly good reasons for feeling dissatisfied with us or the church or something else in their lives that washes over into our communal life. One of our tasks in ministry is to sort them out from one another, and the only way to learn how to do that is in the hard school of life experience.
    In my case, bringing it to a congregational meeting gave me a chance to see that the vast majority of that small congregation meant what they had voted for in the first place. I also had to recognize that because I was so new, it had very little to do with me. One small group feared loss of control, a few people never thought they could afford a fulltime pastor, and the larger group wanted a settled pastor because it made them feel like a real church. Would they have behaved differently with a male pastor, or an experienced pastor? I don't know. But being the first woman and inexperienced certainly contributed to the "perfect storm."
    The good news is, the church survived. A few people left, but not before they showed others in leadership that their real issue was control, not me. Although some of my colleagues advised me to quit and look for another job without even putting that one on my profile, I didn't have that option given that my family had changed health insurance when I began the job, and I had no alternatives. This caused me to wait it out and see what happened. And sometimes that really is the thing to do, even if it's hard. I made rookie mistakes in that situation; some of those turned out to be good for the church in the long run! But that's not always the case. And owning that we make mistakes is just as important as recognizing that we're not always wrong, either.

  11. Sophia, I agree with you that we have difficulty on both "sides" of the chronically anxious people/pastors ignoring critique issue. I do think, though, that when it comes to email, it's almost impossible to offer respectful criticism in that medium, and even more difficult to receive it that way. It's such a one-way communique, lacking tone of voice and body language and ability for dialogue, that when people offer me things that way it inevitably comes off as harsh and awful (and those are the two nicest words I could come up with for the experiences I've had via email). I'm not opposed to hearing critique--indeed, sometimes I'd like to hear more constructive feedback!--but I am opposed to hearing it by email. If you're willing to write it and push send, be willing to pick up the phone or come into my office so we can have a conversation. Otherwise it feels like (and more often than not IS) bullying.

    I also think Ruth's response--to have a conversation and discover the root of the complaint (which sounds like it was made in person!) was healthy and her willingness to change her preaching style to include someone in worship is a healthy and helpful thing. I hope that people will be both able and willing to state an issue (not "I hate when you ____" but "I have trouble hearing and it's easier for me to participate in worship if you stand in one spot where I can see you") AND that pastors will be willing and able to address concerns in non-defensive ways when they are presented in non-attacking ways. And I hope both pastors and parishioners find healthy ways to stand up to bullying and to address chronically anxious people/pastors!

  12. PS--the resources from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (and I'm sure other places that do similar things) are really really helpful--and they offer some of their workshops for clergy and congregational leaders around the country so you don't have to come to the midwest to make use of their resources. they also do some phone consulting which I have found really helpful!

  13. Thanks for the perspective on email, Teri. It is good to hear of a pastor who welcomes constructive criticism and is willing to make time in person to discuss it.

    One reason I often write emails is precisely so I can be loving and respectful, as well as safe myself--when I am feeling a lot of pain, I know that in person it might come out strongly, especially if the person is initially shocked or defensive. It also gives the other person time to process their feelings, craft a response, or if they prefer suggest an in person meeting--I'd be thrilled to get the interest in feedback indicated in such a request, but it hasn't happened yet. (Except during a horrendously sick pregnancy, when one of the things I expressed pain over was being taken off the prayer list after a month and never offered a pastoral call or home communion. Quite ironic that she insisted that I drag myself into the office, feeling like hell, to discuss that one). I pick my issues and pray and write and rewrite and use the praise sandwich and thank the person for listening and have my husband read it over....Yet things still sometimes get ignored, or hostile responses--and the latter are easier to process safely at home than on their turf. Most recent, hurtful, ignoring was by the lay Director of Family Ministry. I RSVPed last week to the email invitation to the Seder they are having this week with a very polite, careful response explaining that I could not come or bring my child because I am so aware of the offensiveness of this practice to many Jews, and requesting that in future they consider calling it a Christian agape instead. I let a lot of things go but things like this (and sexism, racism, etc.) I feel morally bound to bring up given my vocation as clergywoman and theologian, so it is especially painful to have that ignored.

