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The Antagonist's Greatest Weapon:
Pastoral Over-Function

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 56

Believe it or not, the antagonist's greatest weapon may not be their anger, their gossiping, their betrayal, their political ploys, their preparatory-aggressiveness, or any of these sorts of things. Instead, their most effective weapon may be that they violate boundaries--theirs and others.
 
Certainly this boundary violation can come in many forms. Whether it is overt or covert, recognized or unrecognized, their wanton violation of boundaries hinders and prevent a more effective and appropriate use of our own gifts, desires, interests, passions and effectiveness for the Lord's Church.
 
Since they cause so much damage, what is it that that enables antagonists to proliferate their boundary-breaking behaviors in our churches? Though there are a number of reasons for this, one major reason is that the congregation has succumbed to the pastoral over-function.
 
Pastoral Over-Functioning
 
Many pastors live for the strokes, the appreciation, the admiration and the attention which only the church can give. As John Maxwell might say, "It's their spiritual gift."
 
Pastoral over-functioning is a major factor that helps prepare the soil for active antagonism.
When pastors over-function, they influence the organization with a sense of anxiety,   uncertainty, and blurred boundaries. Though pastors may enjoy over-functioning for whatever reasons (e.g. they like the strokes, they like to be in control, there's no one to pick up the pieces, etc.) such routine over-functioning hurts the congregation.
 
Pastoral over-function may lead to greater passivity among leaders. When over-functioning pastors regularly make "end runs" around existing boards and committees, he sets a stage of preparatory aggression that effectively ignores or neglects their proper authority. Pastoral over-functioning may  also result in an unhealthy reinforcement of the pastor's possible narcissistic leadership style.
 
When the pastor becomes the "hero" upon which everyone depends and without whom not even the most minor decisions can be made, the preparatory stages of antagonism have realized completion. In the wanton disregard of  his own appropriate boundaries, the over-functioning pastor has taken the lead in disregarding others' boundaries.
Unhealthy Pastoral Boundaries
 
But it's not just the narcissistic pastor who violates his and the church's boundaries. It may also be the pastor who really genuinely cares to see that the church is energized, effective or just plain survives. 
 
Or it may be the pastor who has a dysfunctional job description developed by parishioners who experience and expected boundary violations in their previous pastor's). 
 
Or maybe the church is in severe conflict, and the pastor is "temporarily" over-functioning to keep the doors open. Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned efforts may only add to the anxiety that he and the parishioners will experience.
 
In either case, whether its due to character defect or to a well-intentioned ministry goal, when the pastor allows his personal and professional boundaries to be violated on a regular, systematic basis, it enables and strengthens the antagonistic potential in the church..
 
Examples of Pastoral Over-Functioning
 
Examples of pastoral over-function ing which may lead to a more anxious, antagonist-prone church, may include any of the following (or their extreme opposite!):
  1. The unhealthy expectation the everything depends on the pastor. After all it's "his" church! So let him do it!
  2. Being required to be present at every single meeting sponsored by the church;
  3. Being the only one in the church who can pray out loud in groups;
  4. Investing too much time, talent and treasures to the church;
  5. Financially underwriting the church by personally paying its bills, subsidizing supplies, needs, and operational expenses;
  6. Taking it upon yourself for fixing mechanical failures or others things around the church;
  7. Doing items of regular maintenance on a regular basis (e.g. cleaning, mowing lawn, shoveling snow, cleaning the kitchen, maintaining the altar, et al);
  8. Being the watchdog who makes sure no one else makes mistakes;
  9. Being the head triangulator, i.e. the one designated to confront people for things other people are bothered by (but are too afraid to do it themselves);
  10. Being the one on whom all the tasks and responsibilities for outreach, stewardship, education, and every aspect of the church is exclusively placed;
  11. Having to make decisions which don't need to be made by "The Pastor" such as those items dealing with structure, maintenance, and aesthetic preferences.
  12. Being the one everyone looks to make decisions for them;
  13. Being the only one who is charge with recruitment and ensuring that every program is functioning perfectly;

And oh, so many, many more examples!

Why  Pastoral Over-Functioning Is Reinforced

A first reason pastoral over-functioning is reinforced is that the pastors is successful. After all, he's their hero. Since he's so energetic and successful, they don't want to "fix what ain't broken." Unfortunately, what they don't realize is that his short-term successes may be an long-term investment in a greater potential for antagonism.
 
