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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with a Loose Cannon Layperson

Our question today comes from someone dealing with a hot-and-cold church volunteer who seems too fragile to confront. How would you handle this situation?

I have a member who I swear could have multiple personalities and you never know which one you will get. One minute she wants to be my defender the next she is attacking me. Part of it might be because she is often depressed and is likely an alcoholic. She has one several occasions argued a point adamantly at a congregational meeting, usually not in my favor, and then come in to see me privately and argued the exact opposite point, complaining about the pinheads who would say the very things she said at the congregational meeting! My favorite was when I asked her to send out a letter from the council to the congregation, but she insisted on sending it in the newsletter. (She is my self appointed volunteer secretary) I could not get her to send the letter alone, but then at the congregational meeting she stood up and said how worthless it was to bury the letter in the newsletter, no one read it, it should have been sent separately. I have never confronted her, even privately about this because she is so fragile. Basically I don't know quite what to do with her, because she is a bit of loose cannon running around the congregation. I just wondered if anyone else has ever had to deal with some one like this and if they had any advice.

Jennifer writes:
Dealing with difficult members of congregations seems like a theme we've explored here with some regularity. Forgive us if our answers sound a bit repetitive... The quixotic and predictably unpredictable nature of the member you describe sound especially frustrating and difficult.

Have members of the congregation had similar experiences with your church member? Do you know if she has been offered or if she has ever received help for the challenges of depression and alcoholism you suggest? Does she have family in the church? The behaviors sound challenging indeed, but are perhaps evidnece of even greater problems in her life. You describe her as fragile, yet perhaps in some way she is asking for help. You describe her as presenting as both your defender and attacker; do others experience this with respect to their leadership in the church? If so, are you aware of any attempts to approach this church member and offer some help?   I belive it's important for you to decide whether you are going to function as her pastor, in response to a member who clearly has a probleml, or as the church administrator, when you've specifically asked for help and get contradictory actions and guidance from her.
I think I'd at least attempt to be her pastor and talk with her, preferably with the guidance and perhaps even the presence of someone she loves and trusts.  Hope this helps.

Singing Owl offers:
Ah, I know this person.  (Just kidding.)  It will not be easy, nor will it likely be without consequences of some kind, but I believe you cannot afford to ignore the situation, especially since as your “self-appointed volunteer secretary” there are many opportunities for this to keep happening.  I understand only too well how difficult it can be do deal with a person who is “so fragile” but I admit I was surprised that even after such outlandish behavior you had not said anything.  The newspaper example is one you might use to demonstrate what is happening.  Lots of prayer beforehand, lots of loving kindness, lots of grace, but nonetheless honesty and truth are called for.  If she is an alcoholic who is not in recovery, is there someway that can explored?  Family members?  Intervention?  Referral?  This may not end “well” and you will need to be prepared for that, but on the other hand it may well be an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to be present in a way that will surprise you.  Praying for you, and for her.

Mompriest counsels:
It's difficult to know what will be effective with someone like this. I would try to minimize her opportunities to be your self-appointed secretary. I would also try to re-direct her to some ministry that would enable her to feel useful and important but would have little impact on congregational life. I would listen to her and maybe even say, "So, I hear you saying...." but not respond in a way that counters or supports what she is saying - in an effort to help her feel heard without empowering her or fueling her to counter argue. Of course she will anyway. But if your efforts remain in listening mode and neutral it might help. Eventually the hope will be that the congregation, if they haven't done so already, will recognize that she flip flops and what she says will carry no weight.

And Ruth, who blogs at Sunday's Coming, expresses her thoughts:
The part that worries me most about this is ‘Self appointed volunteer secretary’. If this person is going to do things and be seen to be doing them in your name then good communication is vital. So although you don’t want to confront her and hurt her fragility (of course not): you do need some clarity about what is happening.

Is there a gentle way, one-to-one, of sitting down and saying ‘you said at the church meeting...’ ‘ but then you did...’. She may have some insight into her own ‘fickleness’ and may even say  that she changes her mind after the meeting.. If she could name this you might be able to work together on helping her NOT to be so ready to pin her colours to the mast too quickly, only to find she wants to do something else later.

Hope this helps – hard without knowing the individual – but keep asking the question ‘what can I do?’, because we should never give up on people.. Or ourselves!

Lots of great advice here! Sounds like our matriarchs have all dealt with similarly difficult folks. What about the rest of you? What experience or wisdom do you have to offer? Please share in the comments.

Our queue is almost empty, so if you've been saving a question for the matriarchs, now is a great time to send it on in, to askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.



  1. I am the one who wrote this question. Thank you for all the advice, lots of good questions for me to explore.

    As for why I haven't really addressed it with her is because I have been asked by council to keep her happy because she purchases all the office supplies and paper for the church. So in a way she is paying us for the privilege of being my pseudo-secretary. I think this is unhealthy in its own special way but the congregation isn't in a position to address that right now.

  2. Omigosh! Your comment explains a lot!

    I was going to say that it seems essential to me to collect some allies in the congregation before dealing with her. Given what you added here, that seems even more important. But it also seems like it might take even longer.

    At some point, the congregational leaders are going to have to realize that they are not going to keep pastors very long if they let the craziness continue unaddressed. Paper and office supplies might seem worth that, but I doubt it.

    If it helps, I had a woman like this who actually was my hired secretary. (I promise she didn't seem crazy when I hired her!) Eventually she joined the church, quit being paid secretary, became treasurer, moved all the bookkeeping to her house, and then when we insisted she bring it back, pitched a month-long fit and left completely, after paying herself back for the $400 printer she'd "donated" shortly before the final tantrum, taking her whole (by then very active) family with her. Is it worth the $400 to have her gone? You bet!


  3. My only thought is that those are very expensive (emotionally) office supplies.

  4. Is there any chance at all that some sort of dementia is involved?

    In any case, what a very difficult situation!

  5. on the side issue of donated office supplies, there are people in this congregation who donate goods, such as office supplies and educational resources. I tell them it is important for the church council and congregation to know how much it really costs to run the congregation, so please give the receipt to the treasurer for reimbursement, and if you want to, make a donation to the congregation for the same amount.
    I explain that it is going to be really difficult for the next person in the position if we don't budget for resources, or there is an expectation that the next person is going to be able to, and wants to, pay for the resources.

  6. forgot to add - that this approach is starting to work.

  7. "My only thought is that those are very expensive (emotionally) office supplies." Ditto from me!

    Unhealthy in its own special way is an understatement.

    I can't say when or how, since I don't know the details, but at some point if it isn't addressed, the underlying attitude of allowing people to "pay" for the privilege of inappropraite behavior will be very damaging.

    Praying for the Sprit of Wisdom!


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