These are the very words—letter for letter—that our bishop, newly elected, spoke to us on December 6, 2006.
She never explained her statement. It seemed to me at the time that the words were a prelude to a speech she intended to make, but the meeting was cut short by an emergency.
It left me hanging. What was our bishop getting at? What did she know about OUR culture? No one at this meeting had met her before and no bishop had been in contact with our congregation for six years. We had undergone significant change during those years, accepting dozens of new members! In fact, we had changed so much that there were only two members in 2006 who had been adult members in 2000.
This writer answers my lingering questions. We had been labeled.
As I recall, our next encounter (November 1, 2007) opened with a speech by the same bishop. Well, it was more like a rant. Perhaps it was the speech she intended to give a year before. She used the word ADVERSARIAL over and over. Most of the people present had never met this bishop. The couple of us who had met with her 11 months before had no contact since. That meeting had ended without conflict. How were we adversarial? What were the issues?
All I know is this: This bishop was soon making claims on our property. She did so by dismissing all lay leaders and locking our doors. No disciplinary issues were cited; no offers of help, guidance, or leadership were forthcoming. Six years of vindictive court battles ensued. Just thinking of us as culturally flawed provided license to bully us.
Mean-spirited labels mask the good in congregations. And yes, “toxic” and “depraved” are on the mean side. Congregations, once labeled have difficulty overcoming the labels. Every future leader will be forewarned. The congregation you are about to serve is “toxic.” If you fail, it won’t be your fault—so it is OK not to try.
Here are the labels this writer uses to describe unhealthy church cultures. Note how the items listed grow in seriousness as the list progresses. Labels are like that.
He asks his readers to add their own labels. A few do. None of them are positive. I guess we can add ADVERSARIAL, even though, in our case, we can only guess what that means.
Labels may be accurate. Somehow, I doubt it. Really, do all the members in these churches wake up every Sunday morning and head off to church with evil intent?
Labels amplify problems. If congregations are 90% healthy and 10% depraved, “depraved” will get top billing.
Missing from this post is any sense that leadership played ANY role in creating these cultures. These congregations became TOXIC all on their own.
SELFISH: There is never misuse of funds or denial of support that cause people to become self-centered and protective of their own. There are no land or asset grabs in church news.
PRIDEFUL: No pastor dwells on the congregation’s faults causing them to be prideful of what little self-worth they can muster. All previous pastors, whose portraits line the narthex walls, discouraged pridefulness. None had their names on the church sign board or on the front page of the bulletin. None have reserved parking spaces near the door.
RIGID: No denominational leader came to a congregation, constitution in hand, citing rules, traditions, doctrines, and procedures.
CLIQUISH: Every pastor encouraged networking with other congregations and pastors.
BULLYING: Professional leaders never use their authority to intimidate lay leaders.
STINGY: All pastors model giving when the offering plate is passed. Pastors never expect raises when giving is down.
DEPRAVED: No pastors are tempted by sin.
The point, lest it be missed, is that when clergy create labels for their congregations, they are putting themselves above their members. It is easy to brush people aside when we think of them as Rigid or Stingy, etc. Just hang a large R or S around their necks.
The toxicity spreads.
Jesus avoided labels. The only label given to the woman at the well was Samaritan. Other labels are added by us readers. The only labels assigned to Zacchaeus are tax collector and rich. We imagine him as a despicable worm of a man.
We can’t make progress as Church with all the name-calling. It causes our thinking to quickly become SELFiSH, PRIDEFUL, RIGID, CLIQUISH, BULLYING, STINGY, DEPRAVED and TOXIC. Love, the paramount message of the gospel, becomes that much harder when we don’t really believe in reconciliation and redemption.
Maybe a closer look at “problem” congregations might reveal that in reality they feel:
At least these labels give a skilled leader a place to start.
Church leaders are big on talking about transformation. They are right! Things have to change if there are to be traditional jobs for them 20 years from now.