A second reason pastoral over-functioning is reinforced may be that the pastor enjoys the praise of the people. Some become virtually addicted to their praise. Though both parties may enjoy it (the pastor gets his strokes and the people get their dependency needs met, etc.), such patterns ultimately present major problems for pastors and parishioners. They may not know it, but they have become partners in helping create an ideal scenario of antagonism that may haunt them in years to come.
 
A third reason pastoral over-functioning is reinforced may be an increasing passivity among the members. Since the pastor will do it anyway, and since he's going to do it his way, what else is left for the members to do? Discouraged, they may just withdraw into the still, quiet corners of the church which the over-functioning pastor's over-stretched interest have not yet arrived.
There are perhaps many other reasons why the violation of pastoral and congregational boundaries is perpetuated. One of these may be that it was the previous pastor's style. And there's so many, many other reasons.
 
Whether the issue is pastoral over-function (or under-function) or lay under-function (or under-function) , the pastoral over-function simply proliferates the continued abuse and wanton violation of boundaries. This is a major factor which reinforces and escalates the potential for congregational antagonism.
 
The Four Antagonistic Types Emerge
 
In the environment of pastoral over-function, parishioners start to develop frustrations and anxieties that may give rise to varying levels of the "Four Types of Manipulative Behaviors": "poor me," "aloofness," "interrogation," and "intimidation" (cf. Ministry Health article 63).
 
Though beginning at a low level, these four types of antagonistic behaviors will eventually make themselves more evident by growing expressions of discontent. The "poor me's" will increasing feel left out,  the aloofs' will tend more towards withdrawal and isolation,  interrogators may ask "innocent" questions related to anxiety-related issues more frequently,   and the intimidators may begin to assert themselves more persistently and directly. In all four types, the anxiety may be growing but is still contained...at least for the present.
The Pastor-Parishioner Dilemma
 
One of the greatest dilemmas at this point is that without either party necessarily knowing it, the pastor and parishioner are in actually in an antagonistic, mutually destructive relationship. Like the wife married to an alcoholic husband who has not yet perceived the toxicity of their anxious and unstable relationship, pastors and parishioners are also headed for some surprising revelations about the toxicity of their relationship.
 
Unfortunately, most pastors and parishioners can not see the problem until they, too, experience anxieties in their relationships. As long as both pastor and parishioners are fostering inappropriate boundaries relative to the other, unchecked, these will hurt both pastor and parishioners…and eventually hurt the whole church.
 
Isn't that the essence of antagonism? Antagonism is simply people violating their appropriate boundaries at the expense of another. And who--including the pastor himself--would have thought that the nice, over-functioning hero-pastor was really an undetected, unknown antagonist!
 
Thresholds Of Anxiety Tolerance
 
How long can this unhealthy, co-dependent relationship continue? For as long as pastor and people stay within their thresholds of tolerance. Unfortunately, the longer is continues, the greater the level of anxiety becomes. The event which finally explodes need not be a major one. After all, the greater the level of anxiety, the smaller and less significant the "spark" needs to be to light the fire and trigger, perhaps, an explosion.
 
What keeps people within their tolerances? The perception (not necessarily the reality) that all is well. Any of the following may be temporary "safety valves" to prevent emergent passive antagonism from metastasizing into active antagonism.

1) Positive organizational momentum;

2) Financial soundness;

3) Positive perception of staff relationships;

4) Organizational goals and expectations met;

5) Continued pastoral-over-function and the expectation that staff personnel and function will remain relatively stable and predictable;

6) No major financial surprises, unexpected setbacks, or changes in the physical property (e.g. maintenance items, building expansion, major church repairs, purchase or sale of parsonage, etc);

7) Maintaining sameness in the  mission and vision for the church;

8) Honoring tradition and the status quo;

9) Congregational needs and expectations are met; and

10) The elected and un-elected leaders and patriarchs are present, active, and approving of the ministry and they voice such approval regularly and spontaneously.

