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Tiresome, Taxing, and Toxic Situations in Ministry

To deal with trouble, determine what kind of circumstances you are in

Maybe you've heard the common expression, "church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints." If you got into ministry thinking that the church is a utopia inhabited by "good Christian people" and free of inappropriate sexual relationships, addictions, and embezzlement, we hate to be the ones to tell you, but it's not. If we take sin seriously, we know that the church cannot be free of sin, and we won't be surprised to see the dysfunction—unhealthy behaviors, broken relationships, and systemic disorder—caused by sin in our own ministry settings.

We categorize these difficult ministry situations as tiresome, taxing, and toxic, and you will want to approach each category differently.

Tiresome situations are challenging but also have a transitory property (a sanctuary renovation or a transition in staffing, for example). You might simply live with some tiresome situations because part of being in community is coping with personalities that you find challenging (someone with different work habits or is confrontational, for instance).

Taxing situations are ongoing and wear you down (a church member who wants to micromanage your schedule, or one who doesn't trust your expertise and is continuously undermining your work). Taxing situations are different from tiresome situations because they cannot be tolerated. Ignoring a taxing situation can lead to burnout and even cause you to leave a church.

Toxic situations involve deep-seated and long-lasting issues with the way the congregation or the staff functions as a whole. Toxic situations also may involve a traumatic event in the congregation, such as highly inappropriate or criminal activity by a leader, or a tragedy affecting the congregation or leadership.

Toxic situations are exceptionally difficult to address and may be transformed only with intentional work on the part of the leaders. Again, these situations cannot be ignored or tolerated, as they will be detrimental to your ministry and will affect your personal life.

As a leader in a challenging situation, you need to be able to recognize that you are working in unusually difficult circumstances. Sometimes you might become so enmeshed in your ministry that the dysfunction feels normal. Such a quandary can cause you to shoulder the blame or to question your fitness for ministry. At times, you may sense that something is wrong in your ministry environment, but sometimes it is difficult to identify what is wrong, how bad the problem is, and what course of action will be most appropriate and effective.

Give yourself time and space to decipher whether you are dealing with a situation that is tiresome, taxing, or toxic before you make judgments about your ministry and how to handle the situation.

Tiresome Situations

No one, I hope, ever told you that ministry would be easy. But, as the Sheryl Crow song goes, "No one ever said it would be this hard." Ministry can wear you out, girlfriend! Realize that you will, over time, adjust to the pace.

Some situations we would classify as tiresome because they involve transition. Any time the church building undergoes renovation, changes are made in staffing, or a congregation undertakes a new ministry, anxiety levels rise. Much of this anxiety will be focused on you as a leader in the church. Obviously, there is a difference between a building project and a staff transition, but the behavior and unease of members will look similar. As annoying and tiresome as these transitional periods can be, they are simply that: transitional. Be a listening ear and provide support for the congregation during the transition.

A colleague of Amanda's used to say, "Church would be great if it weren't for the people!" Even though church wouldn't be church without people, living in community is difficult, and relationships with congregation members or staff are sometimes tiresome. However, it's important to realize that our calling is to be in community with people despite our differences.

Sometimes those things that drive you crazy about a person can be her greatest assets. If you are a slightly disorganized person, you might feel insecure around your perfectly organized Christian education director. When she takes notes at meetings and later

e-mails them to everyone, you might think she's showing off a bit. When she follows up with you to see if you've gotten around to completing a project you had discussed, you might think she is being invasive or even controlling. However, if you are able to view her organizational prowess as a strength rather than an annoyance, you can be grateful that she helps you remember what went on in those endless meetings and keeps you on task when your to-do list (if you can even find it) gets out of hand. Likewise, if you are "type A" and like to plan and work ahead, but your fellow staff members prefer to work at the last minute, strive to see the flexibility that waiting can make possible in a situation. Everyone has gifts, and learning to see others' strengths and how they may complement your own will help you get along in the body of Christ.

Every church also has its "energy vampires." The question is, are they allowed to run rampant, infecting the entire congregation?

Every church has staff members and congregation members you won't be best friends with. The question is, does the church have people and protocols in place that help you navigate your working relationships and mediate your differences?

