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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Games People Play Edition

This morning's question came to us as more of a narrative, and in two parts over a few days. Our ministry leader has an unhappy congregation member who happens to be very good at both triangulation and avoidance, two of those games people play!

The initial setting: A gathering for soup and Lenten Study.

The players: B. is a member of the church. She is on the shut-in communion list, but is not in the least homebound. We celebrated communion in December and I met her for the first time. She has not attended Sunday worship since I have been here (3 months). She has been "dating" a man from this small community (for at least a year) while his wife was in a nursing home. The wife has since died. Both were present Wednesday. I sat beside B. and gave her the space to introduce J. if she wanted to. While I did not directly engage her in conversation, the group at the table had conversation.

Today, I hear she is upset with me because I did not speak to her and thought I was unfriendly to J. She has not contacted me directly, but has voiced her concern to several other people, who have let me know.

My gut instinct is to call her and tell her there was no ill will on my part and that I hope she continues to come to the Lenten Study.

Our ministry leader did in fact contact B. Here is the gist of the conversation.

Me: I am sorry if my actions on Wednesday evening hurt your or J. in any way. That certainly was not my intent.

B: Oh, I am not upset with you.

Me: I know a bit about your relationship with J. from our time together in December, however I wanted to provide you with the space you needed to introduce him...or not. (I offered that hoping she would understand that while we could of been more hospitable...there was a part she played in this as well).

B: I was a little hurt that the men who attended that night did not come up and talk to J.

Me: That must of been painful.

B: I just thought they would...he is members in one of the service organizations as are several of the men present. You know this could of been a potential member, but now I am not so sure. I feel very welcomed at J's church.

Me: I cannot speak for others, but please know that I am sorry for what has happened.

B: Thank you.

Me: I hope you will join us again this Wednesday and in the future if anything like this happens, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.

Here are some questions our ministry leader presents in light of these events...

-in a perfect world B. would of come directly to me without involving others. I am aware of triangulation, but I also did want this to "fester" any longer.

-could it of "worked" if those she complained to had said something like, "I understand your hurt, but you really need to address the pastor with this personally." Or offer to come with B. to see me.

-here is where I see it breaking down: B. does not take the invitation and continues to stew in her own anger...causing more distress...and the vicious cycle repeats itself.

Two of our matriarchs responded to our ministry leader's query:

From Mompriest, who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice

I think "Me" has done the exact right thing - contacting "B" and having the discussion they had. In that conversation "B" revealed a lot with her "loaded" statments, examples of how easily she is "wounded" and how little she takes healthy initiative and falls back on blaming others (ie now, faced with a direct conversation with "Me" it wasn't "Me" who ignored and upset "B" but the "men."). Such people are seldom ever satisfied with how they are treated and can become chronic problems in congregations.

I suggest "Me" follow up with those who told her that "B" was upset and give them a briefing on the coversation. It is important that these people know that "Me" took the initiative to call and apologize for the hurt feelings (note, I do not say, for what she did, but for the hurt feelings)...but also that "B" denied being upset with "Me" and instead said she was upset with the men who knew "J". This will need to be worded without emotion or judgment, just report the conversation. The hope is folks will realize that there is no reason for the congregation to get too worked up about anything "B" says regarding her peceived "hurts".

By the same token it's always important to be mindful of hospitality and having a generous welcoming spirit. Also, it's a good idea to remind folks that the next time "B" or anyone triangulates another they need to be reminded of healthy communication.

There are a number of good articles on the Alban Institute website. Click on the link for Conversation, then Enewsletter, then archive. Permission can be gained to reprint these in congregational newlestters and as handouts for leadership teams. Also good is Peter Steinke's book, "Healthy Congregations." Blessings and best wishes for you.

And from Sue, who blogs at Inner Dorothy,

I have little to zero patience with parishioners who are grown adult human beings, yet when faced with church dynamics, suddenly start playing out a classic toddler tantrum in slow motion. I just have no time for it. The drama queens and kings of our churches set dramatic inter-personal fires that keep us from doing real ministry in our communities. I don't know if it's about needing attention, or needing power over another person (which happens when people feel powerless in other parts of their lives), or if it's just plain old curmudgeonly behaviour - but I do know that it's a pastor's biggest time suck.