Other Possible Safety Valves
 
Certainly there are other "safety valves" as well. In all cases, what each of these "safety valves" represents is shelter from sources of perceived major sources of anxiety. As long as the perceived threat of these and other ministry areas is "contained" (or at least perceived to be in control) the passive stage will likely not metastasize into the second stage of active antagonism..
 
However, like the dripping faucet in the night which can't be turned off totally, regardless of how well the congregation is performing in these and other areas, don't be deceived. The "drip" of the passive stage will continue to build. Though almost imperceptible, it's there growing drop by drop by drop. The drops turn into puddles and someday those puddles may grow large enough to flood and drown the ministry.
 
Heads You Win, Tales I Lose
 
When the puddle is big enough, the anxiety becomes a two-edged sword. If the present dysfunctional boundary violations continue, the eventual result will likely be rampant antagonism and conflict. But adjusting and correcting these boundaries toward their appropriate limits may also heighten anxieties and set off "safety valves." That result, too, is conflict. It's one of those "Head's you win; Tails I lose" situations.

They've Got You Now!

The pastor's and congregation's chronically ill-defined boundaries have become a major toxic investment in a transformation and escalation of low level anxiety into full-blown antagonism.
 
The results? The antagonists have just been handed their most effective weapon. Ironically, it is not the antagonists who are primarily to blame (though they certainly would "egg it on"). Instead, it's the well-intentioned "faithful" pastor and his ever-adoring parishioners who have largely brought Active Antagonism on themselves!
 
Without appropriate boundary definitions, once the antagonists strike pastors and parishioners are powerless and ineffective against antagonists. Boundaries define, protect, and preserve us.
Without appropriate boundaries, antagonists enjoy a "free for all" attack which devastates everyone and everything in its path without healthy boundaries. That's why the antagonist's greatest weapon--and greatest opportunity--is taking advantage of our poorly defined boundaries.
 
Pogo Is Right Again!
 
This discussion has offered one of perhaps several explanations for the repeated cycle of antagonism in some churches. It explains why some churches "eat up" pastors successively. Among other things, it also helps to explain why some dedicated, well-meaning, well-intentioned "nice" pastors get overpowered or "burned" by antagonists.
 
What happens is simple: the pastors' own lack of appropriate boundaries helped established an environment perfectly suited for antagonists. In the final analysis, it was the over-functioning pastor who became his own worst enemy. Pogo told you so! You're your own worst enemy. Pogo is right again!
 
Though these pastors might wallow in self-pity, frustration, and endless complaints about their antagonists and the problems they cause, the tragedy is that they may not see the real problem. The real problem is that the pastor has given the antagonist's greatest weapon: the pastor's own poor boundaries. Pogo is right again! Our greatest enemy is not our antagonists…it's us! More specifically, it's our lack of appropriate, healthy boundaries which, sooner or later, may come back to haunt us.
 
Don't Pack Your Bags…Yet!
 
Perhaps the healthiest thing a pastor in a congregation permeated with Passive and Active Antagonism is to lead himself and his congregation to the establishment of healthy, scriptural boundaries.
 
Certainly this is not an instant, over-night, or painless accomplishment. To constructively deal with what in many congregations may be decades of Passive and Active Antagonism will not come without a price. As people's expectations are changed, as the pastor's ministry is re-directed, there will certainly be and repercussions.
 
Re-Establishing Boundaries--At What Price?
 
When the inappropriate boundaries and the expectations that accompany them are intact, well-established and assimilated into the life and expectations of the congregation, re-adjusting the boundaries may come at the price of conflict, albeit severe.
 
Of course, that's no surprise. After all, how do nations and other conflicting parties solve boundary conflicts? If they don't do it through patient negotiation, or if they're not willing to undergo the painfully slow process of mediation and exploring each other's interests and values, or if they're not willing to do it through the legal system, they'll just follow their instinctive impulses: fight it out!
 
The same potential also exists in the church. The resulting explosive force of undirected anxieties can wreak havoc and seemingly unlimited destruction and casualties. Unfortunately, that may be the only way to recover appropriate boundaries. Who decides how the anxieties will be resolved? By default, its the most anxious ones. Pro-active steps may, God willing, avert the more tragic consequences which can occur.

Take On The Antagonists--Within Boundaries!

What's the best strategy for dealing with antagonists?
 
