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A Recipe For Antagonism

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

Number 60

How does antagonism start in a congregation?

Perhaps there are many explanations. Here one possible recipe. Once pastors know the recipe for creating and enabling an antagonistic environment, perhaps pastors may gain insight on how it started, what perpetuates it, and how to curb it's effect in a congregation.

A Recipe For Antagonism
 
First, Start With A Pastor
 
Ironically, though pastors may complain about antagonists, conflict, and how they are beaten down at every turn by antagonists, in some of these cases these pastors are the ones who, perhaps even unwittingly, plant--and fertilize--the seeds of antagonism themselves.
 
One significant way pastors do this is by "over-functioning." Over-functioning simply means that the pastor is doing things pastors ought not be doing, things which are not properly within the boundaries of his Scriptural and congregational calling. Regardless of the intent, whenever boundaries are regularly and habitually violated, opportunities for antagonism begin arise.
 
Add A Heaping of Pastoral Over-Functioning
 
The following is a partial listing of examples of pastoral over-functioning. Regularly doing any of the following (or their extreme opposite) can be indicative of unhealthy pastoral boundary violations.
  1. The unhealthy expectation the everything depends on the pastor. After all it's "his" church! So let him do it!
  2. The pastor is required to be present at every single meeting sponsored by the church.
  3. Pastor is the only one in the church who can pray out loud in groups.
  4. The pastor invests too much time to the church at great sacrifice to his wife, children, and himself.
  5. The pastor is making the biggest financial sacrifice in the church and his offerings are large enough to make an impact on the ministry.
  6. The pastor financially underwrites the church's operation by personally paying the church's bills, paying for supplies, needs, and other seen or unseen operational expenses.
  7. The pastor takes on himself or his family taking care of the maintenance and repair of the church (e.g. cleaning, mowing lawn, shoveling snow, cleaning the kitchen, maintaining the altar, et al).
  8. The pastor's wife runs the women's ministry, directs the choir, plays the organ, and/or is the most prominent energetic leader in the congregation who leads Bible Studies and has immersed her entire being into church life.
  9. The pastor is the "watchdog" (e.g. "hands-on executive") who watches over everyone's shoulders and makes sure no one else makes mistakes.
  10. The pastor is chief triangulator. He not only puts out his own fire, but he puts out other peoples' fires, too.
  11. The pastor is the one designated to confront people for things other people are bothered by (but are too afraid to do it themselves).
  12. The pastor is the one on whom all the tasks and responsibilities for outreach, stewardship, education, and every aspect of the church is exclusively placed.
  13. The pastor is called upon (or imposes in such a way as) to make decisions which don't need to be made by "The Pastor" (e.g. those items dealing with structure, maintenance, and aesthetic preferences).
  14. The pastor is the one everyone looks to make decisions for them because they are afraid of making a "wrong" decision.
  15. The pastor is only one who can recruit people, organize programs, and see that every program is functioning perfectly....
  16. And oh, so many, many more examples!
Keep On Stirring and Stirring
A natural result of the pastor's over-functioning is be to reinforce parishioner under-functioning. The more boundaries the pastor disrespects, the more boundaries parishioners will also disrespect. As the pastor regularly goes beyond his normal boundaries, he starts losing sight of what he should--and should not--be doing.
 
Unfortunately, so do the parishioners, especially those poised toward antagonism.
 
Once this pattern of over and under-functioning is established between pastor, staff and parishioners, a church is ripe for--and about to be plagued by--antagonism.
Add A Dose Of Anxiety
It doesn't take much to add anxiety to a church where a rampant pattern of incessant boundary violations by pastors and parishioners occurs on a regular basis.
 
When people begin to perceive that things in the church are not where they should be and people are not doing what they should be doing, they tend to react to this unpredictability and uncertainty with various levels, types, and manifestations of anxieties.
Look For Someone To Calm The Anxiety
As many know, anxiety is probably the greatest motivator to cause people to move away from normal modes of behavior. It should not be a surprise, then, that when a rampantly boundary-violated church is overwhelmed with a pervasive anxiety, people are going to react out of anxiety, albeit uncontrollable.
 