Putting out these little fires is exhausting and takes away from the church's ministry in so many ways. An example: new members catch on to these dynamics and their first thought is "What a bunch of hypocrites - talking about the love of God while they treat each other so poorly." We had a lovely family attending for about a year, after which time they decided they had to leave. They invited me over to say it had nothing to do with my ministry and everything to do with the personal dramas and fights within the congregation. This family just could not reconcile scripture with the nasty crap going on in the church (ours and others in our city), so they stopped attending. Now they don't attend any church at all. It's sad, but it was a rare occasion in which a family left the church without feeling angry - just disappointed.

While this may seem like a fairly small incident, the potential for it to grow is clearly present - because the disgruntled member wants it that way. I would give it some time and call to arrange a visit. I would NOT apologize for anything said or unsaid at the dinnner. You did nothing wrong. There were plenty of people at the event. You cannot possibly know who you need to pay "extra" attention to - you do not have mind-reading capacities. You attended, you engaged in conversation with people, all of which is appropriate. If someone feels slighted - tough. If they felt a particular need to speak with you that night, it was
their responsibility to approach you - not the other way around. Again - none of us were taught clairvoyance in seminary. Why parishioners believe we know what's in their heads is just beyond me.

(After reading our ministry leader's follow-up, Sue adds...) I would not have apologized. It would have been enough to empathize. Also, her first words to you were untrue, which is really unfair to you. Serious triangulation going on....This sounds like a woman who is looking for a reason to leave and go to J's church. Also, if J wanted to talk to the gentlemen he knew from his other service groups, why didn't he go and talk to them??? ARGH. Like I said, tantrum in slow-motion.

You have done all you can do and you have acted with grace and concern. If B still decides to leave, at least she will be attending somewhere else where her spirit can be fed. I sometimes think people don't always know how to leave as gracefully and honestly as the family I mentioned above did. Please know that if she does leave, it is not your fault - it is her decision. It is what it is. Just know that you have done all you can do and carry on with your ministry. You're doing just fine.

I think all of us have had at least one of these episodes in our contexts. We'd love to hear how you deal with them, what resources have been helpful, and any encouragement you have for our ministry leader. Please use the "Post a Comment" function to add your two cents to the conversation.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

May you live in God's amazing grace+

rev honey


  1. I'm going to disagree on one point. If J is a visitor known to other adult males in the congregation from different settings, and they did not greet him, that is a major hospitality fail. It's not the pastor's fault or responsibility, but the onus to introduce should *never* be on our guests. Never.

    If I'm reading this story correctly, it bears similarity to one in a past congregation I served, where an older man with a wife who had gone to a nursing home (in this case for Alzheimer's) "took up" with a woman who belonged to another church. They went out together and traveled together while he had a living wife. I went out to call on him early in my ministry after someone asked me to do so, and quickly put the pieces together. Whether through his own guilt or the disapproval of his family or the reaction of the church members, a to him life-affirming choice meant he did not feel he could be at church.

    I wonder if B didn't come in with a chip on her shoulder expecting to be judged for this relationship? That seems to be the subtext of the description. And if that's the case, she's playing out her own drama both by staying away and by coming back with him.

    None of this is "Me's" fault, but it is "Me's" problem in the sense that "Me" is now the pastor of this particular broken, difficult person. (I write this compassionately, as a person who is also broken and sometimes difficult, I'm sure!) I wonder if it would be helpful to simply call on B? Just listen to her. People want to tell their stories. If she is really looking for an excuse to leave, you won't have hurt anything.

    Finally, getting people to direct a complainer to you is hard, hard work. It's likely no one has ever suggested this! Instead of idealizing what the church members might have done but didn't do, be ready to apply the principle next time. Or be pro-active. In the UCC, we have a great resource for Pastoral Relations Committees that I used with a large congregational group (30 people or so) at a meeting where we discussed the impact of moving from full-time to part-time ministry. We used the case studies in small groups (they start on p. 28 of the linked PDF), and they included one of a similar nature. If you have a congregation with entrenched communication patterns that are unhelpful, a workshop or mini-retreat for the Deacons/Elders/Vestry might be very helpful. I heard some amazing opinions voiced about how available a pastor ought to be, even if called only part-time. It would have been easy to simply dismiss the demands as unreasonable, but I heard them in the context of the people making them, blue-collar people who were on call 24/7 in their working lives. I learned something about them while at the same time I was able to provide a reality check about what we're being taught in seminary these days about boundaries!

  2. Just browsed through the case studies - they look really helpful for use with the personnel committee - thanks Songbird for this great resource!

  3. Ahhh...what timing! I don't have much to add to this because I'm in the middle of one of these situations right now. In fact, I was working on drafting my next newsletter article about communication in the congregation, but will likely scrap it for one of the Alban Institute pieces that was pointed out. Many thanks for that. I think the one I might write would be a little too pointed.