    The other reason for using email is that my experience of all my Episcopal rectors has been is that they are overscheduled and highly inaccessible. (This may be different in other congregations, of course)....Unavailable on Sundays and requiring extended phone tag and negotiation with secretaries to make an appt for a weekday, when it will seriously impact your work....Then a one to three week wait for the appt itself. It also feels like making a huge deal out of something--say an unintentionally but really hurtful thing said in a sermon-- to take that valuable time out of their busy schedule. Again, some pastors may have office/drop-in hours, or work with an open door sometimes, as I do as a professor--all of which say "I am here if you need me and welcome a conversation"--but I have never been in a congregation with one who did.

    (The Catholic practice of daily mass, in contrast to the Sunday crush, gives copious opportunities to catch someone and ask for a moment of their time. Two of my best interactions of this sort, which led to fantastic relationships, actually happened in those contexts. I get that this is a very different ecclesial culture, though).

  14. First calls are hard. In my case, mine was to a church that had not had a solo, full-time, installed pastor in over 50 years, so there was a STEEP learning curve on both sides.

    Yes, there are crabby people in every congregation, who just need some extra attention from the pastor, and the smart pastor will provide that attention in the form of Christian concern and love.

    There are also those who maybe don't mean to be crabby, but whose personality or way of relating can be trying. You just love on those people, too.

    But in a few churches:

    There are also those who are not just crabby but destructive--who do mean the pastor harm. They will not offer critique, they will not respond to requests for frank, loving conversation about how the church can better serve its mission for God, and ways the pastor can grow to help the congregation to that end. They will, instead, silently form an army, gather (or manufacture) ammuniation, and at the appointed moment, declare war. They usually win.

    The pastor who encounters those members should enlist the help of their denomination, if possible, or trusted colleagues. Don't feed the bear. If you encounter this in any call, first or fifth, get help from those who are entrusted to the support of pastors in your particular branch of the Church.

    You cannot deal with this situation alone.

    Consider me sadder but wiser.

  15. Sophia, I am sorry you have had the experience of being ignored by your pastors. And I can't believe you had a pastor who made you come into the office when you were sick--why didn't she come to you??????
    I hope I am not one who ignores people who come with sincere, loving, constructive critique. I am, however, one who sends back messages saying "I don't think this conversation can or should happen via email--can we get together?" And, on one occasion, I have had to send a message saying "Please do not send me any more emails like this--if you want to say these things, please do so when we can have a face-to-face conversation." Sometimes (in my email experience so far, the vast majority of the time) the email is sent because it's easier and "safer" (in the sense that there's none of the risk that comes with being honest or vulnerable while face-to-face with someone else--not to downplay situations where it may *not* be safe, I just don't think talking to the 29 year old female pastor is going to be physically or even emotionally unsafe for a congregant) and also extremely destructive to relationship and community. In other words--the majority of bullying in my 4 years here has happened by email because no one is brave enough to say these things directly to another person, and so they dash off an email.

    My hope is that we can all be self-aware enough, and differentiated enough, to know the difference between constructive criticism and bullying, and can offer/receive the former while calling out the latter for what it is.

    Interestingly, on a totally unrelated note: we held a seder last year on Maundy Thursday because it was the second night of Passover, the night community seders are traditionally held...and we did it with the help, blessing, friendship, and resources of our Jewish brothers and sisters who attend the synagogue next door to our church (and who were hosting their seder that night as well). It was an incredible experience for our whole neighborhood and brought us much closer together.

  16. I'm impressed to hear that you consulted the Jewish community near you about the Seder, Teri, and glad that it was such a positive experience all around. That kind of respectfulness and dialogue is sadly rare.

    The emotional safety issue is hard for working pastor RevGals to get, I think, because so many of them are kind people who would never intentionally hurt anyone. (As tentmaking clergy in a non-mainline denomination I spend the majority of my life in the pews as a functional layperson, which is periodically frustrating--but on the other hand gives me a crucial perspective on what laypeople feel like, which many pastors have simply forgotten). This is because it is a structural issue of power and voice, not a personal issue. No matter how kind, humble, etc. pastors are, they are in a position of tremendous power, and above all voice, in the community, and it is always a risk to speak honestly with them, even if it ends up being okay in the end.