Every church has power struggles. The question is, will these struggles leave you feeling worthless and helpless, or are there enough healthy leaders in the church to get everyone playing for the same team? These questions determine the difference between situations that are tiresome and those that are taxing.

Taking Charge of the Tiresome

If your tiresome situation is transitional, taking charge is part waiting game and part focusing on the things you can control—namely, your own responses to the situation. When the same church member tells you for the fifth time this month that the construction crew is blocking her preferred parking spot, and you remind her for the fifth time that everyone is experiencing inconveniences during the building project, you may need to take a few deep breaths and pray before she speaks to you again next week.

When the tiresome situation has to do with an individual, you have two choices. You can either have a conversation with him in which you make clear any specific requests about your working relationship, or you can adapt your style and behavior to his. No one wins and little gets done when one person is always overwhelming the others with details and working far ahead. Likewise, if one person is always waiting until the last minute, her behavior can be crazy-making for everyone else on the team. However you choose to go forward, whether seeking a change in someone else's behavior or adapting your own, working with differing personality types is part of living in community, and life in general. Sometimes living in Christian community is about compromise and getting along, more than about being "right" or getting "my way."

As you wait out or work through tiresome situations, self-care is extremely important. When you aren't getting your needs met, it is always harder to deal with circumstances or personalities that wear you out. Take time to focus on the things that drew you to ministry. Affirm your gifts and skills by rereading notes with the kind things people have written to you or remembering positive things people have said about you.

Taxing Situations

As with tiresome situations, taxing situations come in two forms. One form concerns the culture of the church, and the other is focused on relationships with specific individuals.

Both situations require thoughtful action if you are to effect a transition into healthy ministry.

Planning and envisioning each season's worship, music, education, mission, and other programs can be fulfilling. Some of our colleagues who have been around the block a few more times than we have say that January and July used to be "quiet" months in the church. Now the church, like the rest of the world, is on a 24/7/365 schedule, and the effect on the church and its leaders is taxing. We feel the need to run programs and have church events that meet everyone's needs all the time.

As busy as the church can be, there will always be important and necessary things to be done, and they may not always seem to be what you spent years in school preparing for. There is a lot of grunt work involved in ministry. On the other hand, your ministry may reach a point at which you are being taxed by tasks that have no relationship to healthy and effective ministry in the church and, in fact, might hamper good ministry. That point comes when you look up from the daily grind of ministry and realize that you aren't doing what you love anymore, or that what you are doing no longer comes from a place of feeling called, but from one of feeling obligated.

Churches are good at starting new programs and not great at ending existing programs. Every church needs to ask at some point, "Are we doing too much?" Are our programs effective in meeting the mission of our church? If you find yourself feeling as though your job is to run from one religious program to the next, making each one bigger and better, without any real thought about why the program needs to be better or to whom goes the glory for this event, perhaps it is time to stop and discern—to discern where

God is calling the church or a specific ministry and how that ministry helps further God's work in this world. Many churches we know take breaks from programming and business meetings during seasons like Lent or Advent or with a change in staff. It is important to take time to hear God's call to you and your ministry. There is nothing wrong with stopping programs to evaluate, discern, pray, and do the work of visioning.

When you find yourself picking up lots of loose ends, keep in mind that any work you do that could be done by a volunteer takes away the opportunity for another Christian to serve. Hold back from picking up every ball that gets dropped, so that another disciple has space to come alongside and join the work of the kingdom.

Making Transitions in the Taxing situation

When your day-to-day work is wearing you down, take a look at your to-do list, or where your time is spent. If the daily grind of the church's program year is what you find taxing, then it may be time for a conversation with the church leadership about programming mindfully and not simply developing or continuing programs for the sake of programs.

Intentional programming has a clear, ministry-based purpose. It is not programming that comes about because "we've always had children's Sunday school." From time to time it is important to take a step back, evaluate the church's ministry and programs, and make sure they are being carried out with a purpose and goal in mind and not simply as something to do. There is plenty of biblical witness to support taking a year of Jubilee to let the ground lie fallow, so that it can once again yield a bountiful harvest.

