I'm a new pastor and my church has recently gone from several months of being on its best behavior ("We want this new pastor to stay!") to more of who they really are. Unfortunately, who they really are is a bit toxic. They are good people, hard workers, and incredibly dedicated to this church, but they are also whiners. Serious whiners.
Just in the past few days I fielded an angry email from one man because the website has not been updated to his specifications and he's TOLD me TWICE how it should be; a 30-minute conversation with a woman who is upset that our church accidentally threw out a $35 box of plastic spoons during a recent renovation (this happened four months ago and she is still at it); a woman who yelled at me for ten minutes during a prayer meeting because she was angry she wasn't asked to serve on the church board, over a dozen minor health complaints (my knee's been hurting, I have a cold, etc.), and general kvetching about our church secretary's work performance (she does a stellar job).
I'm a solo pastor and I work an average of 50-60 hours a week. I'm getting exhausted not from the work of ministry but from the work of dealing with so much whining. I feel like I'm being pecked to death by ducks. Do you have any suggestions for how to better cope with the grumbling? Is there a way to help curtail it, or does the work need to take place in my own head and heart so I can handle it better?
Or perhaps this email shows my true colors - that I am a whiner, too?
A Very Tired Pastor
Muthah+ has a lot of experience from which to share:
Dear Duck Pecked,Been there, done that and the t-shirt is already a dust rag!
If you have judicatory officers that you can depend upon bring them up to date. You don't say how long you have been there. But if this is in your first year of incumbency, I would suggest that you bring in a consultant to help your council and you to deal with the whine.
If you are in your 3rd year, know that 3 years in is just the "Terrible Two's of Parish Ministry": it is the time when everyone complains and then after they don't run you out, they know that they can trust you. It isn't conscious on their part. It is just part of the dynamics. Don't take their whining to heart. It is just the way that this group of people play the "do you love me enough?" game.
1. If there is a lay leader in the parish who understands group dynamics a bit talk with them about what you are doing and why.
2. Force yourself to get the rest you need. And keep a regimen of self-care. This is the first thing to go in a parish like this and this is the reason that they are successful in running out their pastors. If you are self-differentiated enough to take care of yourself and still be their pastor, you may pattern a new way for them to be parishioners.
3. Find someone to monitor your pastoral care: a therapist who can help you keep differentiated or a spiritual director that you can see regularly. If you have to travel to do so, travel. The time away will be healing.
4. Keep a scheduled time for prayer. I know you live in a fish bowl and everyone thinks they have a right to your time. But your prayer time IS work time. And it needs to take priority over every other thing that you do. All too often folks in the church do not understand that prayer is the bedrock of ministry and we can't or shouldn't do it without it.
5. If your secretary is competent, support him/her. Part of the pastor's job is to protect her staff. Ignore the 'red pencil clack'. We all make mistakes and the parish bulletin is where errors are found most if the red pencil crowd is bored.
Duck-pecked, you are in the midst of ministry. There are some parishes that just do that to their pastors and then wonder why we leave. Let them know gently that you don't like it, but they may be unable to change. Just love 'em a lot and ignore their jibes. They may be able to see what you are doing as an example of Christ's love for them.
Invest in the whole series of the Vicar of Dibly and laugh.
Dear Very Tired Pastor,
I used the term "pecked to death by ducks" at least twice last week, so we're totally on the same page. Some of the compaining/whining I've heard has been legit, so I've dealt with those things accordingly (usually by notifying a committee chair). On the other hand, some has also been trivial and could have easily been handled without my involvement on any level.
It's good to have your intuitive senses on the alert and get a sense of who is always going to give you that "pecked to death" feeling. I can name half a dozen here. They are lovely people, but when I see them coming, I know I'm going to come out of the conversation either feeling like I've misbehaved OR having a few tasks to perform that he/she could easily have done themselves.
First: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. There are some people who just need someone to listen to their kvetching and really don't want much done in response. From a pastoral perspective, these are often sad, lonely people who have forgotten the art of positive thinking and lively conversation. The problem is, they can suck up half a day if you allow it. With a few of my folks here, as soon as they sit down in my office, or I arrive at their home for a visit - I set the clock. Not literally, but I say politely, "I have 30 minutes before I need to take care of some other business, but I'm glad you're here for that time! Let's talk...." This works on two levels: the person feels valued and you have a time boundary for your discussion.
(Totally unrelated, but boundary-wise issue: I had to politely ask a woman to stop touching me when I talk to her on Sunday mornings. I have a very definite perimeter of personal space, which is not an unreasonable one, but this one woman cannot seem to talk to me without touching my arm/hand/shoulder. She doesn't pick up the physical clue of me stepping back a foot or so while maintaining eye contact. She was just following me around to touch me again. Honestly, it's like we were dancing! I think she understands now. I used lots of "I" talk and made it about me, not her....etc......add to list of things not taught in seminary!)
Second: Designate designate designate. When someone comes to you wondering why x,y, or z isn't done, would you be able to ask "Really? Who is responsible for that? Perhaps YOU could contact that person and ask about it?"
Third: When faced with talk about other staff, I cut people off. Not rudely, but with a full understanding that it is not appropriate for me to have any discussion about other staff people with parishioners. I direct them to the chair of our Ministry and Personnel committee and hand them her name and phone number. The job of the M&P Chair is to field complaints, warranted or otherwise. I don't even let the complaining person finish telling me his/her complaint. I don't want to know. I don't need to know. If they find that rude, I really don't care. We don't have any status such as "Head of Staff" even in churches where there is more than one order of minstery personnel - so it simply is not part of any UCCan minister's job description to deal with such complaints.
Finally: I find that most whiners chase me after worship on Sunday with their gripe. I've started inviting people to email the church address, or leave a phone message, so I can take a closer look at their concern during the week when there aren't so many other people waiting to greet me. They never send the email and they never call. Once Sunday is over, they've lost their head of steam.
Remember that your time is valuable. Despite living out a vocation, you are still a professional, and your time needs to be reserved for real church needs. Interesting that this question should come up this week. Awhile back I had a discussion with a woman who was complaining that a piece of art in the church had been moved ~eye roll~. I had been on holidays when it was moved, so I had NOTHING to do with any of it. That did not stop her from yelling at me on the phone and ultimately hanging up (I think she hung up because I wouldn't engage her by raising my own voice....). I gave it two days and called her to see how she was doing. Not much better actually, but I pulled up all my assertiveness reserves and told her very gently that as the minister of our church family, it was inappropriate for her to hang up on me. She apologized. I'm having lunch at her house today.
People get over stuff. Thanks be to God!
And Kathrynzj offers:
I am tempted to tell you to preach on the wilderness passages in Exodus over and over again, but then the Scripture would be whining at you too.
First question - is this really the entire congregation or a whiny, vocal minority? I ask because you can micro-manage the latter, but the former may require something more drastic. In my own experience, the whiners want to feel heard. So, I call them every two weeks and let them kvetch away. I realize this seems like I'm catering to them, but what it means is that they don't interrupt me, I am going to them and on my time AND by phone so I can be doing something else at the same time (you heard me).
Also, create 'no whine' zones. Your day off is sacred - physically and emotionally - don't check the email, answer the phone or stop by the office. If they can't behave in prayer meetings - stop having them. These are not town halls, they are PRAYER meetings. You only have so many hours in your day/week - those who get to use that time need to be worthy of it or at the very least have their interactions with you be on your terms, not theirs.
Thank you, wonderful matriarchs, for sharing your wisdom and experience with this difficult issue. What about the rest of you? How do you deal with grumbling in your congregation? How do you handle it, both tactically speaking and emotionally speaking? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
And as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.