Influence and power are used for personal agendas. Those who don’t go along are disparaged and disregarded. Useful projects also are done, but in part perhaps, simply to cover the more insidious agenda. The way is littered with people who have been pushed aside, stepped over or disregarded.
What is at work? Possibly, a personal agenda where all in the way is consumed. This continues the February column (accessible on the Web at www.lcms.org/?595), where a reader has made this assessment of someone in his congregation.
What are the steps to take?
1. Raise your concern directly with the person involved. Go no farther if this step has not been done. Prayer surrounds your conversation. Keep your response to “I” statements, such as, “When you yelled at me in the congregational meeting, I felt unfairly attacked and I’d like to talk with you about this.” Seek an agreement or covenant about the problematic behavior.
2. If after such conversations the behavior does not cease, invite others who have had similar experiences. If your experiences are actually in common, invite the person involved to meet with you in this small group, where you all can share your concerns. Prayer surrounds your conversation. Seek an agreement or covenant about the problematic behavior.
3. If the behavior still continues, inform the person that the problematic behavior has not moderated. If your congregation has a grievance procedure, use it. If not, ask for consultation from congregational leadership (including the pastor, if he is not already a participant) about the best way to proceed. You are now moving to a more public, but necessary, airing of your behavioral concerns.
4. Congregational leadership must then act to clarify and respond to your concerns. It is the responsibility of the community and its leadership — always — to monitor behavior expectations and enforce them. Be prepared to work for some time on this, as well as on the previous steps. You will likely hit some roadblocks. It is often hard for leadership to see the nature of toxic behaviors, especially when they are paired with good deeds, theological verbalizations, denial or financial support. Nonetheless, bad behavior is bad behavior, regardless of the rationale presented to excuse it.
5. At some point you will determine if congregational leadership will act effectively. If they are unable or unwilling, find a healthier and less toxic community where expectations of how people behave with each other are normed by mutual covenants made in the name of Christ. There are times when leaving toxicity is healthier than staying in its midst.
To congregational leadership: You have the responsibility to establish expectations of acceptable behavior. Covenants (see Gilbert Rendel, Behavioral Covenants in Congregations, Alban Institute), mutual expectations, grievance procedures (see that section in Lloyd Rediger, Clergy Killers, Logos), Scriptural study of interpersonal relationships and pastoral leadership as to the characteristics of the Body of Christ are all important parts of the process.
Where there is toxicity, it must be confronted and neutralized. If a person comes forward and raises concerns about how they and others are treated, please take that concern seriously. Work with people to work it out. But if hurtful behavior continues, it must be stopped.
Such behavior is stopped by establishing expectations and indicating that infractions — especially repeated and chronic ones — will not be tolerated. When a person steps over the behavioral line, boundaries and discipline must be established and implemented. The Christian community desires repentance and reconciliation. But it also desires respect of others in the name of the Christ.
Without boundaries and discipline, the field is left open to toxic behaviors. Confronting such behaviors will likely bring resistance and outcry from those who are toxic — but such a confrontation is essential. Reconciliation is the goal, but not at the expense of people harmed and hurt when toxic behaviors are allowed to continue.
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 March 26, 2004