4 ways to jerk-proof your church

June 1st, 2015

Recently, I wrote about why clergy get kicked out of church. There are all kinds of reasons. Lack of emotional intelligence ranks at the top. But as some of you reminded me, some churches are just plain dysfunctional and some people are just plain mean. Emotional intelligence is needed here too. In this case, it’s important to know not only how to manage your own emotions and behavior, but how to read and respond to other people’s.

Let’s say your church starts off nice enough: People get along, there is a minimum of disagreement, no ugly conflict, things move forward nicely. You have a functional leader who is respected and is leading the church in a good direction.

Then, the unfortunate happens. A jerk appears. Or a cluster of jerks infiltrate. Defined by Merriam Webster as “a stupid person or a person who is not well-liked or who treats other people badly,” you probably don’t need the definition of a jerk to know one when you see one.

Let’s say now the dynamics in your church are changing. You’ve got a fly in the ointment, a backstabber in the midst, or perhaps just someone who always seems to be stirring the pot. It’s time to learn how to jerk-proof your church. I’d like to share with you four ways to do this.

Jerk #1: Their anxiety runneth over

The first kind of jerk is overly anxious. Stuff is going on at home or at work that they’re having a hard time with. Instead of dealing with it directly, they bring it to the church and take it out on you. When change is in the air they move into overdrive, stifling change and bad-mouthing change-agents. They’ve got their heels dug in, and try to turn others against the change agent too.

How to deal with the anxious jerk? Edwin Friedman notes that churches need a strong immune system to keep the virus of anxiety from infecting healthy dynamics. So, reaffirm your church’s vision and mission. Let your church’s decision-making affirm your highest ideals, not try to cure their anxiety. Separate pastoral care from the future direction of your church. Their anxiety has nothing to do with you. Your decision-making is not the cause or the cure of their anxiety.

Jerk #2: The dry drunk

Arrogant, angry, controlling, and perfectionistic, this second kind of jerk has all the qualities of an alcoholic who isn’t drinking but who also isn’t working a 12-step program. In other words, they aren’t emotionally sober or spiritually grounded. The dry drunk won’t rest until he or she has destroyed the leader and brought the whole structure of the church down. Destruction, not upbuilding, is their goal. These lone rangers often manage to get a few others to go along with them. A small but vocal minority, then can turn a nice church bad and a cohesive church into a war zone.

Employ the 3 C’s of Al-Anon. Remember: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.” In other words, their bad behavior is not based on something you’ve done. It also means there’s nothing you can do to get them to play nice with you. Here’s what you can do: Set firm appropriate boundaries and get buy-in from the board, council or personnel committee to back you up on these boundaries. Another thing: Don’t put up with their destructive ways, hoping they’ll change. They won’t. It’s probably time for them to go. Not buying in to their drama, anonymous communications, outrages or upsets will cut off the fuel that sparks them. If not, request help from denominational authorities.

Also, remember that sometimes the dry drunk isn’t dry. He or she may be an active alcoholic, drug or food addict, gambler, sex addict or what have you. If that’s the case, don’t let the disease of addiction hold sway over your church. The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy. Remove these folks from positions of active leadership.

Jerk #3: The triangulator

This jerk has a problem with someone but won’t deal directly with that person. Instead, they triangulate: They form a sick bond with another and unload their problems on them. That puts others in the middle of their issue — others who can’t solve it. Triangulators play the victim all the while stirring the pot. They bad talk the person, but won’t go directly to them. Sometimes they write anonymous letters or start rumors.

To deal with this kind of jerk, don’t participate with them in discussions about someone else. Don’t get drawn into their gossip or venting sessions. Instead, tell them you won’t talk about another who is not present. Be firm. Say: If you’re having a problem with that person, please speak with them directly. I can’t help you. Also, don’t give any consideration to unsigned letters or anonymous reports. Generally the amount of support they claim is inflated.

Look to see if a staff person or a retired pastor is involved in the triangulation. If they have made alliances with the triangulator or are leading the triangulation it’s time for a come to Jesus meeting. These unholy alliances create dangerous territory for the current leader. Staff or retired pastors need to be removed, reprimanded or asked to stay away.

The fourth way to jerk-proof your church

The fourth way to jerk-proof your church is foundational to the health of a congregation. Practice spiritual disciplines. Jesus cast out many a demon. In addition to direct intervention, prayer and fasting played a large part in his success.

Need more help? Check out “When Sheep Attack” by Dennis R. Maynard and “Antagonists in the Church” by Kenneth Haugk. Insights for this article were drawn from both books. Also, my workshop For the Common Good helps congregations heal.


Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com.

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