Church = People
I had a friend who once said, “The Church would be perfect if it weren’t for the people.” The Church is a human institution. As such, this means within the Church exists the entire spectrum of the human condition - the good, the bad, and the ugly. One of the unique aspects of my role as the Conference Minister is that I often have a front seat to this wide spectrum. I have so many opportunities to see the good in the local church. It is a joy to experience times when a congregation has come together unified in their sense of mission and service. It is a delight to share in the celebratory moments of their shared life and faith. It is a privilege to witness a congregation’s commitment and desire to love God, love each other, and love their neighbors.
However, I also have so many opportunities, in fact too many, to see the bad and the downright ugly in the local church.
Years ago, there was a deep awareness about the dark side that existed in the local church, especially when it came to the mistreatment of the clergy. The phrase “clergy killers” was used to describe a common phenomenon of persons in the local church who were intent on destroying the reputation and often the careers of pastors. This phenomenon was explored through case studies, seminars, workshops, books, and even documentaries. Data consistently showed the highest reason pastors left pastoral ministry permanently was because they could no longer tolerate the unnamed and unchecked abuse they had experienced in the local church. For a while, there was no attention paid to this increasing problem, because pastors moved on. Yet, the problem remained.
The highest number of clergy persons leaving the pastoral ministry happened in the last year. Pastors who spent their careers serving local churches suddenly decided to retire. Pastors with only two to five years out of seminary suddenly left their calls to pursue other career paths or areas of service. The numbers are shocking for some, but they do not surprise me.
Each week I have at least one conversation with a clergy person who confesses they are only holding on by a thread. They are tired, exhausted, burned out, feel underappreciated and unsupported, and share countless stories of being bullied and abused by church members.
When I ask if their leadership or their pastoral relationship teams know about these situations, I usually get the following responses. Even though the pastor has voiced their concerns, good-meaning leaders have tried to dismiss or diminish the ugliness the pastor is experiencing. The pastor does not know where to go with their concerns as the bully or the bullies are members of the church who are well respected and maybe even sit on the governing boards or committees or are staff members. Some church members experienced the ugliness themselves when they tried to speak up and stand up to the bully or bullies. Such members may have either left the church altogether or simply chose to keep silent.
While much of the stress and strain pastors are feeling these days can be attributed to the reality of pastoring in a pandemic, there is still a lingering problem that churches have not addressed—how to handle toxic church members. Times of stress will increase the chance of bad behavior and ugliness to rise as some will seek power and control and use it in destructive ways. When others simply look the other way or are not willing to call people out on bad behavior which threatens the mental, emotional, and even physical health of their pastors and congregation, the outcome can be devasting.
So, what can you do?
First, be willing to admit there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Second, educate yourself and key leaders about tactics being used to undermine and harm leadership. Recently, a member of our Committee on Ministry shared with us a sobering short film that boldly names what clergy killers look like in a congregation. It is entitled “Clergy Killers: “Toxic” Congregations Lead to Widespread Job Loss.” It was produced by the United Church in Canada. For churches who can identify with the presence of bullies in the congregation, I would highly recommend their governing boards watch it together.
Below is the link:
In addition, some books I would recommend are:
Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack by G. Lloyd Rediger
When Sheep Attack! by Dennis R. Maynard
Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C. Haugk
Finally, seek help. Many congregations are embarrassed about the messiness and toxicity that exists in their church. Instead of dealing with the problem, many will ignore it, hoping it will go away. Ignoring it only signals to those who are wreaking havoc that they have the permission or consent to continue. Break the silence and begin to address what will no longer be accepted and permitted for the wholeness and well-being of your pastor and your congregation.
Remember the spirit of God can be with us in the good, bad, and ugliness of this life together. We only need to invite God into the messiness, acknowledging that we need the healing presence of God to heal what is broken.
Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister