Churches, like any group of people, have systems and behaviours that develop as communities interact over time. Churches can have healthy systems that allow the community to welcome many voices, have positive interactions and new ideas. Churches can also have unhealthy systems and behaviours that causes conflict and grief. Like a family or workplace or neghbourhood, working through disagreement and conflict is simply a part of life. We all have unhealthy ways of interacting with others.
As a pastor, I have seen people act in such a way that I can only shake my head. People go beyond normal disagreement and conflict, and are simply unwilling to give up their issue, their idea, their point for the sake of community.
I call these people ‘Church Terrorists’.
(Note: It is been pointed out by my twitter friend @Irish_Atheist that ‘Terrorist’ is a hyperbolic term. He is correct. So please read, “Antagonist” wherever I have written terrorist. These people are, of course, not truly comparable with real terrorists. Sorry if the term triggers anyone or you find it offensive. I wasn’t looking to be hyperbolic, but wanted to stress the non-negotiating aspect of some behaviours in church systems.)
And I like to tell church councils or other governing boards that the reason the phrase “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” exists is that terrorists don’t negotiate with you.
Church Terrorists are people who hold churches and communities hostage in order to get their own way. Different than bullies (whom I wrote about here) who hurt and abuse communities, Church Terrorists are only concerned with getting their own way and taking care of themselves. They are the “all-or-nothing” type of people. And yet, nice church members often have trouble identifying when a Church Terrorist is holding them hostage.
Being able to identify the Church Terrorists is an important survival skill for any pastor and/or governing board of a church. Knowing what kinds of behaviours they employ is necessary to be able to effectively deal with them. Here are 12 Signs you are dealing with a ‘Church Terrorist’ and what to do about it.
1. Church Terrorists don’t listen: Have you ever been in one of those conversations where the other person keeps making their point over and over again, and doesn’t seem to hear anything you are saying? Not listening is one of the first subtle signs that you are dealing with a Church Terrorist. He or she doesn’t listen or hear your point of view because no perspective but his or hers matters. If you don’t start calling him or her out by naming what is happening (not listening) you aren’t likely to get anywhere.
2. Failing to follow through: We all agree to do things that we eventually forget about. But you might have a Church Terrorist on your hands if someone is constantly taking on responsibilities but is rarely following through. Often this can be a well intentioned person who simply cannot say no, but then doesn’t have the time to follow through with promises, an unwitting terrorist. But sometimes, it is an undercover terrorist sabotaging the community by taking on responsibilities that others could carry out, and then purposely not fulfilling them so that no one will get the job done. When someone is failing to follow through, it is time to stop giving them responsibility.
3. Getting angry and/or crying to avoid conversation: We all have topics that we are passionate about and willing to voice our view energetically. But a Church Terrorist will get angry and/or cry about anything that makes him or her uncomfortable or that he or she doesn’t want to talk about. Few of us are interested in conversing with an angry/crying person, and so like nice little Christians we drop the issue. And Church Terrorists use the anger/cry tactic to avoid topics that are uncomfortable for them. When someone can’t talk about an important issue to the community without getting angry and or crying, you might just have to let them be angry/cry – and talk about the issue anyway.
4. Not showing up: When most people fail to show up for a meeting, project or agreed to appointment, they call ahead or they call after to apologize. Most people get in touch. But over the years, I have noticed that churches often have people who simply don’t show up. They miss meeting after meeting without explanation, they never commit to the events, projects or programs that need people to run them, or they agree to responsibilities and then simply fail to be there. When someone isn’t showing up, we would often rather ignore the behaviour than deal with it. That doesn’t help. We can forgive not showing up, without setting ourselves up to be stood up over and over again.
5. Emotional overreaction: Church Terrorists love making others responsible for their emotions. When something happens that a terrorist doesn’t like, they will let you know. They will let you know that you have ruined their day, their week, their year. They will let you know that they are so unhappy that they won’t be able to eat, sleep, stop crying, look at you the same way, or have any positive feeling towards you ever again. Not wanting to hurt a terrorist’s feelings is exactly what they want you to worry about. They want you to take responsibility for their feelings, so they don’t have to. Don’t do for others what they should do for themselves.
