Do you know how to watch out for a potential problem person at church?
It’s not the most fun thing to do, but being aware and alert about this can help save you lots of heartache in the future. To build up your skills, I highly recommend Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of Quick Fix. I’m re-reading it now. Friedman’s brilliant insights into the nature of societal anxiety are more relevant now than they were 20 years ago. They apply to the global and national context, to family life—and of course, to congregational life.
He lists ten characteristics of what he calls potentially “viral” or “malignant” members of institutions. I’m going to simplify and share my favorite four of the ten. (See pp. 144-145, if you’ve got the book.) And don’t just take my word for it—go read the book.
Spot a Potential Troublemaker:
- They are easily hurt and collect injustices. They have a victim attitude and sometimes a long, long memory that fixates on details. You might hear them say, “No one visited my sister in the hospital…” (when they didn’t let anyone know she was there.)
- They tend to idolize their leaders – until they don’t. Friedman says, “Beware of those who adulate you early.” They can turn on a dime and suddenly be your worst enemy
- They are often black and white thinkers. They can’t tolerate difference or dissent. Their opinions are rigid and they are quick to proclaim what is right and wrong.
- They are prone to groupthink. Friedman says, “they fuse with others like them into an undifferentiated mass (like a tumor).” Often they already have a few people close to them who support and echo their ideas and behavior.
You can’t lead people like this by being empathetic and trying to see their point of view. You may want to, and others may urge you to do so. However, “…promoting in others the initiative to be accountable is far more critical to the health of an institution than trying to be understanding or insightful.” (p. 147) This is a hard lesson for church leaders to learn. We are trained to be understanding and insightful, not to take a stand.
Every church has people like this. Some have quite a few. In some churches they run the show. Remember, the impact of people like this is dependent on a host which allows them to make trouble. Leaders are like the immune system. Rather than blaming them or accommodating them, you and other leaders are called to take a stand and say, in essence, “You can’t act like that here.” Pastors need lay allies to do this, but it starts with you being willing to take a stand.
Where do you need to step away from endless empathy and toward clarity?