Therein lies a problem. Maintaining those jobs should not be the purpose of change. In fact, the change the entire Church seeks may include drastic changes in the role of leadership.
What’s that? Change the role of pastor? That’s not what we had in mind.
Most church leaders who reach the most influential positions get there by the recognition earned serving larger churches.
The relationship between parish and pastor in the small church is very different from that of a large church. If denominational leaders have never spent time in small churches, they have no way of knowing that. Their assessments of small church ministry are worthless if they don’t understand small church ministry.
Large church pastors might be more used to being in charge—proposing programs, and managing and hiring staff to implement their changes.
Change in small churches—MOST churches—won’t happen that way. This expectation will lead to frustration and the type of burnout that comes from wheels spinning with no traction.
Change in small churches happens incrementally—one idea at a time, one person at a time. It happens as a result of people with closely held beliefs arguing their points, probably for the umpteenth time, maybe with the same people. But then one day, something happens that makes it possible for both sides to lean back, uncross their arms, and say “Well . . . maybe.”
These moments in small parish life are glorious moments. The leader might not remember how the congregation got to that point—and for good reason. It didn’t happen overnight or by edict. It happened with one toe testing dangerous water. Then the knees. Then the shoulders. Suddenly new ideas are floating!
As the Church becomes more desperate, it begins to operate in fear. Power will be sought to control scarce resources. Land and assets will be coveted and seized. The Church will neglect true mission as they grope for successes measured by the past. Larger churches will be valued as desirable employers. They can continue as they have in the past a little longer and gets tons of attention from the “system.”
Ignoring the small neighborhood churches may seem prudent—good management. But it reveals a lack of confidence in our product (to use business terminology). We don’t really believe the mission of the Church is to reach the poor and troubled. Too much cost. Too much risk. God’s calls these days come with more comfort and perks.
This thinking is causing the Church to lose its neighborhood outposts—prime locations for active mission. The best and brightest talent will look for calls to the prestigious churches—where significant change is not likely.
But here is the good news! Lay leaders, and a few pastors, abandoned in those small, forgotten outposts of ministry, will start experimenting, networking—and changing.
Charleston, South Carolina: An angry young man attends a church prayer meeting. He guns down attendees before fleeing. Gunman, early reports suggest, sees black people as a threat.
This young man knew when and where to find his victims.
East Falls, Philadelphia: 2×2 Foundation, a multiracial organization, works to open its first local program since 2009. Like the church in Charleston, our hours of operation are public. It is very likely that the people we serve will represent many racial and ethnic backgrounds. As director, I am hiring young people, a multiracial staff. As part of the hiring process, we have all had criminal history clearance, sexual abuse clearance, and been fingerprinted into “the system” — an unforgiving system with a very long memory. The new normal.
The new normal goes against the grain of “church think.” We are supposed to forgive the past. We believe in second chances, dramatic turnarounds! Such stories define some of the greatest and favorite saints—like St. Francis!
What does this horrific incident in South Carolina mean to our faith community? We have been multi-racial for a long time, and predominantly black for the last decade.
Twenty years ago, our workers would have all been volunteers from our community. We would have relied on our knowledge of our neighbors, family and friends. We would have invited and welcomed strangers who showed the slightest interest. Now we check everyone.
Madness has a way of exploiting every weakness. News stories used to report how lack of security resulted in tragedy. Now, it seems, the stories are how tragedy occurred despite safety measures!
I experienced no problems finding help. All participants in our fledgling program willingly complied with the new rules of church life. It helps that most of them are under 25 and don’t remember how it used to be.
Churches today are challenged to find volunteers who might be willing to donate a few hours for a church cause and will go to the trouble and expense of getting the mandated clearances (about $50 each) and a few hours to travel to a fingerprinting center—none of them convenient and surprisingly busy.
