What do we do with toxic parishioners?

Posted: February 26, 2014 by efenster in Ideas
Tags: , , ,

imagesHow does a church deal with those toxic, poisonous people who block a healthy church from moving forward?  A Sunday school teacher who refuses to attend worship because she doesn’t like the pastor.  A parishioner who threatens to take the equipment he donated to his church because he doesn’t like that it’s being used to reach people outside the church.  The anonymous person who sends a string of threatening notes.

Years ago, church growth expert, Carl George, referred to these persons as E.G.R.’s, “Extra Grace Required” people.  Mike Slaughter, author and pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC, refers to them as “demons that need to be exorcized” not placated.  Too often, church members tiptoe around these folks and cede them control in order to keep the peace.  But the peace is only superficial because everyone knows that they’re there, proverbial “elephants in the room.”

So what happens to that Sunday school teacher who doesn’t attend worship?  One pastor had all leaders, including Sunday school teachers, sign a covenant that included regular weekly worship attendance.  The teacher ended up quitting rather than sign the covenant.  The covenant culled out the unhealthy leader.

How about the person that wanted to take back the items he had purchased for the church?  His pastor actually announced in a worship service that the church would have a “Take back from God” meeting.  Anyone who didn’t want items they had purchased for the church to be used for ministry were to attend the meeting, claim their items, and they would be returned to them.  Well, it ended up that the pastor, his church’s lay leader, and trustee chair were the only ones who showed up.  After that, no one has raised the issue of how their items are used for ministry!

And what about the anonymous notes?  When this happened to me, my pastor talked about it openly with the congregation making it very clear that it was unethical and that we would be talking with the U.S. postal service if we found out who was behind them.  He also made a point that any unsigned messages would not be read but thrown away, and that the Staff-Parish Relations Committee didn’t deal with secondhand complaints.  People needed to talk face-to-face with persons they had gripes with and not triangulate by sending their messages through a third party.  Thankfully, the notes stopped.

What if, after efforts like the above have been made, the toxic person still is harming the church’s ministry and its leadership?  In that case, it’s time for intervention where the leaders of the church, in consultation with their district superintendent, remove that person from ministry.  Obviously this is a last resort, but it took such action in at least one church I know.

The above such practices, though difficult at the time, promote healthy communication and behavior, and ultimately result in a healthy church–free of  pachyderms!

— Ed Fenstermacher, Associate Director for Church Development


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