Monday Brief: Shake the Dust

After a significant absence from blogging on the School of Worship’s site, I am beginning my return with a series on Mondays. For many pastors and worship leaders, Sundays aren’t the most draining day of the week; it’s Monday. Monday is the day when we begin fully and stably processing the events from the weekend. This weekly segment will feature excitements, lessons learned, and fair but blunt critiques of the state of the broader church. There are nearly 500 persons from a variety of traditions who receive and read this blog, so take what you will as it is applicable to you.

A recent issue of my denomination’s monthly magazine included an article on forced terminations of pastors. As a victim of a forced termination, I am particularly sensitive to the emotional strain and residual symptoms of fear and dread that remain in the pastor’s spirit. The article cites David Briggs, a researcher in religious data, who refers to “toxic” congregations as “clergy killers – congregations where a small group of members is so disruptive that no pastor is able to maintain spiritual leadership for long. Yet ministers often endure the stresses of these dysfunctional relationships for months, or even years, before eventually being forced out or giving up.”

In every congregation I’ve served, including my current parish, there exists a toxic minority at some point in its history. I listen to friends and colleagues from around the country in a variety of traditions beyond my own denomination who share stories of the outpouring of their life and labor into the future and health of a congregation, which is supported and energized by a majority who want to see the church grow and flourish, only to be crippled by the chronic negativity of a small group of complainers. In some cases, these persons do not participate in the listening processes established that give them a voice in crafting the direction of the church. Instead, they wait until the end and disrupt the hard work that has already been done by so many others.

One constant that I hear in these conversations is that, in nearly every case, the toxic minority view pastors as employees rather than the spiritual fathers/mothers of their religious community. In my previous pastoral assignment, I had one parishioner stand in my office, voice raised, saying, “You work for me, you believe and do what I tell you to believe and do.” The all-too-true reality in North America is that we’ve caved in to the cultural business model of pastor-as-employee. And when the pastor is an employee, s/he should recognize their place as the one who sits below a large group of employers. This is neither biblical nor healthy.

The deep anxiety that is felt by pastors in this kind of environment leads to chronic depression, an inability to function properly in a pastoral role, and a difficulty focusing on family and other parts of life. That same article reported findings that nearly 70% of pastors “fight depression and report lower esteem than when they began ministry.” Even more staggering: “50% of all ministers starting out will not last five years in ministry” and “only 10% will retire as a minister in some form.”

Unfortunately, in my current parish assignment, I am seeing similar effects beginning to ripple beyond the pastor and into lay leadership. After a particularly difficult summer, when a majority of my congregation wanted to move forward with some plans that were backed by our denomination, a spiral of negativity in a few individuals forced an outstanding lay leader not only out of leadership but out of our congregation. In attempting to replace this leader, we found very few willing to step up because of the fear of anxiety from the negative minority. Further, I am discovering that such anxiety often extends into a congregation, as I hear stories from pastors and colleagues, and even individuals in my own parish who do not wish to participate in congregational meetings because of unhealthy patterns of negativity and criticism.

To be fair, the pastor and lay leadership of a congregation must be firm in establishing healthy processes for conversation and decision-making. It is part of their biblical and ecclesiastical authority not only to listen deeply but to also establish boundaries. But, as noted above, this can be difficult when pastoral or lay leader authority is crippled by an employee-employer model of church dynamics.

It is important to acknowledge a few things at this point. First, I believe that most of those described by the article as the toxic minority genuinely believe they are speaking and acting for what is best for their congregation. Like pastors, many committed lay persons want to see the church flourishing, growing, and healthy. Second, it is important to name that, in some cases, those who are negative are hurting. We are all familiar with the adage that “hurting people hurt people.” But as we name this reality, it is also essential to name that sometimes people who hurt others through chronic negative behavior and attitudes require behavior and attitude adjustments. I do not allow my children to hurt me or others without consequence. I stop the behavior, I tell them it is inappropriate, and then we work together to get to the root of what is causing the outburst. As my therapist says, “You are allowed to hurt, but you aren’t allowed to hurt others.”

The question that emerges, in all these reflections, is this: how do pastors, worship leaders, and lay leaders effectively minister in an environment where toxic behavior is preventing them from spreading the goodness of the Kingdom beyond the walls of the church?

I posed this question in a private Facebook group of clergy, and the responses were tremendous. The broad consensus was that pastors and church leaders cannot allow the negativity of a minority to drive the church. I am aware that churches are messy places with broken people, and that it is vitally important to listen to all voices when you are crafting new visions and imagining new ways of being church. My assumption is that most pastors and lay leaders do these things. (Although they exist, I have yet to meet a pastor whose goal was to force through their own agenda to create the church in their own image. Most pastors with whom I engage, myself included, sacrifice their own desires and wants out of a yielding and submission to the greater good of the congregation. They listen deeply even when parishioners don’t realize it.) And since most pastors in the United States minister to congregations with fewer than 50 persons, there is a family systems dynamic that contributes to behavior and response.

But as we look at the example of Jesus, whose own leadership included a toxic minority, he had a remarkably blunt way of handling it. When sending out his disciples and followers, Jesus tells them to greet the people they encounter with peace. If they give peace in return, stay and minister. If they do not give peace in return, he tells them to shake the dust from their feet, an ancient Jewish equivalent of saying, “I’m moving on.”

So, dear friends, in this Monday brief I wish to offer some words of encouragement and admonition from my reflection over the weekend:

For the positive and energized majority in a congregation: Speak up! Do not expect your pastor or leaders to be the sole persons who carry the weight of excitement for the future of the church. If you are excited, show up, speak up, and let your joy resonate. Be empowered!

For the toxic minority: You may or may not be aware of how your actions can not only hurt, but can also destroy the mental health and leadership capacity of your pastors and leaders. Dissent in a congregation is always acceptable, and in many cases allows us to better our way of being church together. Complaining and chronic negativity, however, without engaging in conversation and process, as well as an unwillingness to take responsibility for poor behavior choices, is never acceptable. And remember, just because something may not change doesn’t mean you haven’t been heard.

For pastors and lay leaders: Give yourself permission to shake the dust off your feet, because Jesus has given you that permission. Or, to use an analogy given to me by a colleague recently, water where the grass is most likely to grow. Pour yourself into those who see the church as a place of hope and whose excitement can feed your own. It will give you the strength you need when you face the negativity of those who cannot seem to see beyond themselves. Recognize those who are hurting and care for them, but don’t be afraid to tell them their behavior is wrong when they are hurting others. Boundaries and self-care are vital.

I always pray for you as a group, dear readers, even though I know very few of you. Would you also pray for me? We are strengthened when we pray for and lift each other up.

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