No matter how careful we are, churches cannot control the behavior of all with whom we come in contact. Even carefully screened, authorized family members of those we serve or our own trusted members can come to us on a bad day and do horrific things for reasons that may be nonsense or may be very real.
Churches choosing to exist in welcoming love are sitting ducks for people who are confused or for those with well-crafted ulterior motives.
Our congregation experienced this. People we trusted used their knowledge of our church to harm us. On one occasion, they used our council meeting time (posted online) to have court representatives serve members with notice of litigation. On another occasion, they used a meeting announced for one purpose to bring a group of supporters and a locksmith to seize our property. The weapon of choice, in our case, was court. The tactic was similar.
There is a temptation in times like this, to react with suspicion of any outsider—to isolate and protect—to lock doors and install security systems. Isolation plays right into the hands of those with evil intent. Isolation works against mission.
Last evening, I stepped inside Redeemer Church for the first time since September 20, 2009—the Sunday before a court order allowed the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to claim our congregation’s property—despite constitutional provisions forbidding it.
Courts did not rule the synod was right. They ruled they have no jurisdiction and couldn’t stop them.
No one could.
Locking the doors was not part of the court order. This was the decision of the synod who clearly had no desire to pursue mission in our community. They wanted our land. They got it. They sold it.
My visit was unplanned. I was with old friends. They weren’t church members, although they had visited our church on several occasions—all before going to Africa as missionaries nearly 30 years ago.
We had enjoyed a delightful dinner in an East Falls restaurant. They were giving me a lift home. I was surprised when they pulled the car over in front of the church.
It was dusk. A light was shining from the fellowship hall. “I want to look in the window,” one companion said. “Do you want to come or will you get in trouble?” he asked. He was familiar with my six years of court struggles.
He hopped out of the car. My other friend and I followed. We peeked in the window. My friend started to try the door. I was about to warn him that wiggling the door might activate a security alarm.
The door was unlocked.
He walked inside. My other friend and I followed.
My friend called out. No answer.
It was like entering the remnants of a war-torn city. Six years of neglect have taken a toll on the property our people bought, built, loved and cared for since 1909. Our house of worship. God’s house.
The place smells of abandonment, dust and mildew.
Gone were many of the things we valued. The antique crockery and umbrella stand from the vestibule and most of the furniture from the fellowship hall.
I was relieved that the wooden steps to the stage were there. They were built by a member, long-deceased. His daughter has worried all these years about her father’s offering of love!
My cell phone rang. While I stood in the narthex talking on the phone, my friends ventured upstairs. I wasn’t sure I wanted to follow.
I was aware SEPA stripped the sanctuary of our chancel furnishings—on Holy Thursday, nine months after the closing on an “as is” sale. Members had seen the truck pull up and carry out our baptismal font, the pulpit, the altar, the lectern, the candelabras, the singed altar cross that had survived the 1920s fire, rescued from the flames by my brother-in-law. These will always be the same as stolen to us—taken without the consent of the congregation.
It was getting dark. We weren’t about to turn on lights. My phone call ended. I started up the stairs. The flooring at the foot of the stairs was soft. “Probable water damage,” my friend said.
My hand on the familiar railings was uncomfortable. I could feel the dust and grime of years of neglect. I had occasionally polished these railings. My husband had dusted them every week!
I passed the plaque commemorating Redeemer’s war dead. One of the children of our newer Tanzanian membership had asked me what this was. I told him it was a list of names of members who died in service. When he learned of my mother’s death, months later, he took a piece of chalk and wrote NORMA on the plaque. I looked to see if his touching gesture had survived seven years. I couldn’t tell; it was too dark. Then I realized, this boy, whom I remember as a charming nine-year-old, locked out with the rest of us, is now old enough to drive!
