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Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A., Editor
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The Antagonist's Greatest Weapon:
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- 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
- 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
- Pastoral over-functioning is a major factor that helps prepare the soil for active
- 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'
- 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
- 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
- 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!):
- The unhealthy expectation the everything depends on the pastor. After all it's
"his" church! So let him do it!
- Being required to be present at every single meeting sponsored by the church;
- Being the only one in the church who can pray out loud in groups;
- Investing too much time, talent and treasures to the church;
- Financially underwriting the church by personally paying its bills, subsidizing
supplies, needs, and operational expenses;
- Taking it upon yourself for fixing mechanical failures or others things around the
- Doing items of regular maintenance on a regular basis (e.g. cleaning, mowing lawn,
shoveling snow, cleaning the kitchen, maintaining the altar, et al);
- Being the watchdog who makes sure no one else makes mistakes;
- 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);
- Being the one on whom all the tasks and responsibilities for outreach, stewardship,
education, and every aspect of the church is exclusively placed;
- 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.
- Being the one everyone looks to make decisions for them;
- Being the only one who is charge with recruitment and ensuring that every program is
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
- 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":
me," "aloofness," "interrogation," and
"intimidation" (cf. Ministry Health
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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"
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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
- 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
- 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
- Suggestions For Healthy Boundaries
- 1) Personal and Professional
- 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.
- Consult with your Circuit, Regional, District, and Synodical leaders and theologians
regarding the appropriate exercise of ministry boundaries in the parish.
- 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!
- 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)..
- 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
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.
- 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
- 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").
- 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
- 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
- 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..
- 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.
- Remember, it doesn't all depend on you. Let's God's Word do what God determines for
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,
build" (Jeremiah 1:6ff).
- 2) Practical Suggestions--Congregational
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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!)
- 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!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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
- Thomas F. Fischer
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:20 PM