If the taxing part of your life comes from working with a micromanager, flawed church leader, or a conflict-avoiding boss, any change in the situation will likely have to be initiated by you. It will always be easier to change your own behavior than to change the behavior of someone else. Sometimes the best thing you can do is simply to accept that you work with someone who is difficult. Once you accept that individual's personality and mode of operating, you can better discern how to work with and, if need be, around him or her. Sometimes, however, taxing behaviors can be so extreme that what might have been a taxing situation becomes toxic.

Toxic Situations

The signs of a toxic situation can be obvious. You may have nightmares or even physical symptoms. It is possible to become so comfortable in a toxic environment that we don't even realize the situation is getting worse.

Despite signs that situations are toxic, sometimes it takes fresh eyes to help you see what is going on. If you relay a church story to a friend and she is shocked by what happened, you may want to step back and analyze your environment. We have many friends who have been in situations that slowly became toxic. Make sure you have a sounding board so that you can recognize the toxicity in your situation. Other signs of toxicity include high staff turnover, a major membership rift or exodus, or unusual secrecy in the church.

The least subtle toxic situation is one in which misconduct is involved. Unfortunately, misconduct is often hidden, so you may recognize strange behavior before the root of the issue comes to light. In the church, misconduct usually involves one of three issues: (1) sex (for example, viewing pornography, engaging in extramarital sex), (2) money (for example, embezzlement), or (3) addictions, whether to drugs, alcohol, or something else (sometimes sexual misconduct and addiction overlap). Here's the tricky part with misconduct: the church has a tendency to believe the best about its own and to look the other way for as long as possible, ignoring the truth until ignorance is no longer bliss (or even a possibility). We have seen churches side with an alcoholic pastor over all reason, so even when misconduct comes to light, be prepared for the toxicity to continue. If you are unfortunate enough to discover the misconduct and the church sides with the perpetrator (which happens more often than anyone would like to admit), you may have to leave. Even though you are not at fault and you did not cause the problem, the dysfunctional system may eject you so that it can survive.

A truly toxic situation is one in which the environment will continue to be dysfunctional even when those involved in the conflict leave. We have all seen churches with a history of sexual misconduct repeat similar patterns years later, or churches with chronic infighting among staff repeat the behavior years later with completely different staff members. These types of situations have deep-seated origins and require thoughtful and often professional intervention.

Tonic for the Toxic Situation

Savvy churches have tools in place—operations manuals, personnel protocols, insurance, and sexual-misconduct policies—to guard against and deal with toxic situations. Human resources professionals from the secular world have helped some churches get up to date with some of the essentials. The church is not the secular business world, however. It's not the world of professional counseling or education. The church has borrowed techniques and best practices from all of these fields, but it is a unique social organism. Unlike other nonprofits, community organizations, or for-profit organizations, religious communities are bound together by something other than finances, ideals, interests, or social norms. The church is the body of Christ, a community of Christ-followers and sanctuary for saints and sinners alike.

The cure for a toxic environment is more than regulations. Leaders and members alike need to shift the culture, to change their behavior. Institutional change of this magnitude requires skills and training that you may not possess early in your ministry. This is when you need to reach out for help. This kind of help can do more than heal one set of broken relationships. Outside consultants should also equip church leaders, staff and laypeople alike, so they can work together to address systemic issues they observe in the church. The assistance these consultations can provide will likely outlast your individual ministry in that congregation. As an alternative to professional consultants (who can be pricey), you may have ministry mentors who can help you navigate a toxic situation.

Toxic situations are often associated with high staff turnover, either because the church blames the leadership for the toxicity and asks a leader to leave, or because the staff flees from the toxic environment. While a change in staffing is not always the answer, sometimes toxic situations can be addressed through new leadership.

Sometimes It's Not Just about the Church

Whatever your challenging situation, and however you choose to move forward, know that you are not the first to wrestle with difficult situations in ministry, and you will not be the last. Seek out people you trust who will walk with you through the tough times so that you can emerge wiser and with a commitment to love and serve God's people.

Adapted from The Girlfriends' Clergy Companion: Surviving and Thriving in Ministry by Melissa Lynn DeRosia, Marianne J. Grano, Amy Morgan, and Amanda Adams Riley, with permission from the Alban Institute. Copyright © 2011 by The Alban Institute, Inc. Herndon, VA. All rights reserved.

July09, 2012 at 2:01 PM

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