Understanding the Difficult Parishioner
Interacting with seminarians typically raises two affections in me. The first is hope. God is still calling people to participate in the redemptive mission of the Kingdom, and people are still answering that call. The second, is a bit of sadness as I witness how idealistic and naive many seminarians are about the challenges of ministry. At my lowest I find myself thinking, “They have no idea what they’re getting themselves into.”
Within five years, half of them will leave ministry. That will be less about their calling, talent, giftedness, and competence. It will also be less about the challenges of ministry itself; it’s a tough job. More than anything, it will be about dealing with difficult parishioners. Most church members will be supportive, mature, faithful, and gracious. They will be patient with the shortcomings of their minister, understanding of the sincerity of their best intent for their church, forgiving of mistakes, and sympathetic to the sacrifices that come with ministry. Yet, it will be the few immature and abusive among the membership who will cause such stress and heartbreak as to cause a minister to flee ministry.
Author Edwin Friedman offered twelve characteristics of dysfunctional church members. He cautioned against being naive about the toxicity of such persons. Here, from a taped lecture, is what Friedman described:
Their outstanding feature is they are easily hurt or insulted. They are slow healers. They are “injustice collectors.” Like scouts they wear a sash with their merit badges.
They are quick to fuse with their minister; they are quick to idolize them and then crucify them. Their bonds become their binds.
They are humorless (reptilian, deadly serious). They are seldom playful and have little capacity for non-purposeful activity.
They are prone to projection. They see what others do to them; they never see their own contribution to their problems. They are always “innocent.”
They tend to be conspirational. They rarely define things in a non-blaming way; they are far more likely to go to others and talk about you and talk to others about how to get rid of you.
They are big trianglers, creating pseudo-alliances by distancing a third person.
They are given to groupthink and are are easily stampeded. They have no circuit breaker effect of differentiated self and that produces a panicky herd.
They are all or nothing thinkers. You are either with us or against us. The critical issue in differentiation is the toleration of dissent and they have no capacity for this.
Their view of religion tends to be ritualistic rather than humanistic.
Such human beings are not influenced by reasonableness and love. Ultimately, they must be walled off or defeated.
They are not capable of systemic thinking. They are always thinking in terms of simple cause and effect. Never “It’s my perception that….” always “Minister, you are wrong.”
The problem is not their values. They generally have good values. The problem is in their functioning. And you get faked out if you are thinking, “Are they good people or not?”
While it’s not productive to question people’s motivations for bad behavior, or to ask “Why do they act that way?” typically there are four goals to bad behavior: getting attention, gaining power or influence, getting revenge, and covering up inadequacy or unresolved issues. Friedman cautioned that the biggest trap clergy make in dealing with dysfunctional church members is having “an unreasonable faith in reasonableness.” As individuals these persons can range from annoying to stressful. When they are able to rally a small group around their anxieties, projection, and issues, it usually does not end well for the minister.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers programs for clergy to support them in the joyous but often challenging call to ministry. Check out the Pastoral Excellence Program to learn more.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.