It can be difficult to deal with antagonists when they appear to be like the flies gathering around a carcass and continue, like mosquitoes, to suck blood from their unwitting hosts. There is also no "instant" solution for getting rid of them.
 
The best "fly swatter" to use on antagonism may not anger, confrontation, power, force or authority. Nor is "targeting" antagonists helpful, either. Instead, the best "swat" one can make is to identify, establish, and maintain appropriate, scriptural pastoral and congregational boundaries.
 
Develop Those Leaders
 
Get congregational leaders to begin defining ministry boundaries, re-examine and implement healthy pastoral and congregational boundaries and expectations. Develop a clear and precise congregational vision and implement a Scriptural philosophy of ministry. Avoid going to the extremes of setting the stage for a boundary-based dictatorship. Remember, dysfunctional, anti-scriptural boundaries never help when they are extremely rigid and extremely permeable..
 
The more actively involved in healthy boundary setting and maintaining activities a church becomes involved in, the healthier and less anxious the church will become. As boundary setting activities take hold, congregational anxiety will be defused.
 
As more and more boundaries are considered, appropriate established, and properly maintained, antagonists start to see the writing on the wall. Feasting time is over. The antagonism is being defused. The antagonists' only remaining apparent choices are fight, starve, change, or feed somewhere else. Unfortunately, many would rather "fight than switch."
Suggestions For Healthy Boundaries
1) Personal and Professional
  1. Make a diligent study of key resources of the Scriptural basis of the Office of the Ministry and it's relationship to lay ministry. Lutherans and other Christians will benefit from C.F.W. Walther's Church and Ministry (Concordia Publishing House), a standard for Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastors.
  2. Consult with your Circuit, Regional, District, and Synodical leaders and theologians regarding the appropriate exercise of ministry boundaries in the parish.
  3. Read Townsend and Cloud's landmark book entitled Boundaries: When to Say 'Yes', When to Say 'No'…(Zondervan, 1992). It's simply one of the most remarkable discussions of appropriate boundaries from a Christian perspective. Read it--it may give you a life experience second only to the Christian conversion!
  4. If you're an Adult Child of an Alcoholic or Dysfunctional Family (ACOA/ACDF), be sure to get specific ACOA/ACDF counseling by an ACOA/ACDF counseling specialist to avoid codependent extremes (too permeable or impermeable) of healthy boundaries (cf. Ministry Health article 27)..
  5. When your boundaries are appropriately and Scripturally defined, take Jesus' advice from his greatest sermon: "Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No', 'No." Then stick to appropriate ministry styles and convictions…pastorally, evangelically, genuinely and patiently. 