The solution? Find someone to rescue them from their painful anxiety. Unfortunately, that someone is not likely to be the pastor. When his boundaries are perceived as too permeable or too rigid, the pastor will not only be the the last person parishioners seek to give them security, he will be their targeted enemy. "It's his fault!" the anxious will cry.
 
As the anxious crowds do what's natural, those who are most anxious may likely turn impulsively and instinctively to some other willing person who makes themselves available and is willing to "take care" of the problem. Like Adam and Eve who distrusted God and turned to the serpent, so the anxious people in the congregation will follow their inclinations of original sin and turn in a direction which, in the long term, may be to their detriment.
Bring In The Superhero!
The more intense the anxiety, the greater the need for a hero (a "wizard???") to save the church from the anxiety. Do we even need to ask who is going to answer the call? The antagonist will, of course!
 
Posing at the church's "superhero" on a "mission of God," antagonists, like Superman, the Lone Ranger and many other fantasy superheroes, enter the scene without an invitation and without any authorization. Nobody sent them. They just knew they just had to be there to "help." They're self-authorized, self-directing, and self-adoring.
 
Unlike these superheroes, once they make their presence known, they and their heroic sidekicks just won't leave. Unless they are overpowered, humiliated, or effectively stymied they keep their silver bullets and they won't go back to the phone booth nearest closet to resume their "mild-mannered" lives.
 
Instead, after enjoying violating every boundary known to Christendom to achieve their aspirations, they will eagerly endeavor to possess, conquer, and "save" the entire church from all its enemies...including the pastor.
Surprise! Help!!!

The recipe having been followed, the church will have even greater anxiety as two competing factions fight and exchange power plays and other subversive maneuvers.

To make matters worse, this anxious environment tends to cause pastors and parishioners to hurl a barrage of anxiety-based behaviors--anger, triangulation, distrust, disrespect, rejection and even various forms of abuse.

When congregational anxiety is compounded by parishioners own anxieties of their own personal lives (e.g. ACOA/ACDF, divorce, family unrest, job stress, illness, etc.), manifested anxiety-based behaviors may assume uncontrollable levels and many continue for weeks, months...or longer. 

When this occurs, there is almost nothing that can stop the outpouring of anxiety. Mediation techniques, pastoral care, etc. should, of course, be tried. Unfortunately, they are usually not effective until the anxiety has burned itself out and left a significant and heart-breaking amount of "fire" damage.

Reflections For Dealing With Antagonism

Don't Take It Too Personally
Certainly not all types of antagonism start as described in the "Recipe For Antagonism." Some people just bring antagonism with them when they joined the church. It is, as John Maxwell might say, "their spiritual gift." They were antagonists in their previous church, they'll be antagonists in their present church, and they'll be antagonists in their future church.
 
The one most important thing to remember about antagonists this:: they're consistent. The attacks and subversion they work in the church and direct at pastors is not done only in the church, they do it in every environment in which they live--home, work, clubs, organizations, etc.
 
The way they treat pastors is they way they treat any professional or authority figure--doctors, judges, politicians, presidents, etc. So don't take their attacks personally. It' their problem. They have deep, unresolved personal issues. They are obsessed and controlled by them. Sadly, they don't know how to do anything else.

Antagonism Can Be Deeply-Rooted

The antagonistic environment in your church may not be your doing. It may have entered in response to your predecessors' too permeable or too rigid boundaries, or that of other tenured staff, etc.
 
In each case, a common culprit to creating and feeding the antagonistic environment was probably this: repeated boundary violations. These occurred--unchecked--and were allowed to perpetuate in the organization. If they were confronted, were confronted ineffectively.
 
The longer the antagonism perpetuated, the more "practice" the antagonists got and the larger their support base became as the anxiety grew unattended.. When other parishioners refused to protect their boundaries and stand up to counter their intimidating tactics, the antagonists simply took more and more control. The better they got, the harder it was to get rid of them.

Dealing With Your Antagonists

Here's some suggestions to those who are "blessed" with a congregation of antagonists.

