Playing Nice with Power-Play Parishioners

Posted on June 27th, 2012

After picking up a seemingly pleasant parishioner on the way to my first finance meeting in my first church, all hell broke loose on the drive. She asked “Why is your wife not attending the meeting?”

“She’s busy grading papers for her school work,”  I said.

“So what?" The woman responded. "She should be coming to the meeting.”

“No,” I replied and half-way pleaded. “She really has to be home tonight.”

My crazed passenger reached over, pulled at the steering wheel and shouted angrily “Nope, we’re going back for her!” We nearly slammed into a curb.

I suppressed my anger, smiled, took her hands off the wheel and exclaimed “No, it’s just you and me on this run, ma’am!” She backed off, but she was fuming and managed to sustain her volatile demeanor.

A year later we talked about that unpleasant night. There was no apology. She grinned and said “You were more than angry and on the verge of rage that night, but you swallowed it and came across politely. I would contend you were a complete hypocrite in those moments.”

Two of my predecessors had warned me about her power plays. She remained that sweet for the duration of my stay there.

I swore I would never cave in to members who appeared to enjoy taking such heavy-handed shots at me or anyone else in my congregations.

Three former pastors forewarned me regarding a long-time treasurer in my second assignment. During the first year on the job, her demanding conduct managed to impact my heart, stomach and intestines. I went through a bottle of antacids every month. I learned when she got angry at preachers in the past, she withheld their paychecks for two or three days. No one messed with her, laity or clergy. She continued to be a pain in the bowels until an incident occurred that cut into some of her absolute power.

Over a two-month period the deposits at the bank were low and not matching the monthly church tally. We had only one depositor and we should have had two. Our treasurer began to suspect the lay person making the bank runs was probably on the take. She was incensed, pointed at the alleged accused across the patio after services one day, and started lambasting him in front of dozens of shocked members. Two people tried to calm her down but she wouldn’t cease berating him.

My innards were in a knot again as I stood watching the episode. I finally rushed at her in flying pastoral robe and stole, grabbed her arm and marched her away, while whispering a little too loudly “Stop it! I want to see you in my office right now!”

When I closed the door I just looked at her. Before I could speak she declared “No preacher—well, nobody for that matter—has ever come at me like you did just now. It must have been difficult for you to do what you did because you’re shaking and truly disgusted. What took you so long?”

I was stunned and a little teary-eyed. Her eyes clouded up. We hugged and became friends. Well, not pals, but we did okay with each other after that. Did I dread hurting her feelings? Not as much as I feared possibly losing my job. It turned out the two fiscal short-falls were due to bank oversights.

I learned later a couple of church members were offended by my abrupt behavior that day. Several commented “It’s about time.” One guy alluded to my swift approach with fluttering robe and flapping red stole as a Superman-type character coming in from another planet.

How often do we pastors repress our deepest, most candid emotions in a temple and how much of it is detected by our laity? How long do we have to suffer physically and mentally through such harassment? Is it assumed a preacher has to bury her anger and rage until retirement? Does it ultimately matter if we hold back or expose it? Can there ever be such a thing as suitable clergy rage allowed inside churches?

Mark Twain suggested “When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.”  I would propose when enraged, count ten and explode if necessary. . . . We’ll likely live longer.

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