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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — Contagious Negativity

A reader asks:

What are some ways of creatively dealing with a perpetually antagonistic, negative parishioner/lay leader/fellow staff member -- someone for whom "the answer's always NO!", and whose negative attitudes have a tendency to rub off on others?

Hmmm, bury your head in the sand? No? Perhaps that’s not helpful. Let’s turn to three of our beloved Matriarchs and gain the benefit of their experience in these difficult matters.

St. Casserole gives us a healthy and humorous perspective:

God gave us a sense of humor for just this circumstance. These negative folks abound! And, they are hilarious! We'd miss them if they left us for more fertile crabby territory!

Several strategies: make sure you know their spiel thoroughly. After paying rapt attention either in a group or asking to visit with them in private (pay them healthy attention! you aren't afraid! you are fascinated!), repeat their miseries back to them. This does several things: you are acknowledging their perspective in a respectful manner and you will be able to think through their objections. You don't argue with them. You listen and reflect what they say back to them.

In an affectionate way, tease them about their tendency to be negative. Don't feel affection for them? Pray for them until you do. Ministry is hard work.

When I see “Ann” (the poster child for "I Despise Everything this Church Does but I Am Here Everytime the Doors Open") at the church across the street, I ask her how she is. I want to know. If I begin giggling with delight about her complaints, she smiles with me. I'm not dismissing her complaints but laughing with her at her world view. She hasn't liked a pastor, church secretary, church member etc. etc. in the 15 years I've known her.

Careful with your irony here. It's cruel to taunt people. The genuine affection developed by prayer for and attentiveness to the "Ann" in your midst, gives you the light touch to laugh and enjoy the "Ann" without hostility.

All this takes time and for people-pleasers, like many clergy, we feel rejected or down-trodden by the nay-sayers. Mais non! Come at them from a different angle and be their loving preacher. You don't have to agree with them, support their negative junk or get sucked into their world view.

Ministry, as I mentioned, is hard work. And, funny.

Jan of A Church for Starving Artists starts by admitting that none of what she suggests is ever easy and is probably impossible except by the grace of God:

*Pray for them -- that they will 1) not damage the church, 2) go away, and/or 3) find themselves on the road to Damascus.

**Pray for yourself -- that you will 1) be protected from the negativity, 2) be your best self even in the presence of their antagonism, and/or 3) always be able to afford regular therapy/pedicures/massages/vacations.

***Always take witnesses when you confront them. Confront in love and truth. And if necessary, ask them why they are there if everything is so terrible/wrong/disturbing to them.

****Last resort: I have a colleague who finally confronted a negative member and said, "You seem very unhappy. Maybe you would be happy in another congregation." (Or maybe he/she would also be unhappy in another congregation.)

Finally we hear from Abi, who has both advice and resources. Thanks, Abi, for the book list!

Aye, yi yi yi! Now that is a difficult one.

If it is a fellow staff member it would seem the Senior staff person needs to deal with this person, or the committee that deals with staff positions. It may be this person is depressed or it may be this is a chronic problem. As a leader the Senior person might want to deal with them. If they are under you, you might want to spend some time with them. Gently asking them about their attitude, their feelings, what's going on? How can you help them? Perhaps they don't want the position, but can't or won't say no, and may need some assurance that it is okay to step down.

If it’s a lay leader then maybe one of the lay leaders needs to deal with them in a loving yet firm way.

Sometimes we don't know how negative we are, and sometimes we do. Either way, it needs to be lovingly confronted and dealt with. I think if the person refuses to admit their feelings or dilemma, then you as the leader might have to say, you know you are just not the leader for this committee or this age group or whatever it is, perhaps there is another place your gifts and graces can be used.

I don't think we at the same time want yes people all the time or Pollyanna positive, we need the truth, and the truth spoken in love. Perhaps they need to know how to say “no” themselves in a loving and caring way.

If things can not be resolved, i.e. the staff person doesn't get help or improve, then they may need to be let go. Lay leaders or committee chairs may need to be removed from their leadership positions.

Parishioners, you will have those who are negative. I have them talk to me. And then I say okay, you have had your say now. Let it go. Or that's a good point let me deal with it.

The bottom line seems to be making sure the negative person has had an opportunity to be heard and to know it, to be clear about our own approach rather than clouded by our frustration, then to take appropriate steps if continued negativity impacts ministry. Your polity and mine may vary, but there is almost always a means built in to address those who clearly ought not be in their positions anymore, whether those are lay folk, staff or other ordained clergy. The hard part is discerning when that moment has come and having the strength to use whatever our process is correctly rather than being dragged into negative patterns ourselves.

