Money at Church: Can You See the Triangles?

Triangles are everywhere in church life. A triangle occurs when the relationship between two people becomes troubled, and a third person (or group) is pulled in to manage the anxiety between the two. Given the high-anxiety nature of money in church life, we can expect triangles to show up frequently. Here are some common examples:

The church board complains to the pastor that congregation members aren’t giving enough to support the budget. “Pastor, you’ve got to preach a really strong stewardship sermon this year to get them to give more.” Triangle: board-pastor-church members.

Or this: One staff member complains to another that the pastor hasn’t done enough to advocate for staff salaries. Triangle: staff member-staff member-pastor.

Or this: a pastor comes home from the church budget meeting, and his wife asks, “Are they going to give you a raise this year?” Triangle: pastor-church budget committee-spouse.

What’s a church leader to do? We can’t opt out of these triangles; they are simply part of being a church leader. But we can manage ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety of others around money. A thoughtful response will always lead to better results than a reactive response.

To repeat some of the basics about triangles:

First, you can’t change the “other side” of a triangle. In other words, you can’t change a relationship you don’t belong to. If you are in a triangle with two other people, you cannot directly affect their relationship. Their relationship is up to them, not to you. For example, as a staff person, you may agree that the pastor could do more to advocate for staff, or you may want to defend him or her to your colleague. But getting caught up in bemoaning or defending will not help anyone make progress.

Secondly, if you try to change the other side of a triangle, the situation often gets worse. People resist, consciously or unconsciously, our willful attempts to change them. In our sample case, you can’t manage the dissatisfaction of your colleague with your mutual boss. At least, you can’t do it without adding significantly to your own stress:

Thirdly, when you try to change someone else’s relationship, you carry the stress that belongs to the other two. Trying to do the impossible always creates stress. The other two may love it, because they will experience less stress: you’ve taken on what belongs to them. But there is also no potential for change.

Here are some tips for managing self in these inevitable triangles:

1. Don’t spend a lot of time complaining to others about a third party or listening to the complaints of others. These are anxiety-driven triangles which are rarely productive.

2. Think through what your responsibility is and what it isn’t. For a pastor, preaching strong stewardship sermons is a responsibility. Developing a good strategy, together with the board or other appropriate group, for increasing giving in the congregation is a responsibility. “Getting them to give more” is not.

3. Cultivate a neutral response to those who try to draw you into triangles. That doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion about the topic at hand, whether it is salary or congregational giving or budget choices. But resist the efforts people make to get you “on their side” about an issue. Work hard to relate to both those you agree with and those you disagree with.

4. Draw out triangles that you see on paper, before or after a meeting or conversation. It will help you get calmer and develop a more productive response.

Managing ourselves around hot-button issues like money is never easy. But beginning to think triangles will help us avoid many pitfalls and lead more effectively.

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