Every pastor has one: That church member you dread to see coming. The one who monopolizes your time. The one who pushes all your buttons. The one you think about in the night, wondering what to do. Sometimes it’s a staff member. Sometimes it’s a leader. Sometimes it’s a long-time member.
What’s a leader to do?
Here are four questions to ask:
- What’s the bigger picture? You can get so focused on individual behavior you lose sight of the fact that this person has a place in the system. It’s not simply about them and their behavior. For one thing, in many cases the church system has put up with their behavior for years, even decades. It’s a reciprocal relationship. No one has been willing to say, “You can’t act like that here.” For another, they probably are not the first one to occupy that position.One pastor I talked to said, “Oh, yeah–before he came, there was someone else who bullied lay leaders into doing what he wanted.” Step back and think about it. What’s the history? What are the patterns?
- What’s the hook for me? In addition to the church system, you’ve got your own programming which makes you vulnerable to this person. Think about your own family story. Who are people you find most challenging? How do you deal with them? Do you confront? Avoid? Placate? Notice if there are any similarities to the way you approach your “problem” person. When we are allergic to someone else, it’s not just about them. Some difficult people we can simply ignore or easily handle. Something about THAT church member challenges you emotionally.Can you dig a little deeper and see what might be going on for you? It may be a challenge to unearth these patterns, and you might need some help. Some of the coaching I do helps clergy reflect on this.. Even when you figure it out, it’s not a quick fix, but it can help you get perspective. I know I get hooked by big, aggressive men. It comes from the multigenerational history of my family, and it took me a long time to figure it out. Now I’m able to say to myself pretty quickly, “Oh…I see what’s happening here,” and I can calm down and do what I need to do. But it took years (literally) to get there.
- Who else can help handle this? I find many pastors feel like it’s up to them to deal with people who are creating problems. You do need to work on your own reactivity to that individual, as I’ve just discussed. In addition, in some cases you can share the responsibility. A member who is creating havoc is the church’s problem, not just yours. You may have ideas, but you might also say to one or more key leaders; “I’m just not sure what to do. You’ve know her longer than I have–what do you think?” It’s can be a way of sharing the anxiety appropriately.One of my favorite Edwin Friedman lines is this: “I can leave, but you’re still going to have to deal with this person.” I was never brave enough to use it, but you might be.
- How can I pray for them? You can work to unhook yourself from your reactivity to this individual through prayer. If you find it difficult, simply mention their name to God. You don’t have to figure it out. However, if you regularly pray for them, over time, you will be calmer in relationship to them, at least a little. If you are less reactive, the relationship will improve, at least a little. In addition, you will be in a better place spiritually in your leadership of the congregation.