Also, remember to pray!

If you have a question for our Matriarchs, please send it to Ask the Matriarch, along with prayers for Gallycat, whose medical difficulties continue.

Now, here’s the Booklist:

Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict

Speaking the Truth in Love

How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What

Hope in Conflict: Finding Wisdom in Congregational Turmoil


  1. Most excellent booklist.

    The "How Your Congregation Works" is really really good. Alban Institute has a way of selecting authors that really can write clearly and can pack big big concepts in easily understood packages.

  2. Changes in people's beloved church routines can sometimes make the negativistas go into overdrive. A great strategy I learned at a lay ministry seminar on ministering in "anxious" congregations was to make necessary changes temporary at first. An example was an ELCA congregation in a resort area whose pastor, with the support of many newer parishoners, wanted to celebrate the Eucharist on a weekly basis, which is the ELCA's "standard of practice." The hometown Pietist old-timers who ran things in this congregation were being very obstructionist about this idea, complaining about everything from "Holy Communion will lose its specialness if we have it too often" to the increased cost of purchasing wine and wafers. (!) So the pastor hit on a new tack. "Let's try a weekly Eucharistic schedule just for the three summer months...because a lot of parishoners travel in the summertime, and it's not fair that, if they go away for a week, they're not able to have access to Holy Communion when they get back into town." Well, this argument struck a chord with some of the obstructionists, so the church council voted to try the "summer schedule." By the end of August, the naysayers had forgotten why they were against weekly Eucharist, and they've had it ever since.;-)

  3. oh, the negativers. There are a few here, for sure. thank goodness for the mental health plan of the PCUSA and the patience of my therapist. and for the good advice of the matriarchs! Good work, friends.

  4. I love the good-humor suggestion. Fantastic. It's amazing how quickly our energy can plummet when we're around difficult people, and being able to smile and laugh is a great alternative. Sounds like an ideal example of loving detatchment, too.

    Have I mention that I am SO GRATEFUL for the Ask the Matriarch feature of RGBP? Seriously, ladies. Keep up the generous and helpful work.

  5. Thanks. Im going to have to check out these books. This post couldnt have come at a more timely time...LOl!

  6. I have observed as we have been transplanted for various calls and ministries, that the negative ones are the first people you meet... I blogged about the phenom here...

    Mostly, having another perspective of someone who has been around a while (and is NOT so negative) helps...

    This was a great post - thanks RevGal M's!


  7. Lutheranchik, I have tried that same tactic a number of times myself. Nine times out of ten, it works like a charm!

    Thanks for the pastorly advice and reminders. It is hard to remember to pray sometimes when you feel so personally attacked. Your words - and your book list - are wonderful.

  8. The other thing that you can do is start a very anonymous, very carefully hidden blog and blog it.

    Not that I have done that.
    Or would.

    I agree with St. Casserole.
    Ministry is funny.

  9. My beloved daughter was recently chair of her sorority's recruitment team. When faced with the occasional "no! no!" sister, they had a gentle suggestion for her: Maybe you'd be happier in another house.

    Tempting, eh?

  10. I have a colleague that drives me crazy in a couple of ways, particularly with the negative thing. It is my regular prayer (and I mean just about every time I see this person): "God, please help me to see this person as you see them." And I'm always surprised at how helpful that is.

  11. Had a boss once who used to say" and maybe their car would be happier in a different parking lot".

  12. All great suggestions, and a very timely 'ask the matriarch' as well. A couple of things I would add are:

    1) People who can not be please we are under no obligation to please. I have been trying to convince myself of this for years, but there comes a time when you just have to let God love them and let it go. I actually have a list of the people I'm just letting God love and staying out of the way.

    2) Say thank you! The best tool of ministry I often have available is the stack of blank thank you cards I keep in my desk. I try to formally thank at least two or three people a week. I do this with the helpful folks and those hell bent on my destruction. This keeps me mindful of the blessings in my life and not consumed by someones negativity and it lets the congregation no I appreciate them, all of them, even those on the list.

    3. Exercise is key. It is the healthiest way to relieve stress, and it is a whole lot cheaper to hit a golf ball then a senior warden!

  13. thanks for yr prayers everyone~!!!!!!

    teh owie continues, but i'm having an mri today to find out what's causing it

    thanks again
    godbless you all!

  14. Oh, for the money for all the books, and oh for the money to attend some of the Alban Institute conferences and workshops.

    Good responses.

    And continued prayers for Gallycat, we love you.


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