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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Dealing with Whiners

This week's question is on such a tough issue. Our wonderful matriarchs have such wisdom to share, and maybe you do, too. Read on.

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?

Please help!

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.

Sue writes:
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.

So: tactics!!!!

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.


  1. Great insights. Navigating those personalities is tough. I would second Muthah+'s invitation for spiritual direction and/or a therapist...even if you have to travel.

    While there are many great resources/books the one I have found most helpful, and a quick read, is "Leaders Who Last: Sustaining yourself and your ministry" by Margaret Marcuson. She comes at it from a family systems perspective.

    There is much work to do in churches to begin to shift the mentality that the pastor is a super-human, at our beck-and-call, and sacrifices all (time, family, and a fair wage) for "the love of God".

  2. A family systems book may be helpful too.

  3. Purple, thanks for the book suggestion! I will need to look for that one myself. And Kathryn, your suggestion of a family systems book is spot on as well. Thank you!

  4. Creating a Healthier Church looks at churches and the family systems within. I found it helpful. One of the things it discusses is triangles, and some of what you describe sounds like just that.

    And wow, such wisdom in these answers!

  5. Allow me to recommend Edwin Friedman's Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. It also talks about family systems and triangles in a church context, and methods for detriangulating. Good stuff.

  6. I want to strongly concur with Sue's comment about making sure people understand whose responsibility the church really is. It's not yours. You aren't the boss of the spoons and you're not the boss of the person who threw out the spoons; you're the pastor, not the general. You have to know that and believe it, and then you have to diplomatically proclaim it. Maybe you need to nudge the church council toward a reorganization of duties that works for 2012 (ours, when I arrived, had not changed since 1950). That means letting go of some of it yourself, once clear standards have been established, and letting other people own the successes and "oops, that didn't work; what shall we try next?" moments. Spin out the "good people/hard workers/dedicated members" to a model that works in the unhealthy places. "You did X so well; can you work with me to revamp Y?"

    Congregations *can* be toxic, but remember they were that way before you came; you didn't do this to them, and you really can't fix it. You can model healthier interactions; you can insist that interactions with you and with others in your presence be respectful, and you can remove yourself from the situation. (Or, as I considered more than once last week, you can hit them over the head with the snake stick.)

    A more professional version of the head bonk is telling the truth in love: "This is not how the Body of Christ was called to be. This way of being hurts people and hinders our ministries, and I know you well enough to believe that's not what you want. We need to deal with our problems openly, honestly, lovingly and faithfully, and that's not happening."

  7. Good wisdom here. I cannot endorse Generation to Generation highly enough. It changed the way I dealt with people, period.

    I think the suggestion to sort out the whining as best you can is good one. Sometimes people need to vent and will vent to us. That kind of whining you can pretty much ignore and not take too personally.

    The chronic whiners, though, might need some attention, but the trick is to not tie the attention to the whining. Like we do with tiresome children (and I do not advocate always thinking of your parishioners as children--that is a slippery slope) "catch them being good" and lavish them with appropriate levels of pastoral attention. Catch them being non-anxious, non-whiny, and love the hell out of them.

    So to speak.

  8. I wish everybody had "Like" buttons I could click! Good stuff, all of it.

  9. Such good advice here. sometimes grumbling is the first rumbling of something bigger, which is why you can't ignore it entirely! I have my own 'ask the matriarch' question that comes from this same place; an older man who was hugging women in the church very aggressively (booming "gimme a hug!" and then grabbing them). Then there was rumbling among the youth choir members that he was hugging the girls and they didn't want to say anything because their parents know this man. clearly we acted; following our Youth and Child protection policy, the music director and I reviewed the situation and response with the Moderator (we're Congregationalists, so there is no judicatory presence) and then had a talk with him about dialing back the hugging, because particularly in these times it is important to avoid even the possibility of inappropriate behavior. he took it very badly, told everyone that we had called him a pedophile (which, point of fact, we didn't because that wasn't the issue). Personally, I think something is genuinely wrong with him based on other behavior; his sister (also a part of our church) thinks so as well. He has avoided Sunday mornings since this happened 3 weeks ago, though he's still in touch with people and has attended at least one fellowship gathering (no teenagers present). So, gang, what next? I know that our priority has to be to assure that church is a safe space. How to make it safe for him? Since this series of events, many more people have come forward indicating that they've been uncomfortable with the hugging but thought it was just them. So....I'm OK in my mind with the policy, with how we handled it; but what else can/should I do? he does not live close to the church, and may or may not take calls or read letters or emails. Thoughts, everyone??

    1. Maybe time for someone to have a "man-to-man" talk with him ? Do you have an older, respected good-with-people male who could get involved ? Because it won't be good for him either to get stereotyped as "creepy old guy" by the fellowship as a whole.

    2. It sounds to me like it was handled well. I would give him a little space and then maybe follow up with a phone call in a week or two, just to listen to him express how he feels (but I wouldn't negotiate or back down from the original boundaries you've set). I like Alison's idea of having a man in the church follow up with him as well.

  10. I am so glad this was posted this week! I didn't write this "Ask the Matriarch" but the question as posted is something I could have written almost exactly! (minus the "spoons" part... we have our own areas of whine!)

    I've added all the books recommended to my Amazon list. I own a copy of "Generation to Generation" but had been intimidated because it's so big... I guess I better get on that! (post-Easter, perhaps?)


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