    Pastors can make major and largely unilateral changes in treasured parts of church life, and the average layperson has little recourse. The weekly worship which is the main community interaction prescribes that pastors speak freely periodically through the service, above all in the sermon, which is considered speaking for God. Laypeople, in contrast, listen with no power of rebuttal, and speak only words which are prescribed for them or a rare announcement when the pastor permits. A few have some power to speak with the clergyperson regularly--formal or informal elders/vestry--and occasionally some power over them at key times, as in hiring issues. But the majority of the laypeople have so significant voice week to week, especially to express problems and concerns, unless the person with the power and voice specifically invites them and makes this safe, and that rarely happens (e.g. in sermon response groups, or a formal evaluation process, or just regularly reminding people that they want to hear their perspectives and making it clear how to do that, and having a good response when people do speak up).

  17. This is why so much pain comes out in the behavior perceived as crabby--the pain and frustration builds up over time, and it is in fact a tremendous emotional risk to go in that study and share it, no matter what a nice person she is, because you are not the pastor's peer or equal or friend or family member. RevGals get this when it comes to the grave issues of sexual relationships but most just don't when it comes to basic communication. Your pastor may be great and listen or even apologize, but you have *no way* of knowing without going in there and risking really pissing off the person who gatekeeps your access to pastoral care when you are deeply vulnerable, as well as your ministry opportunities. If a first experience goes well the risk level goes down and trust level goes up, but it takes a lot of courage to get in there that first time, and a long time for it to truly go away. Some can only hear so many concerns, even valid ones, without starting to class you in the scorned crabby category and dismissing the rest. And they may well hurt you--even unintentionally--by dismissing your concerns and feelings, or responding with anger, or doing the maddening "I'm sorry you feel that way," or whatever. And if the situation degenerates it is very different than in a mutual relationship because of their power and centrality in the community. Then your options are very few, ultimately being two pretty agonizing ones: suck it up week after week with the painful memories tainting the sacred worship, or leave the community you love and have perhaps spent a major part of your life in. It does not often get that bad, but it is always a risk at the back of your mind when you are in the pews and not the pulpit, just because of the structures of power. I am in the same position of power vis-a-vis my students, though this is mitigated by the fact that most of them get to move on after one class, and am very careful to be aware of the dynamics from that side in those relationships.

    I am speaking out of some past, well worked through pain, including clergy sexual abuse as a young woman and milder episodes like the one when I was pregnant--but truly, not bitterness or judgment or dislike of pastors. I have in fact had fantastic relationships with many clergy, and very workable ones with others. But I do get very frustrated with the failure to see and compensate for the structural dynamics of voice, power, and exit and the way that this impoverishes church life and helps lead to the very communication patterns pastors find so frustrating--silence from the vast majority, and loud criticism from the few. Even if you are not a mean or scary person, and even if a few laypeople are, the tremendous power of your position simply does make it a great emotional risk for the vast majority of the congregation to share their pain with you. Recognizing that is not a negative reflection on you--quite the opposite--and making it safe would be a tremendous gift to them, and ultimately to you as well.

    Okay, this was way too long--had to split it into two comments to fit--but it is one of the great passions of my life, so I am very grateful to anyone who hung on to read and consider it. I will be quiet now. I am also very open to private dialogue continuing if anyone is interested (

  18. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Sophia! I would never dream of downplaying the power that comes with my position...and at the same time I recognize that in my tradition and my context, I don't have anywhere near the kind of power usually talked about in a more traditional patriarchal-ish clergy system (as is common in RC or Anglican tradition, for instance). My congregation actually sort of prides itself on collegiality and empowering everyone...and even in worship there are a multitude of voices every week (in planning and in actual Sunday worship time).
    Interestingly, all the bullying done by email in my 4 years here has been done by people who knew perfectly well that THEY were the ones in positions of power within the congregation and even within our relationship (elders, matriarchs, etc) and still chose to use email rather than phone or in person conversation.
    I don't mean, of course, that I've never been unintentionally hurtful (who hasn't?) and that hurtfulness coming from me (even unintentionally) isn't more hurtful actually than from someone who doesn't have the Rev in front of their name (I think it is), but more that I serve in a context where that power differential is not as great as in some places, and that most bullying/chronic-anxiety/crabby-ness from congregation members has come from people who have power and are in some way losing grasp of their control of that power...much like what seems to be happening in the original question. The people in my context have been ones who were grasping at ways to maintain their own power, not to air legitimate concerns, and they chose email as the medium, which is much more hurtful (and makes it almost impossible to get down to the core, which may actually be a legitimate concern, as in Ruth's case!).