I reached the top of the stairs, I looked across the ransacked sanctuary. I stood in the same spot where for years I greeted the people of Redeemer as they arrived on Sunday morning. I was reminded of the predictable succession. Marilyn was always first. She came early so she could share her considerable weekly worries before others arrived. She was the informal leader of our 80 church visits after we were locked out. If it was Sunday morning, Marilyn was in church. The rest of us went along. She died two years ago and would never see the inside of her church home again. A lifelong, deeply spiritual Lutheran, her funeral was held in a museum where she volunteered. I was impressed that even Redeemer’s young people attended, four years after the lockout, a testimony to the intricacy of our eclectic membership.
I didn’t walk around. I stood in the back and visually assessed the damage caused by eight years of needless fighting, dating back to an awkward meeting with a mean-spirited bishop on November 1, 2007. The paint job, fresh in 2006, was peeling in sheets. No temperature control for seven years will do that.
Redeemer kept both green and red hymnals in our pew racks—(Lutherans know what this means). All the red hymnals (still my favorite for hymn selections) had been pulled out. They are stacked in the back pew. The green hymnals are still in place. Come to think, there were blue hymnals in every pew, too—and a few non-Lutheran hymnals donated by one of our pastors. We used many hymnals—some in English, some in Swahili! Maybe they are among the stacks.
All in all, this sorry sight was not as painful as I feared.
As daylight began to fade, I looked across the sanctuary at the stained-glass Ascension window. I spent a lot of years looking at that window—the backdrop of many family portraits.
I think of it now as the Jumping Jesus window. Our pastor’s three-year-old son had asked, “Why is Jesus jumping?”
Jesus is still looking down from his slightly elevated height at where our altar once stood. He had looked down on me as I stood before that missing furniture with my husband on our wedding day. May 28, 1988. He had looked down on us 17 months later, December 3, 1989, as our son was baptized with water from the missing font, the same font that provided water for my husband’s baptism in 1909. He was the first baby to be baptized in that building.
Today, Jumping Jesus looks a little sad.
The rich colors of the stained glass grew deeper as the sun set. I can’t remember seeing them quite this way before. The lack of sanctuary lights created deeply rich tones new to my old Redeemer eyes.
Clergy and laity operate in very different circles. Communication suffers, creating a wide gulf.
Laity tend to talk with laity. Communication with pastors is always a bit hierarchical.
Pastors tend to be more at ease with peers. In clusters and ministerium meetings, pastors do what all professionals do. Talk shop.
For pastors, “shop” includes their congregations.
They talk about their challenges. They unload frustrations. They share advice—all in a protected, clergy-only forum. Sometimes it’s just gossip! Until now it was all behind closed doors.
The Internet Changes Things
Slow to the internet keyboard, pastors are beginning to create an online authority, dispensing advice on hot clergy topics.
Any pastor can create an online following. They don’t need permission. (Neither do church members!). Of course, one way to create a following is to write what colleagues want to read.
There is a big difference in having clergy conversations over coffee and having them online. In private, clergy can use jargon. Other pastors will know what they mean. It’s all among friends. Probably no harm done. (It is more probable that the harm done is never recognized).
The internet changes this dynamic. We are all learning that we must be more careful in how we communicate.
What clergy write online, thinking they are writing to other clergy, is public. Laity, who may include your members, can google the same churchy keywords and eavesdrop on your conversations.
They might be shocked.
I follow a number of online ministries. Some are helpful. Some reveal troubling attitudes.
Some church leaders don’t seem to like the people they serve. Oh, they are OK with supporters, but lay influence that challenges theirs, well, that’s another story.
The Tone of Online Clergy Forums
Let’s look at the kind of language some pastors use.
One thread I followed talked about “toxic” congregations. “Pastors should be warned about toxic congregations,” one pastor wrote. “Agree 100%,” another pastor responded.
Think about it. What chance does any leader or congregation have if the clergy fraternity/sorority labels the congregation toxic? This attitude guarantees failure. It is an excuse for the new pastor to not try. The pastor is probably already subject to sniggers among peers for accepting the call! The outcome of ministry is predetermined. Gossip dies hard. The warnings will be passed on for decades, causing permanent damage.
