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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ask the Matriarch - Theological Conflict

Our question this week is a doozy! How do you handle someone who sees her primary function in the congregation as being to correct the pastor and the congregation? I have been there, done that, and I don't think I handled it particularly well! Let's see what our matriarchs have to say. Here is our question:

How do you deal with someone who uses a literal Biblical interpretation to challenge your leadership? Not simply because you are female, but because you, the leader, do not interpret the Bible the same way as they do?

Muthah+ responds:
Ahhh, dear sister these are the kind of parishioners that try one’s soul!  With that said, I would suggest you try a few things: 

1.     Do not try to teach her.  She already has her mind made up.  Let her say the things that she is going to say.  If it is in small groups, allow her to say her peace but call her to listen to others as best you can. Get her to describe how God acts in her life if you can.  It will tell you volumes about her if she is willing to do it.
2.     Do not engage her with Scripture.  She is not in the same place you are. But try to treat her with UPMOST respect.  Agree with her that she has one way of looking at Scripture, doctrine or what have you and then point out that there is more than one point of view.  (In my Father’s house…..)  She has already alienated many by her way of thinking and she is acting in great defense of what she has “always known.”
3.     The way that these who are set in their ways are finally turned around is by continued love no matter what they say or do.  If you are exaggeratedly kind, if you are always welcoming even when she attacks, she will be seen for what she is: a very frightened woman whose whole world is coming apart around her.  She wants her life controllable, and it isn’t.  She wants to be an authority and she isn’t.  She wants to live life by the lights her parents or early teachers taught her and she is in a new world.  It is my opinion that for almost 3 generations we clergy types have not taken on the responsibility of teaching Scripture in a way that the laity can engage it from a critical method, and we are now reaping the reward of people who are angry when the younger clergy arrive with NEW FANGLED ideas.   Mea Culpa!
 I remember when I was in seminary 30 years ago, I exclaimed to my mother, then in her late 60’s, how much new stuff I was learning about Scripture.  And she said “How can there be anything NEW about Scripture?”  That is where many of our laity is especially in our smaller churches where there has not always been the best adult education.
There is also something you can do for yourself.  She is attacking you because you represent “the Church” to her. You ARE an authority to her even if she isn’t quite willing to give it to you.  If you can be kind to her even when she is being a pain, you will gain so much.  The parish is looking at you to model how to handle her and how to handle all the others in their lives that disagree or won’t listen, or hold different views. You will gain because you will find a new way to deal with conflict and your kindness will spread.   
It is SOOOOOOO hard to do, I know.  But ask Christ in your prayers for forbearance and quietude to galvanize you against her attacks.  Then demand from yourself and from your un-anxious place of prayer a kind of measured attitude of caring.  Do not reach out to her because she will view it as an attack, but kindly say that she is entitled to her opinion.  But also remind her that you have an obligation as an ordained minister of your denomination to teach the doctrine or understanding that is held by the denomination or the majority.  That is what you are ordained to do.  And go on to say that she is always welcome no matter what she believes, but that as for “you and your house, you will follow the Lord” as delineated by the canons or rules of your denomination. 
Be sure to visit her if she is ill (grit your teeth and know that you are earning stars in your crown even if though don’t believe in works righteousness!)  Greet her warmly at services and make sure she is not left out of parish events.  It is how you and I want to be dealt with when we disagree with what is going on in the Church.   
I am preaching to myself, here.  These were the souls who were the banes of my existence while I was in active ministry but this method works.  The leader of my denomination (Episcopal) is a woman who has been vilified by some parts of our world-wide communion.  She has won so many to her by not rising to the bait that the nay-sayers have thrown at her.  She stays collected and centered in a prayerful way of looking at life with wonder.  I am awed by her example and share it because she has been able to do what often I failed at.  I will keep you in prayer.

And Mompriest offers:

I have found that there are some people who hold a hard line in their understanding of who God is. For these people there is nothing I can say to persuade them of a more expansive understanding of God. Such thinking is of the head. And anything that moves a person to a deeper understanding of a loving God must come from the heart. How to move someone’s heart? And how to preserve your leadership when it is challenged in this way? The only thing I know to work is to offer opportunities for a parish wide conversation and learning opportunities.

Have you offered adult teaching and Bible study using resources that help people learn, from other sources, how to understand the Bible. I’m thinking here of resources like Education For Ministry (EFM) it’s an Episcopal, four year, Bibles study. Mentors are trained through University of South in Sewanee, TN or a local Episcopal site. But I don’t think it is only for Episcopalians. Other sources include books from the New Church’s Teaching series. Books like “Opening the Bible” by  Roger Ferlo and “Engaging the Word” by Michael Johnston, are useful to help lay folk understand the Bible. Maybe your denomination has other resources that you could use, knowing that for some Episcopal resources would not be persuasive, although these are VERY good.

In these situations I find it helpful if I can remove myself from the teaching component and let another voice speak. Do you have anyone in your area or denominational leadership who can offer a session or two on Bible study and interpretation? Anyone, other than you, who can help the congregation understand that good and faithful Christians often have different understandings of what the Bible is teaching us – BECAUSE it is a living tool, the living Word of God, that still breathes in and through us.