    I had a meeting with the Personnel Committee chair last night because someone complained to her (3rd or 4th hand) about my apparent unwillingness to work with the Worship and Arts Committee to provide a "traditional" worship experience for Maundy Thursday instead of a creative one. I know exactly who the person had to have been even though the chair didn't know because two days before the service that person (uh, the CHAIR of the committee) started asking questions about the service as if she had no idea it would be creative. Three months before the schedule had been laid out for Holy Week worship and no one on the committee raised any concern.

    So anyway, I know I'm hijacking here so I'll end it.

    "Me" had given me the encouragement I need to make the phone call I've been asked to make today. It's a little weird since the complainer made the complaints basically anonymously, so I have to find a way to tease the conversation out of her, but I'll go for it. I wrote out a little script for myself to get me started.

    For the newsletter I'm going to reiterate some communication guidelines the congregation agreed to during a time of conflict before I was here. Near the top of the list was this issue of triangulation (DON'T DO IT!) and anonymous complaints/feedback (NOT RECEIVED).

    And now, back to the Alban site for me, to find something appropriate.

  4. I also agree with Songbird about telling the folks who come to you with the information that it is most helpful if they encourage the upset person to come directly to you. In fact the Personnel chair who came to talk to me (very supportively, I might add) said she already told the person who talked to her exactly what she knew I would say, "Please have that person go directly to SheRev." She's heard me say it before!

    Some never will, but hopefully, I guess, over time, the culture of the way communication will work will change. I definitely get nervous when I say this and folks don't come, because I fear that means I give off an unapproachable vibe. That's why in this case with "Me" and in my current case, when the complainer is known or pretty highly "suspected" I think it's totally worth it to make the first move. Hopefully word will get out that a compassionate, open, and healing conversation took place which will encourage more of those in the future.

  5. for a while, this was my whole congregation (or at least it felt that way!). I think things are a little better, but I have no idea how to deal with all this childish nonsense (aside from "have you talked to ___ directly?" being my most oft-uttered sentence) so I look forward to thinking more about all this stuff and reading all the comments that are sure to come up! :-)

  6. I agree with SheRev re: anonymous/third-party/unsigned complaints about ANYTHING in the church.

    For mercy's sake: we try to teach people to have the courage to preach the gospel with their very lives, and yet they don't have the guts to speak directly with their own pastor!!! Our policy here is to disregard anything that comes to the Board as either an unsigned anonymous complaint or one of those "I've been hearing..." complaints. We disregard them and move on. It might sound like tough love, but it works. We haven't had an unsigned complaint in years.

    Also, how "B"'s problem ever translates to being the pastor's fault just doesn't compute with me. Troubled or not - how was "Me" supposed to know anything about that before that evening?

    Again - we're not mindreaders. "Me" can deal with "B" now that everything is clear, and that's great - but at the dinner? No way. NOT the pastor's fault. At. All.

  7. I don't see anyone saying this was "Me's" fault. Where hospitality to J is concerned, I wrote the opposite. I would also say that if we expect church members to be hospitable, pastors need to model that behavior as appropriate, given the special knowledge we may have.
    I really like the idea of a policy about anonymous complaints. To make it work, the pastor (and staff if there is one) and lay leaders need to be in solidarity! If that isn't in place, it definitely takes time and teaching to get there.

  8. As I have said before, if you want to disallow anonymous complaints I believe it is very important to make clear that you welcome direct feedback, create clear structures for that to safely happen and make sure people know what they are, and then handle it well when it does. I have never been in a church where 1 or 2 happened, which makes it stressful and scary to offer feedback and discourages many people from doing so. Pastors who are accustomed to working closely with a few lay leaders, and to receiving loud complaints from a few cranky people, vastly underestimate how intimidating it is for many people to approach them--my husband is in a case like that at the moment. (As the afraid to speak up layperson). I do so anyway, selectively and very carefully and as positively as possible, and have had some great responses and some hideous ones.

  9. One thing I have worked very hard at in my ministry so far is that I have never responded to "anonymous" complaints from a (supposed) third party other than to say "How nice for them that you were able to listen. When they come to me directly I will do the same thing." Then changed the subject FAST!

    I think "Me" is on the right track.

  10. I guess I should have been a little clearer about our "rule" to not respond to anonymous feedback. It came out of a long and fruitful process this congregation went through several years ago with a Mennonite consulting group. It was a part of a larger policy for healthy communication and "Communication Guidelines." Folks have several routes of communication they can take, written or spoken, to numerous folks so that they don't have confront a pastor (or other staff member) directly if that doesn't seem "safe."