6. Over confidence: Church Terrorists will often assume that everyone agrees with or listens to them. They will make pronouncements and declarations at meetings or during community events like they are written in stone. Friendly, average church people often don’t know what to do with someone who seems totally sure of themselves. Going along with overconfidence is easy, disagreeing even when we aren’t totally certain is hard.
7. Having an opinion on everything: As a pastor, I have learned that not having an opinion on everything is an important way to be heard. Not weighing in on every issue allows people to know that you don’t need your way on every little thing, nor that everything in the church is your jurisdiction. But Church Terrorists want everyone to know their opinion about everything. They will hi-jack meetings or church events to make sure they have their moment to be heard. Decisions can’t be made until their point has been made. Encouraging and making room for the voices of others, in this case, is vital.
8. Shooting down change or new ideas: This may be the most common form of Church Terrorism. Perfectly loving and caring people can develop the habit of shooting down new ideas with statements like, “We tried already that and it didn’t work” or “People will never go for that” or “That is not the way we do things here.” While most people will eventually come around to trying something new, real Church Terrorists will stick to their guns and refuse change or new ides. Sticking to your guns is required to introduce new ideas. Trying something different is the ultimate victory here.
9. Silent expectations, loud resentment: If shooting down new ideas is the most common form of Church Terrorism, this is the runner-up. Often Church Terrorists will silently hold others to expectations they had no idea about, and then get upset when their expectations are unmet. New pastors or new members often fall victim to this one. “You are sitting in MY pew!” or “You didn’t use the microphone that my grandfather donated to this church!” or “I can’t believe we didn’t celebrate national orange sweater day, we have done it for years!” Talking about the unspoken conventions and expectations of a community is an important way to combat this form of Church Terrorism.
10. Directed giving: This is probably a contentious issue in many churches. Governing boards often feel beholden to givers to put the money to the use it was given for. And most of the time this isn’t a problem… yet Church Terrorists will use their donations as a way of telling leadership what to do. I have seen money given to churches for unplanned sanctuary renovations, new organs or pianos that were not in the plans, projectors when no system for creating projected services was in place, new carpet, new paint, new bathrooms when none of that was in the plans. Church boards need policies that allow them to use directed gifts for things in the plans, even if they have been directed for other things.
11. Withholding money: Sometime when church leadership isn’t doing what a person wants, she or he will stop giving offerings to the church as a way to “starve the beast,” which hampers the church’s ability to carry out its mission. Withholding money is another common form of Church Terrorism, yet often leadership doesn’t even know that it is happening until long after the fact and nothing can be done to resolve the situation. Withholding money just hurts everyone, and usually doesn’t help get to the heart of the matter.
12. Threatening to leave: I know many pastors who have members who hold this threat over their heads. “If this doesn’t change we are out of here” or “If the church votes to do that, we will be taking our membership elsewhere.” This is the most extreme form of Church Terrorism. It is basically saying that if you don’t do what I want, we cannot be in fellowship. It is the epitome of holding a congregation hostage, “do (or don’t do) this. Or else.” But it is theologically and ecclesiologically bankrupt behaviour to define the participation within the Body of Christ by one’s own opinion. However, this is what a terrorist will do. Yet, threatening to leave has serious implications for the terrorist if pastors and church leadership hold people to their threats. I know many pastors and leaders who have simply responded to such threats with, “We will miss you.”
Far too often I have been with leadership groups in churches, in counselling situations, or just in conversation with church people, and I have had to point out that they are experiencing Church Terrorism. Someone is holding the community hostage by insisting on getting their own way, even when it is not for the good of the community.
And I don’t think every Church Terrorist does it on purpose, which is perhaps the biggest challenge to those of us who see it. Whether Church Terrorists feel like a caring church community is the only place in their life where they can have some control, or that getting their way is all they have known at church, or that things come up that we all have strong feelings about, it isn’t right to hold a community hostage. We all have things that we care about deeply at church. God and faith are a big deal for us. But that doesn’t give us the right to force others to feel and act the way we want.
The most important thing pastors and other leaders can do is name it. Say out loud what is happening in your community, and dealing with Church Terrorists after that will be much easier.
And remember, we don’t negotiate with terrorists because terrorists don’t negotiate with you.
Thanks to Courtenay for co-writing this post, you can follow her at @ReedmanParker on Twitter