1) Don't resort to public, aggressive measures. Antagonists are astute at both public relations and avoidance techniques. Any direct "targeting" measures will make the antagonists "victims." Unfortunately, everybody loves to help a victim--especially in the church!

2) Find a trusted confidant outside the church. Hopefully there is one within the denominational structure. Don't be afraid to seek their counsel and support. Whoever it is has to be absolutely trustworthy. Choose this person carefully. Betrayal by a confidant is a very, very painful and damaging process to yourself...and possibly the church.

3) Focus your ministry to the "silent majority." Don't give preferential time to antagonists. They're just manipulating you anyway. What they want is to get you to violate your boundaries for their every beckoning wish. When you do, it's just telling them you're willing to sacrifice your boundaries to perpetuate theirs. Know your appropriate boundaries and respect and observe them.

4) Recognize that the longer the antagonists have been influential and the greater their level of control, the greater the price you and your leaders will pay to confront them. In congregations which have had multiple splits at the hands of the same group of antagonists, those churches may need to experience severe storms of conflict to silence the antagonists.

5) Examine and maintain proper scriptural boundaries. Sometimes antagonists will stay in the background if pastors don't provoke anxiety by over or under-step their appropriate scriptural boundaries. In difficult churches, restoring the Office of the Ministry's appropriate boundaries may cause great anxiety. Expect it.

Teach, model and maintain effective scriptural boundaries for yourself--and gently instruct, teach and encourage others to consistently maintain their healthy boundaries--the anxieties which help antagonism to flourish will slowly grow quiet.

As you examine your boundaries, consider Townsend and Cloud's book entitled, Boundaries is an excellent discussion of Christian boundaries. The Ministry Health Web Site also has numerous articles relating to boundaries

Walther's classic, Church and Ministry (Concordia Publishing House) is an excellent discussion of scriptural boundaries for the Ministerial Office with respect to the Church. It is also recommended to consult with trusted denominational leadership, mature effective Christian pastors, or Christian Counselors to ensure that your perception of appropriate boundaries is, indeed, appropriate and helpful.

6) Expect to have your boundaries tested. Sooner or later antagonists will test them.  When they do, don't over-react or under-react. Simply maintain a courteous, but appropriately professional pastoral demeanor. Remember: the best preparation for boundary violation is to continually re-assess and maintain appropriate boundaries.

7) Treat antagonists professionally and with consistent predictable sense of being in control of your boundaries. Don't fall for their offers of "friendship." Jesus was betrayed by a kiss. You don't need to be betrayed with a kiss, too!

8) Don't cave in to antagonists and give them everything they want. After all, what they really want is power. More specifically, they want power over you. No one else but you can give that to them. Outbursts of anger or aggression towards them or backing off and getting out of their way are just some of the ways you give them power. Teach compromise.

9) Listen genuinely to their issues and interests for the almost always present "grains of truth" and opportunities for appropriate mediated agreements. When necessary, give them opportunity to express a voice. Nothing relieves anxiety like knowing you've been heard!

10) Be consistent. Inconsistency just evokes greater anxiety. Above all, hold high the Lord's ministry and His will--not theirs--for His church. Give them what they really need, namely, a caring, competent, trusted, professional Christian ministry.

11) Seek the counsel of your most trusted leaders and congregational pillars. Some of these leaders may have insights on dealing with antagonists that you don't have. Some have been around for years, other leaders have seen what has worked and what doesn't. When in doubt, listen twice before speaking once. And remember that famous saying, "I regret my speaking more than my silences."

12) Trust Jesus to build His church. Jesus' power overcame the ultimate antagonist, Satan! By His power, over thousands of years the Christian church has survived much worst antagonism than what is in your church. God's Word won't return void.  Be patient, deal with the issues, keep trusting, and never loose your joyful confidence as you await congregational renewal.

Note: For more information and suggestions on Boundaries and Antagonists, see the Ministry Health articles Pastoring the Powerful, The Antagonists' Greatest Weapon, Healthy Boundaries And Codependent Extremes, and other related articles at http://ministryhealth.net

Thomas F. Fischer

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