Then there is the “documentary” published a few years ago. People— I assume pastors—send me links anonymously. When I reply, the message bounces back.
The title sets the tone: Clergy Killers. The publicity talks about the DNA of laity who undermine the efforts of clergy. The interviewed pastors are weepy about personal “betrayals.” Proponents of the documentary want it to be discussed. The discussion is not likely to be helpful as the name-calling makes it inviting to only those predisposed to agree.
For every clergy account there are multiple lay stories of betrayal — for which no documentary is likely.
Earlier this week I read a blog post written by a clergy guru who seems to be growing in online authority. I enjoy some of her articles. This one has me looking twice at everything she writes.
The post discusses problem lay people as if they exist in a vacuum. There can’t possibly be any reason beyond meanness to cause difficult behavior. She even assures her readers, “It’s not your fault.” Her advice is to enlist the board (others in the church) and set boundaries—put problem people in their place. (Triangulation on steroids!)
This is bad advice. It panders to clergy sensitivities and reveals a troubling lack of empathy toward laity and a naive understanding of congregational dynamics. Follow this advice and pastors risk creating lasting damage.
The end of the article links to blog posts of other clergy gurus who talk about aggressive “sheep” and “antagonists.”
These pastoral advisors are no longer whispering pet peeves over coffee. They are taking name-calling public.
The gulf between clergy and laity just got wider.
Here are some tips from my experience as a member of clergy families and a lay leader.
8 Tips for Pastors Dealing with Problem Church Members
1. Recognize that members are people.
You get frustrated. You feel hurt. So do they. You have a position of authority, denominational connections to support you, a pulpit from which to speak. They do not.
2. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Stop the name-calling. How would you like to be labeled a jerk, a triangulator, a dry drunk or a clergy killer with permanently damaged DNA?
3. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Part 2
Find the gumption to work one-on-one with the person you see as a problem. Find the reasons behind the behavior. It may open doors in the congregation you never realized were closed.
If that fails, identify the person in the congregation who has the best overview. Every congregation has a lay leader who is respected within the congregation in a way that helps hold things together as pastors come and go. It may be the patriarch or matriarch. It may be an older member. Don’t see them as a threat! Their leadership role is different than yours but every bit as important. Go to them humbly and discuss the problem. Start by saying, I don’t understand what is going on with _______. Can you help me understand? Leave the defensive attitudes, judgment and name-calling out of it.
Make sure you have exhausted personal efforts before taking things to a board.Taking a problem with interpersonal dynamics to a church board can be catastrophic. Remember, the board has allegiance to the congregation. Remember, they probably know the member better than they know you. Remember, many on the board may be related to the person. Remember, members have a long-term stake in church life. Pastors come and go. Coming to the board with interpersonal challenges may be seen as exploiting your position of authority, in effect, ganging up on someone they know. It could cost you and the congregation dearly. It will make reconciliation all but impossible.
4. Quit reacting with paranoia if people talk about previous pastors.
Create your own relationship with the congregation.
If you think a predecessor is violating professional protocol, take the issue directly to your predecessor. This is a clergy issue. Clergy created rules and protocols to make life easier for them. These rules make sense to clergy. Laity wonder “What’s the big deal?” These dated protocols are impossible to enforce in today’s interconnected world.
Lay people are not subject to clergy rules of engagement. You can advise laity to follow guidelines, but you cannot control this. You don’t have that right. Lay people live a large percentage of their lives in the secular world where such protocols make no sense. For example, if their kids grew up with your pastor’s kids, the connections will continue for a very long time. You cannot forcibly remove them from your parishioners’ lives. That’s a measure of control that no pastor should attempt. Trying to do so will seem desperate.
This issue can and should be handled entirely within clergy circles.
5. Understand the “sheep” analogy.
It might be better to stop thinking of church members as sheep. The analogy is easily misunderstood by people who know nothing about sheep. (Our family home was in the middle of a sheep pasture.)
