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The Devastating Power of a Church-Harpy

I knew a woman once who, with super-spy-like verbal finesse, single-handedly took down an entire church. Ka-pow! The congregation exists no more.

I knew another woman who waged a stealth war to get her church secretary fired. Before the campaign ended, the secretary quit, left the church, lost most of her friends, and entered into a deep depression.

Oh, and I knew another woman - a stately matron of the church - whose "helpful ideas" (i.e. biting critiques) so discouraged a new Christian eager to get involved in ministry that her sense of personal value will be devastated for years to come.

What did these three women have in common? They were women's ministry leaders.


I like to call women like these "church-harpies." The Harpy is a figure from Greek mythology, succinctly described by Dictionary.com as "a ravenous, filthy monster having a woman's head and a bird's body." Outside of the mythological realm, the dictionary defines a harpy as a scolding, nagging, greedy, bad-tempered, predatory woman.

None of the three women I mentioned appeared to be harpies at first glance - they were women's ministry leaders, respected wives and mothers, Bible study and prayer group leaders, and long-established members of their churches. And certainly none of these women viewed themselves as harpies! They volunteered long hours in their respective ministries and their church involvement was the centerpiece of their lives. I believe that, in their way, each of these women loved Jesus very much and always felt their motives were justified and right.

The truth is, church-harpies can be hard to spot! Their behavior can be so surreptitious that the damage is done before anyone realizes who did it! And often church-harpies are blind to their own harpy-ness. Their patterns of thinking and behavior are so deeply ingrained that they're unable to recognize the danger of their actions.

So how can you tell the difference between a church-harpy from a good leader? Consider the following distinguishing marks of a harpy - and reflect on how you can avoid developing harpy-ness in your own life:

-Church-harpies hold tightly to power. They grasp onto their leadership roles and often feel resentful of new ideas, preferring to do things their way. Because of these behaviors, church-harpies are usually surrounded by women primarily their own age and of like personality. Their lack of openness to younger (or older) women's perspectives often drives women from other generations away.

Good leaders, on the other hand, strive to mentor, encourage, and provide significant ministry opportunities to women in younger (and older) generations. Even though it is difficult to do so at times, they choose to try others' new ideas because they value the other women in their congregation.

-Church-harpies justify gossip and slander under the guise of "godly" causes. All of us face the temptation to do this at times, but church-harpies have it down to a science. Though they may discourage gossip and even teach against it, because of their own position of authority in the church, they're able to set a tone during meetings that makes it acceptable for them to slander others. Perhaps it's a tirade against the pastor's sermon made under the guise of the harpy's own passionate love for biblical truth. Or perhaps it's a regular pattern of "prayer requests" that are nothing short of a power grab - an effort to turn the women in the group against the woman being "prayed" for.

Good leaders, on the other hand, recognize the extreme danger of gossip and care more about church unity than about their own need to vent. They put the effort forth to stop themselves when they feel the urge to gossip; they privately pray for people who've upset them, rather than airing dirty laundry in front of others.

-Church-harpies become predatory when someone gets in their way. When they feel they've been crossed, criticized, or hindered in some way, church-harpies go after their foes with self-righteousness vindictiveness. They'll meet with pastors to criticize others, they'll attend elder meetings to voice complaints, they'll circulate letters, they'll request that people be fired, they'll hold secret meetings, and they'll threaten to quit their position or even leave the church if something isn't done about the issue/person/problem they're upset about. They feel justified in doing so and can quote Bible verses to prove it! And often because of their long history within the church - and the clout they hold among others in the congregation - the harpy ends up getting just what she wants.

Good leaders, on the other hand, seek God's help in developing compassion and patience toward those who've wronged them. They seek others' wisdom in dealing with frustrating situations rather than relying solely on their own. They take time to search out the sand out of their own eye. Good leaders offer forgiveness because they value church health above their own desire to "win."

James's strident caution to the church is a powerful challenge to each of us women called by God to serve in our churches: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such "wisdom" does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice" (James 3:13-16).

With God's help, we each must fight hard against our own innate desires to hold tightly to power, to gossip and slander, and to go after those who've hurt us. If we don't we may soon become church-harpies - and not even know it.

April07, 2009 at 8:18 PM

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