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Thursday, February 02, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with Bad Behavior

A lot of us don't like change. Some people will even go to great lengths to prevent it from happening, and this sometimes leads to bad behavior. What is the pastor's responsibility when confronted with such behavior? How does she lead the whole congregation and pastor to all those within it when some are behaving very badly? Our questioner this week would like to know:

I've been in my current call for 3 and a half years. Things are going well. For 99 percent of the congregation, at least. There is new energy, new visitors, people are excited about who we are and what we are about. BUT...(you knew it was coming...) there are a few people who are "poorly behaved". They don't want to see the church moving forward. This isn't about me, I know. Anyone in my position would be the focus of their ire. 

The session of the church has been good at responding to these people pastorally, but making it clear that they can either get on board and go with us where God is leading us, or not. I am thankful for the leadership of the church through this. 

My question is this--in caring for the 1%, how do I find the line between being pastoral to them and not allowing them to take all of my energy? I don't want to say "don't let the screen door hit your a$$ on the way out the door", but I'm also tired. Tired of their poor behavior. Tired of their unwillingness to engage positively. Tired of the abuse they keep trying to send my way. I can say "I know it isn't about me" all day long, but the fact remains, it is hurtful and exhausting to have people treat me so poorly. 

And, after 3.5 years of this behavior, it is apparent that this isn't an issue of "once we understand each other better, things will be okay". This is but a chapter in a long history of their poor behavior that the church has put up with because it is the Christian thing to do. 

Someone suggested I ignore them. Can I really do that to people in the congregation I've been called to serve? How does that really look? Do I walk past them and ignore them? I have told one of them that I will not read any more of his emails to me until he is willing to come in and talk to me, face to face, and apologize for the last email he sent me. (I also gave a copy of the email to the personnel committee and told them I wanted someone else to see what kind of treatment I was receiving at the hands of this particular member). 

I am certain that the congregation I serve is not the only one with a history of putting up with bad behavior in the name of Jesus. So, how have you all dealt with this? I'm trying to only control my own function, really I am. But could use any tips.

Jennifer responds:
Ugh. These soul-sapping situations. They’re awful. I think you’re doing all of the right things. Have you copied your personnel committee when you respond to the 1%? If not, I’d suggest doing that, so that the offender knows that you’re reporting their bad behavior. All that and some sincere prayer for changed hearts might help. I don’t think you can ignore folks. I do think you can tell the truth to those who will listen and ask for their prayers and actions of support.

And Sharon writes:
How wonderful that 99% of the congregation is with you and supportive of your ministry!  That is something to celebrate!
You have already figured out that this is normal and even to be expected at this stage of things.  You have also responded well to the crisis with good pastoral techniques, among them: expecting and requesting good behavior, offering reconciliation avenues, and being open and honest and fair about what's going on.
This is a crisis in the classic sense that it is both "danger" and "opportunity."  The danger is that the 1% will sap your energy and tarnish your obviously winsome leadership style.  From what I hear, they really pose no other danger to you or the church.  The opportunity is that they will either leave or get on board, and right now, you don't know which it will be.  
So, don't ignore them outright -- that takes too much of the wrong kind of energy, in my experience -- but don't placate them either.  Put yourself forth as totally non-anxious, incredibly attractive, and steely strong -- in other words, totally Spirit-filled and Spirit-led!  Keep on addressing their actual requests seriously and kindly, making each response shorter and even more direct each time they repeat the same old thing.  Shine light on what they are doing by being Christ-like with them and expecting ever higher standards of behavior from them.  
And try this:  Invite them to join in, i.e., call their bluff.  For example: Someone says to me, "The benediction should be given with the pastor raising both hands above his (sic) head!"   My response is to invite that person to come and be part of the Worship Committee where we make those kinds of plans and decisions.  (Disclaimer: The preceding example might not have been either hypothetical or more than a week old!)
Above all, spend your time and energy on people who are working together toward the church's shared vision.  Catch people doing good and appreciate them all over the place.  Celebrate milestones playfully and, at times, extravagantly.  And enjoy all of the very good fruit of the ministry you are planting there!  Way to go!

Thanks for your wise and wonderful responses, matriarchs! Many of our sisters are at the Big Event this week, and we hope and pray they are having a soul-refreshing time. But I know that many of you are still out there, and we'd love for you to join this conversation. Do you have wisdom to share with our colleague? Do you have experiences that might offer some insight? Please take a moment to share in the comments section.

Our queue is empty again, so it's a great time to send us a question to discuss! Email us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. As un-nerving as face-to-face confrontation can be, I believe that "speaking the truth in love" is sometimes necessary. The church can be a haven for dysfunctional people because we are "nice" Christian people who don't confront bad behavior. We put up with things that people would get fired for in the workplace. I don't think that that is actually loving our neighbor - it is simply avoiding conflict while isolating the offender. Perhaps injecting a dose of reality into the situation can diffuse it. Obviously this requires that you carefully listen for truth in the grievance first - you may owe an apology or some sympathy.
    People who pursue vendettas are generally wounded in some way - and you can't help them with their wounded-ness if you are holding them at arms length either. So confrontation has the potential to bring healing to the church, and also to the member. The situation probably won't go away without it. May the Spirit walk with you in this.

  2. Just a note to thanks for this questions and the responses. I have encountered this situation so many times, most recently with an elder on a session I'm moderating. He's shut the whole session down. It's frustrating.

