Q: We have a pretty tense and difficult situation in our congregation. One of our “best” members is also one of our most troublesome. He is a relatively wealthy man who gives much money to our church. He attends church regularly with his family and, generally, supports the ministry in the congregation. He is and has been active on a number of church committees and, from time to time, occupies a congregational elected office. But, he is a brusque and dominating man who has a track record of using his influence to put people down, publicly criticize and demean them and of using his money to effect congregational ministry and policy.
Much of what he does is not public, but I have talked directly to people where this has occurred. Frankly, his sometimes demeaning and sometimes fawning behavior towards others has driven a number of people away from the congregation, and made others quite afraid. People who see how he functions do not trust him. Yet, his influence and financial support are considerable.
We’ve tried to talk with him. Basically, he hears, but his negative and put-down styles continue. I think somewhere we must make a stand. Or can congregations survive this kind of influence in other ways?
A: I am assuming that you (and others) have made abundant and prayerful attempts to discuss this with him. Sometimes people do not have a clear sense of their emotional and personal impact on others, and feedback to that effect does help. But you are saying, I think, that the pattern goes on unabated. It is that part of your response that I’d like to address.
One of the most difficult things for any organization — including congregations — and its leadership is to face such high ambivalence. Here is a person who has much power and influence and who financially supports the work of the congregation. Here also is a person who is, by your report, disrespectful of others and fundamentally controlling — even dishonest and intimidating — in his relationships. In short, he does good things but the interpersonal cost to folks along the way is destructive.
Throughout my own career and in a number of contexts, I have seen boards, congregations and other groups with some corporate accountability attempt to finesse this issue, accommodating in one way or another. After all, if he would withdraw funding, would not that be an organizational problem for the congregation? But I have yet to see such accommodating attempts successfully done. (This is not true with people who are open to interpersonal feedback, because they will work on their difficult behaviors. Others see this and it makes a big difference, even if change is slow.)
So, simply said and much more difficultly done, bite the proverbial bullet. Interpersonal behavior that is not acceptable within the community, continuingly done, remains unacceptable despite the other “good” such a person might do. Destructive people, left unchallenged, bring down good organizations.
The term is not original with me, but “toxic” people cannot be allowed to spread their toxicity. It is the community that suffers when this occurs.
To do this demands courageous leadership in your congregation. Do you have such? If so, stay tuned. A step-by-step approach will follow in my next column. If your leadership will no longer be intimidated, it will likely get worse for awhile but, with God’s blessing, changes will occur.
Dr. Bruce M. Hartung is executive director of the Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support and associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted Feb. 2, 2004