A Word of Advice for Today’s Clergy
The Church has an unacknowledged problem.
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 title: 4 Ways to Jerk-Proof Your Church (this is a link)
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
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.
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.
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.”