Toxic congregations can get healthy
October 19, 2018
An energetic new pastor arrives to the resounding “Alleluia!” of a grateful congregation. Two years later, she leaves in fury, blaming a toxic environment, with her health in tatters.
The perfect call finally appears for the seasoned pastor hoping to ease his way into retirement. Within a month, the pillar of the church leaves the denomination altogether.
All too often, the call of God can get mired in dysfunction, disillusionment and disappointment with God’s people. Said in jest, the Rev. Dwight McCormick of Northminster Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Ohio, noted, “Ministry would be so much easier if it weren’t for all those people.”
Still, a leader needs more than the ability to laugh off destructive behaviors in a congregation.
“For pastors, there needs to be some hope someplace,” said the honorably retired Rev. Lynne Myers. It is possible, she believes, to confront toxic behavior in a congregation and lay the foundation for a healthy future.
While once serving as an interim pastor at a small, struggling, Midwestern church on the edge of toxicity, Myers realized that Presbyterian polity offers an inherent antidote to unhealthy behavior.
“No one person in the PC(USA) system is ever allowed unchecked authority,” said the Rev. Jan DeVries, general presbyter of Grace Presbytery. “The foundations of the faith simply do not allow it. Instead, Presbyterians govern as a group, discerning the mind of Christ in community, rather than individually.”
To confront the toxic behavior of one parishioner, Myers needed to remind her congregation “how to be Presbyterian.” This was easier said than done.
As a first step in a long process of “Presbyterian 101” re-education, Myers was determined not to allow the parishioner to continue to manipulate the committees he was on. When he failed to appear for a worship meeting, for example, she declined his invitation to make the decisions just between the two of them.
Myers also did her best to maintain a loving, compassionate presence amid establishing healthy boundaries. Rather than blaming him and stoking a sense of victimhood within the congregation or within herself, she stressed the well-being of the whole congregation.
She encouraged the leaders to focus on the goals of the interim period, rather than dwell on “how we got here.” She cultivated the hope of a more vibrant future, even as she acknowledged the pain of the situation.
Over time, the congregation settled into a more Presbyterian way of functioning. Ruling elders became more confident in their calling to govern the congregation as a team. Parishioners became more comfortable in relationship with one another as appropriate boundaries became established.
Myers determined they were ready for a direct intervention with the parishioner whose behavior had caused such difficulty. She reached out to the presbytery for the support of the moderator. She secured professional services for any in the congregation who might need assistance in processing their pain. She gathered a backup team and set up a meeting with the parishioner.
He never appeared. He never returned. The people moved on.
Myers continues to emphasize the strength of Presbyterian polity in supporting their movement toward greater health.
“How we do things really matters. It’s how we maintain healthy boundaries,” Myers said, in reference to Presbyterian polity. “It’s our version of tough love.”
Several months later, in a sermon during Eastertide, Myers compared the ongoing potential of the congregation to the raising of Tabitha in Acts.
“The new thing you do in mission,” Myers preached as she concluded her ministry with the congregation, “may end up healing you.”
And it did.
Twenty years later, what was once a struggling congregation of 50 members has grown to a healthy 350-plus community. A thriving mission propels the people onward. The congregation has truly moved on.
Gusti Linnea Newquist, pastor, First United Presbyterian Church in Troy, New York
Today’s Focus: Toxic congregations
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious God, bless your servants wherever they live. May your presence fill our lives and our congregations as we seek to praise and glorify your name in all the earth. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.