    Perhaps the absolute most important thing a pastor can do is to do as St. Paul did so often in the churches (e.g. Ephesus, Galatia, et al) and in his training of pastors and elders in the church (e.g. Pastoral Epistles): uphold the Office of the Ministry in a healthy, scriptural manner.
  6. Be prepared for resistance. Satan hates ministry boundaries…and so do his antagonists. St. Paul paid a great personal price to uphold this doctrine during his painful--but fruitful--ministry (II Corinthians 11, Romans 5, Philippians 4, et al). Jesus died for it. You may not have to be crucified, but you may be called to take up the cross..
  7. Don't line up for martyrdom or self-pity. Just be appropriately prepared. Start building supportive coping relationships immediately (cf. Ministry Health Article #14 "Five Types Of Coping Relationships").
  8. Trust Jesus' promise to Build His Church. He has, He does, and He shall build His church. It's guaranteed. It's His will. It's His promise. Trust Him to do it in your ministry!
  9. Don't be what one of my ministry brethren calls an "S.O.B." ("Super Orthodox Brother"). Such doctrinal extremism, promoted by pastors under the banner of "orthodoxy," may really be evidence of ACOA/ACDF or other unresolved personal issues. Build trust…not enmity!
  10. Don't be a sexist! The Scripture has placed well-defined boundaries of the service of both men and women in the church. Don't deny either gender the full and appropriate blessing of God for service in His church as Scripture has defined it..
  11. Don't expect instant miracles! Other than conversion itself, the biggest changes in the church and peoples' lives don't come about instantly. Start slowly, sensitively, but deliberately. The process of education, information, examination and re-formation of boundaries can take years in any parish.
  12. Remember, it doesn't all depend on you. Let's God's Word do what God determines for it…and humbly get out the way! Isaiah 52, et al.). Faithfully minister God's Word in this critical area as far as God determines…to destroy, to plant,…or to build" (Jeremiah 1:6ff).
2) Practical Suggestions--Congregational
  1. Introduce a variety of fresh approaches (short and long term) to study appropriate scriptural boundaries for pastoral and lay ministry in the context of renewal.
  2. Lead adults through Cloud and Townsend's video series based on his book, Boundaries…. As parishioners discover and apply appropriate boundaries in their personal lives, they are more likely to translate and apply the concept of healthy boundaries into the congregation's ministry, too.
  3. Don't force the "Office of Ministry" stuff down the congregation's throat, "lord" if over them, or hold it out on your sleeve. If you're going to do that with any doctrine, do with the Doctrine of Justification by Grace. Instead, recognize that parishioners will likely be most receptive to instruction on healthy ministry boundaries and the related doctrinal issues when they see it presented by a healthy-boundaried servant-based pastor.
  4. Start creating an environment for diversity in ministry and the celebration of gifts in the congregation. Find some important areas of neglected ministry and gather leaders together to organize task forces to effectively deal with them. When they've effectively completed their task, celebrate them! (And don't be a perfectionist. They'll never do it exactly like you wanted! Could be a boundary problem…).
  5. Don't expect the "old timers" to get on board. They're likely entrenched in their boundary patterns--whether they're healthy or unhealthy. Keep affirming and ministering to them in the best and most appropriate way possible.
  6. Recruit new members with the understanding of appropriate boundaries. Translated into practice, this means to share with them the vision that if they join the church, they should join the church with the expectation to make a positive difference in the church. They should also expect to experience the spiritual growth to which God calls them. Train them right…right from the beginning! (Hmmm, isn't that what the "experts" are saying that "Baby Boomers" and "Generation X'ers" want? The real secret is that every healthy and growing Christian wants to make a difference. Give them an opportunity in your church!)
  7. Celebrate those people who have made a positive difference in the congregation's ministry. Celebrate them publicly, celebrate them privately, celebrate them repeatedly in every genuine way you can. As people see how others are making a difference worth celebrating, they'll respond too! You just can't celebrate them enough! The real joy comes when they start encouraging and celebrating each other!
  8. Expect and deal with the almost inevitable jealousy which may arise from those threatened by the celebration of others. Yes, celebrate those laggardly dinosaur organizations and individuals in any genuine way you can even though they may have outlived their purpose, vision, etc. and have no desire to change. You'll probably (but not always) get sweeter results with honey than with hot pepper. No, you probably can't change them, but you may influence one or two of them and energize a homophilous communication network in your favor…or at least not to your destruction. The rest of the work of persuasion you'll just have to give to God. He's had a lot more experience with the stubborn, stiff-necked and proud than you'll ever have!
  9. Don't "find every need and fill it." You can't. Neither can your church. If you do try, you and your leaders are only exposing your lack of boundaries. Focus your congregation's ministry on specific areas that you can and will fill...then do so prayerfully and passionately seeking the Lord's blessing.
  10. Use denominational staff and others to lead seminars, retreats, training sessions, etc. to help your leaders develop vision statements, philosophy of ministry, objective, goals, etc. These should all be designed and directed toward a healthier understanding and implementation of appropriate ministry goals in the church. Be sure to seek congregational ownership and involvement in the process. Then publicize it widely. These steps certainly won't stop any potential resulting conflict. But these steps may give the type of critical widespread support needed to manage the process over time through "thick and thin."
  11. Respect the principles of change throughout this process. They will help you to follow Jesus' advice, "Be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves." See the Ministry Health article #42, "Five Principles of Change"  for helpful insights and suggestions.
  12. Don't do it alone! Work with and through your most trusted leaders initially. Help them through the transformation first. As they help, they will be challenged to an enhanced understanding and implementation of healthy boundaries in their respective areas of ministry. Isn't that a healthy modeling strategy!
Conclusion
 
May God bless you as you leading your congregation confidently--but patiently--toward ministry renewal and greater appreciation for the healthy working of the Body of Christ by the discovery, implementation, and consistent implementation of appropriate Scriptural boundaries.
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:20 PM