Some other options – one more costly, one free:

When my small congregation struggled with something like this I called in the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center to lead us in a Samoan Circle. It’s a facilitated conversation with one of their trained leaders and cost us about $1000.00, and that was only because my church and the Mennonites were nearby, so no transportation or hotel. Essentially it went like this: the facilitator speak ahead of time with a number of parishioner and leaders to gain some insight into what we were dealing with (understanding of scripture as it pertains to GLBT people and specifically the ordination of an openly partnered Bishop). Then on a specific day the facilitator and as many parishioners as desired gathered at the church. We set the room on in one large circle of chairs. Two chairs were placed in the center of the circle, facing each other. On the side the facilitator led the group and I took notes on newsprint. One person, whoever desired, would decide to speak and choose another to listen. Those two would move to the center and sit in the chairs facing each other. The one who wanted to speak would say what they needed to say. The other listened. When the speaker finished the listener said, “I heard you say...”.and then the person would repeat as close to word for word as possible. Then say, “Is that what you said?” If so then they were finished and went back to their chairs. Another person would then get up and choose another listener. The pattern would repeat until everyone who wanted to speak had the chance to speak and be heard.

What became clear to my congregation, without me saying a word, is that there were a number of people who had really strong hardline opinions, while the rest of the congregation was much more open and generous. They learned a lot from one another. I do not recommend doing this without a skilled facilitator which enables you to observe and helps others feel safe.

Another option is to use a module for a conversation that I have been working on. It is a longer process and uses story, the sharing of story to help people learn about one another. Essentially each person comes to the session(s) with a prepared 3 minute story on how language has impacted their understanding of God, self, and others. (There is a more detailed prompt question). You could change the prompt question if it is too general for your purposes. The module then leads the group through a method of story sharing, listening, a small group conversation about what was heard, and then a process for what comes next. This module is part of the Expansive Language Project I have been working on. You can learn more about it here: Words Matter.  And, there is an email address you can use to contact me on the profile of that blog (tecwordsmatter at gmail dot com).

I hope the other matriarchs have some good suggestions for you. While I have used these resources and processes and they have worked for me, it is hard hard work. Work that may mean that you will be better off looking for a new call, a better fit, than you are trying to work through this. But that is your call. I pray the congregation can be more expansive than this person and you can all learn from one another.


Wow! Thank you to our matriarchs for their very thorough and well-thought-out responses. What wisdom do the rest of you have to offer? What mistakes have you made in this sort of situation? What good choices have you made in this sort of situation? Please share in our comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you would like the matriarchs to address, please send it to us as askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. wow. I think I could have asked this question... this week!

    I think the response given to not directly come back at them with scripture is helpful. It puts me at an automatic disadvantage in some ways b/c I am not always familiar with the translation they are using and I don't think fast enough in scripture... =)

    This particular person in my life stopped by to drop off some things and we ended up having an hour long conversation... which really slipped into debating... I let my frustration get the better of me in that particular instance... but I do feel threatened in some ways by their challenges.

    With a few days in between, I responded back to them, using another piece of scripture, and it didn't get us anywhere.

    The fact is, you can quote scriptures back and forth forever and never land anywhere. It isn't helpful. It isn't listening, b/c you are always thinking ahead to your next chess move.

    So I'm all for letting that piece of the argument go, and just loving them and caring for them.

  2. I think we've all either been there already or will be there soon, just because our society is moving rapidly.

    In addition to the wonderful suggestions above, I have sometimes found that asking, "How does that play out in our faith lives and our everyday practice?" can at least point to the commandment to loving one another, friends and enemies, saints and sinners. In my experience, these are rarely the people who want to confront the sinners personally; they want me to do it in their stead, and I can say, "I hear what you're saying, but that is not the role to which I'm called." And, of course, no one else is privy to the way we counsel parishioners, so they would never be satisfied in that way.

    I also think, though, that sometimes people need to be helped to understand that perhaps they belong in another congregation or denomination. Some "interpretations" are central to who we are, and if someone doesn't believe that, why is she here? Who benefits? What is the eventual goal? Is her participation in our congregation serving to separate her from the love of God? We work very hard not to let people do that to others; we ought to try also to help them avoid doing it to themselves and us.

  3. I'm fortunately not dealing with this particular situation right now, but I was dealing with it in the not-so-distant past, and it was such an energy-drain. For me, trying to help the person move on from our church wasn't much of an option because she actually saw herself as on some sort of mission from God - to enlighten us.

    The best I could do was try not to be defensive and try to protect others from her abuse. Most people seemed to take what she said with a grain of salt - they realized she was a negative person, and a contrarian - but I did worry about how new people and young adults were affected by her.

  4. I think the not-arguing is excellent advice. And as one of my pastorly friends puts it -- better that a person be a faithful and happy fundamentalist in a fundamentalist church than an unhappy member of the [fill in the denomination]; it isn't "failing," either as a pastor or as a faith community, if a "Bible-believin'" antagonist finally leaves for a church home whose viewpoints more closely match his/her own.

  5. Chiming in a bit late...a bully or abusive person usually needs to be handled very directly. Sweetness to a bully doesn't often this woman a bully? I think it is rarely about scripture or doctrine in these sort of scenarios. It's about trying to feel "big" by making others feel small. Just plain old unacceptable.

  6. Singing Owl, I so agree - it really isn't about theology ultimately, but about the person's emotional needs.

    Some of the comments above indicate that it would be best to help this person move into another congregation or denomination. While I agree that would certainly be best both for the congregation (and pastor) involved as well as for the individual, I just want to reiterate that sometimes the individual see it as his/her mission to stay in the congregation *in order to challenge them*. That was certainly the case with the person I was dealing with, and from other background our questioner wrote but didn't want included in this post, I believe that's the case we're dealing with here. I think it's very difficult to help a person move on when s/he thinks that God has placed them there for the congregation's enlightenment.


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