  19. Two books to recommend:

    Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church by Marshall Shelley

    Clergy Killers by G. Lloyd Rediger

    I think that when you can see and understand the dysfunction, and respond in love, you are fulfilling Christ's call to "feed my sheep."

    Oh - 3rd book recommendation - Henri Nouwen's book In The Name of Jesus

    Peace to you as you process...

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. oops. I have a brain. Didn't mean to delete myself.

    One of my therapist friends says it's important to keep "sorting your stuff" -- as in - what is "my" stuff to deal with and what is "yours" stuff to deal with. She commented to me one time that when we need support not take on "stuff" that isn't ours, we are often reluctant to do that. I've been thinking about how I deal with the more "gnarly sheep" in my life. It is very hard to love them. And when that's the case, I need back up.

    The points you've made for me as a newbie are very helpful. Thanks! :)

  22. I have read Haughk's book and wish it were not already packed in a box so that I could type in his definition of an antagonist, but it has to do with the folks who have unmeetable expectations and make amorphous accusations without supporting evidence. The book is good in that it does educate a church on the fact that letting lay abuse of the pastor (or each other) is not healthy forgiving Christian behavior. His focus is not on the well-intentioned dragons (love that term) and those who are disposed to see antagonists in every critic might overdo after reading Haughk (although he warns against it).

    I am six weeks into my first (second career) call. I was forced to place very bad financials in front of my board in our first meeting together. Most of the board was not aware how badly they went in the hole (spending endowments) last year, or where the money went. They had a vague idea that it was because of repairs. it wasn't (solely). I know this congregation has a bad history of underground conflict. I know I ruffled feathers by putting previously "hidden" data in front of the board and making strong statements about transparent finances and clear reporting. I'm waiting to see where the unhappiness pops up and praying I'll handle it appropriately.

  23. Important and interesting postings. Thanks to all.

    As serious as this topic is, I have had to smile about the email discussion. The last time I was in my pastor's office, I was asked to be quiet so she could check her email. By the time she was finished, I needed to leave to get back to work! She was furious - and so was I. Fortunately, we both got over it.... Mutual forbearance - isn't that what this whole life together is about?

  24. I have read with interest the conversation between Teri and Sophia on the power that the pastor has. Sophia, I appreciate your willingness to share with us the pain that has come from your experience of abuse. I hear your frustration when you say that you think working RevGal powers don't get the issue of emotional safety. I just want to be clear that, not only is that not necessarily the case, your experience of the structural power that clergy have is very different than what some of us have encountered.

    Like Teri, I come for a denomination (and a congregation) that is very oriented towards lay leadership. Our entire structure is predicated on the fact that we all have the same amount of power. Every member is considered a minister. There is almost no sense of pastoral authority. In my tradition, the sermon is *not* considered speaking for God. And I most certainly cannot make major and unilateral changes to treasured parts of church tradition, no matter how much I might like to!

    Some pastors, through personality, sheer force of will, or savvy cultivation of connections within the congregation, are able to amass more power than might otherwise be ascribed to them. Most of us, though, especially those who are young and/or female, are actually much less powerful than their congregants. It can be a vulnerable position to be in, as Songbird's story illustrates (her tradition is much like my own).

    For some of us, RevGals is a safe place to express some of our own complaints, worries, and rantings with other people who might understand what it's like to feel threatened and bullied.

    I will certainly take to heart what you've said, Sophia, about emotional safety. I do hope you might also consider the fact that not all of us working RevGal pastors have anywhere near the sort of structural authority, power, support, or even voice as the clergy who you've encountered.

  25. Just dropping in to recommend another wonderful book: "Never Call Them Jerks" by Arthur Paul Boers. (I think that's the accurate spelling of his name.)

    I highly recommend!


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