The biblical analogy is supposed to point leaders to lives of service. Shepherding was a low-ranking, but important job. People understood the analogy because they probably held that job in their youth—like today’s paperboys.
Sheep follow because they trust. Be a shepherd; earn the people’s trust. In today’s world, church members are well-aware of the potential for abuse.
The sheep analogy does not mean that parishioners are uneducated, unskilled, illiterate and in need of thought/behavior control. Today’s pastors lead the best-educated generations in history. The parishioners you hope will support your church, monetarily and otherwise, have college and post grad experience. They are part of challenging professions that require the same skills pastors need. Some have more schooling than pastors. Respect lay skills if you want lay support.
6. Recognize that something you have said, done, or overlooked might be part of the problem.
It might feel good to be reassured by church leaders that you are not the problem. What if they are wrong? What if you did do something hurtful? What if you didn’t but the member thinks you did? Wouldn’t you want to know and set things right?
There is a common scenario on Dr. Phil that I believe is played out in parish life frequently. People write for help with a difficult family member who is ruining the dynamics of the entire family. For 20 minutes their families’ worst moments are presented in shocking videos. Dr. Phil tries to get people to talk to one another. It is often ugly. And then Dr. Phil begins to point out how the complaining family members have actually created the problem. He replays the videos. Look at what you were doing before the bad behavior, he says.
He almost always asks them, Did you call them (and then he reads a list of mean names)?
Imagine Dr. Phil looking you in the eye. Did you call your members jerks, clergy killers, dry drunks, etc.
The “problem person” in the Dr. Phil scenario is often reacting to situations over which he or she has no authority and little voice (like lay people!) He summarizes the situation in a way they NEVER considered: “Given the circumstances, how can your daughter NOT react badly? The only reason your daughter is yelling so loud is because she can’t yell any louder.”
This always comes as a surprise. Everyone in the family was so sure the “bad seed” was the root of all their problems.
Dr. Phil often spends the rest of the program helping them acknowledge their role in the conflict.
The church has no Dr. Phil. Clergy have a stake in all conflict. Consultants are often in the employ of church leaders. That’s the world they come from and know best. That’s where they get their referrals. They have neither the time nor inclination to look at church dynamics deeply. They will run the congregation through their bag of tricks and move on. Fixing problems in church life takes time! And patience! And humility!
7. It’s not all about you.
New members may join a church because they like the pastor. Others attend because they have a faith relationship with God and the congregation. It doesn’t matter who is pastor. They can probably remember many. Think of yourself as building on a rich legacy, not replacing it.
8. Love one another.
My father, a career pastor now in his 89th year, has a favorite traditional story about the evangelist John. It is not in the Bible.
By the way, my father accepted a call in 1965 to a small congregation that was split down the middle in serious conflict. He helped it heal and served it for decades. The little village church grew to be the largest in its synod! Even in times of conflict I never heard him talk about a church member badly—even those who opposed his ideas.
This story was one of his guides. He tells it with tears in his eyes.
John, one of the original disciples, lived a very long life. He held a respected position in the Christian community. In his declining years, he would be carried into the assembly. One day, sensing John would not be with them much longer, leaders sought advice from one of the few people still living who actually knew Christ in the flesh.
“What final words of advice can you give us?”
John answered, “Little children, love one another.”
This was not what they wanted to hear. They wanted strategies. Tactics! They kept asking. “What should we do when you are gone?”
No matter what they asked, John answered, “Little children, love one another.”
04 Jun 2015
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We were all once strangers, the weakest, the outcasts, until someone came to our defense, included us, empowered us, reconciled us (1 Cor. 2; Eph. 2).
Be calm. Wait. Wait. Commit your cause to God. He will make it succeed. Look for Him a little at a time. Wait. Wait. But since this waiting seems long to the flesh and appears like death, the flesh always wavers. But keep faith. Patience will overcome wickedness.