    I do think people get away with a lot of behavior in the church that they wouldn't elsewhere. I also think that the church needs to do more than ignore. Speaking the truth in love (with good process) helps, but it's hard, and not many are willing to accompany us on that road.

    I don't have the answers; just looking for some new ideas!

  3. Sometimes the antagonist simply needs to be heard. Though that takes energy. I like that you drew a line about reading the emails until he/she comes in to see you face to face. I hear you that even though you know it's not about you, it still hurts, at least sometimes. Work on building your confidence, claim your authority, surround yourself not with yes-people but those who share your sense of mission. My nemesis still bugs me occasionally, but I get over it much more quickly now than I used to. For me it helps to say, why am I letting him get to me? What else is going on that makes me vulnerable? What might be out of balance, opening a door for this negativity to affect me? Was it Eleanor Roosevelt who said, "no one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission"? Of course hurtful comments hurt or sting, but by not giving permission, that feeling passes quickly. Peace to you.

  4. Oh! I ache for the questioner. (Actually, I ache for all of us, lol, because so many of us experience bad behavior in the church!)

    Speaking the truth in love -- yes! Being pastoral doesn't always mean being "nice"; "gentle as a dove" is partnered with "wise as a serpent"! Pastors attend to the whole health of the congregation, which includes naming the tensions and unhealthy behaviors.

    Including others (e.g. the personnel committee or governing board) -- yes! While it's important to be careful about confidentiality, it's also important to church life & to clergy health to not be the sole bearers/targets of bad behavior. Be clear with those acting out that they are accountable for their behavior.

    Sometimes it's appropriate to ask the badly-behaving ones to step up ... and sometimes it's appropriate to ask the 99% to step up in addressing the bad behavior and/or raising their voices more strongly in affirmation of the church's direction & vision.

    Even though the bad behavior is rarely about the pastor, it definitely impacts the pastor and I think it's okay to be honest about that. I phrase it as an issue of stewardship: it's not good stewardship for the pastor to spend 50% (pick your own percentage) of her creative/spiritual/emotional energy on 1% of membership. I agree with the others about not ignoring someone outright ... but you may need to let it alone, if at all possible.

    Blessings. Do not walk alone through this.

  5. In my experience, these kinds of folks (sometimes called "Clergy Killers" have issues that go far beyond the church doors. I know of one woman who had to go for anger management counseling to keep her job. So sometimes, it really isn't about the church. On the other hand, I have a concern that one person's ire will spread to hurt others by their words and attitudes. Loud comments about the choir, the flowers, etc... someone gave time and thought and energy to that ministry and at least deserves respect.

    I do like taking the letters or emails (present or future) to first, someone you trust in the church leadership, and then to a large body as a whole. That way if there is something they think is potentially OK to try, you can.

    It can be how the tea is made for coffee hour, or what the choir sings. People WILL go on.

    May you go on in grace and with continued love and support!

  6. I have learned to say two things:

    "The committee that makes such decisions is the XX Committee and the Session member who heads it is YY"


    "What can the Session and I do to help you feel a part of the wonderful new things God is doing in our midst?"

    Then I try to affirm that I've heard while not affirm that I agree — not, actually, that they generally care whether we agree or not. And I have, on a few memorable occasions, been so agreeable as to say, "I think you're right; this probably isn't the congregation for you any longer. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord" and let that be the last time I engage.

    However, it's vitally important to enlist your support group, however that's crafted in your denomination, and say, "This is making me feel less positive about our ministry and I need some help handling it." You don't need to broadcast it far and wide, but you don't need to bear that burden alone either.

  7. I don't have a good answer here, but I do question one of the assumptions that the question seems to make;

    ...poor behavior that the church has put up with because it is the Christian thing to do.

    IS it the "Christian thing to do" to put up with poor behavior?

    If so, why?

    I think all the advice here is sound, and I also would recommend the books "Clergy Killers" and "When Sheep Attack."

  8. Wonderful wise comments, y'all. Thank you! Suzy, I love your two questions. So non-anxious, and so good at reframing things and putting some responsibility back on the problem-makers.

    Thank you to all of you for your good thoughts!

  9. Our original questioner emailed me a comment that she asked me to post:

    Thank you everyone for your support. It is good to know I am not alone in this. It is heartbreaking to know that I am not alone in this.
    The worst offender of the poorly behaved folks has been removed from all committee participation because of his behavior, so we tried the including him in the process idea already. He has been shown that doors are open for his return to participation if he agrees to abide by certain standards of behavior. He has chosen, thus far, not to do so.
    You would think that would do the trick, but he still searches through reports and minutes of meetings, looking for conspiracy.
    I should have put quote marks around "the Christian thing to do". I certainly do not feel that abusing people is the Christian thing to do. But this particular congregation has a habit of putting up with offenders because of difficulties these people have had in their lives. A woman whose daughter is in prison for a drug-fueled murder was allowed to bully people for much longer than should have happened because of the tragedy in her life and because the church loved the grand daughter who really needed the stability and love of the church family. But when the church stood up to the woman for her behavior, she left the congregation. We mourn the loss of the family, particularly the granddaughter, but people have also commented that it is nice to come to church and not be harangued by that woman any more.

    Thank you for your comments. (Keep 'em coming!) Thankful for all of you.


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