    The end of my story today - - I finally got in touch with the person who it is pretty clear made the complaints. I tried to engage him in the conversation, but he wouldn't. He hemmed and hawed about it all saying he knew of no conflict or concerns.

    I reported this back to the Personnel chair that gave me the feedback who was pretty annoyed by the whole thing and joined me in my frustration with the whole situation. We have a Pers Cmte meeting coming up soon at which she plans to remind the rest of the committee we don't deal in this kind of anonymous feedback/triangulation. Confidentiality is one thing in situations that warrant it, but complaints about worship style and choir robes certainly don't count. Some of the folks on the committee weren't here when the guidelines were passed, and they probably haven't been advertised recently enough.

    Jules, that is my pat response, too, and I'm thankful it has become the response of folks who work most directly with me when others try to triangulate them against me.

  11. SheRev, which consulting group did you use and how did you engage in that process...and how much did it cost?

  12. Maybe I misunderstood, but I heard "Me" apologizing, and therefore taking responsibility (ie personal blame/fault) for the dinner incident. I just don't see the situation as one in which the pastor owes anyone an apology. Not sure if that clarifies it, but there you go.

  13. Ah, got it! I thought you were replying to one of the comments, Sue. My bad.

  14. Me is doing a good job of keeping up with congregational issues and it seems to me she responded with kindness to the situation.

    I like Jules' response to second/third hand info.

    Learning about a congregation takes months. Me, go easy on yourself and try to let go of the sting of criticism (I know this isn't easy!)so you can focus on the people.

    Thanks for letting us participate with you in your ministry.

  15. Thanks to Sophia for reminding us about "hidden" power structures (hidden to those with power, anyway) and the importance of being quite clear about how people may give their feedback, either to pastor/staff or a designated volunteer. I am convinced that we cannot over-inform about structure, procedure, or even about events!

  16. Triangulation is a continuing problem in my parish. I've tried to nip it in the bud by saying to the person who brings the issue to me that the other complainer needs to come to me. But the point of the triangle is usually the senior warden who feels like it is his job to be in that position. Um, no. Not so much. We continue to work on it.

    I think SB is spot on about the hospitality issue.

    As far as anonymous comments goes, we have a "let's talk/suggestion box" for people to leave comments. Whatever is left in the box is read at vestry and addressed or handed off to the appropriate place. If the notes are signed we will respond to the signer. If not, we will still deal with the issue, but the respondent (obviously) won't get a reply. In theory it works; in practice if we decide that "no action" is the best response, the respondent doesn't really know that we took it seriously. Eh.

    I am trying to take to heart what Sophia reiterates to us about parishioners feeling powerless. I want people to know that I am willing to discuss ANYTHING. But the problem still arises that if a person doesn't get the response s/he wants, then s/he goes away hurt or feeling unheard. And I don't know how to get around that one, except to try to really listen sensitively to people and help them feel heard even when what they are upset about may not change. (Does that even make sense?)

    Healthy communication is really hard in a parish, isn't it?

  17. Healthy communication IS difficult. We are still attending the church where I was on staff. Since I know first-hard how a couple of senior staff members mock anyone who complains, I would be unwilling to put myself up as food for their jokes. After one such mocking session, I stood up to them and said that if they could not openly discuss their disagreement with the complainers (even the "frequent flyers") then we were not living up to what we preached. While it quickly changed the subject THAT day, it did not change their behavior patterns. Needless to say, I do not complain or make any "corrective suggestions" to them any more.

    Lesson learned for the next place of ministry God will take me...

  18. "I sat beside B. and gave her the space to introduce J. if she wanted to. While I did not directly engage her in conversation, the group at the table had conversation. Today, I hear she is upset with me because I did not speak to her and thought I was unfriendly to J."

    I guess I am missing something about the original incident. I'm not sure why Me didn't introduce herself to J and why she wouldn't have carried on a little bit of conversation with someone she was sitting next to. I just see that as being polite. I understand if she didn't want to embarrass B, but in that case I guess I would try to ease any embarrassment by being the one to make the first move.

    I understand the triangulation issue. But I also believe that it might have been difficult for someone who doesn't know the pastor that well (B's fault in this case for sure)to contact Me and talk about her feelings.

  19. I agree that triangulation and third or fourth hand communication/complaining is not good, is unhealthy, and should not be allowed to flourish. But....when someone is sitting beside you at the dinner table, you should talk to them. This is just good manners, whether you are the pastor or not. W


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