A consultant working with a congregation on its conflict noted people’s sincere efforts to function in a more healthy and responsible way. “Be careful,” he warned, “When you start messing with the system, you don’t know what backlash you might provoke!” Sensitive to family-systems dynamics, he was not discouraging the congregation from essential work. But he was matter-of-factly warning against naïveté about results: systems or organizations, intentionally or not, do not always want to grow toward healthier functioning.
While we may grasp the benefits of dealing with difficult behavior in firm and responsible ways and while many leaders may also be persuaded of these benefits (at least in theory), do not expect such changed approaches to come easily. Systems tend toward “homeostasis”—that is, they like to return to things as they were before.
When people change their roles in a system, especially when they move toward more autonomy, independence, or differentiation, the rest of the group may try to persuade (or even force) the person to resume a previous role and stance. In fact, the more progress a leader makes toward healthy functioning, the stronger the reaction will be.
Any church leader will regularly encounter statements that begin like this: “Someone says…” “Some are saying…” or—more anxiety provoking yet—“Many are saying….” Various reasons are given for anonymous information sharing, but such reasons should be regarded with suspicion and vigorously challenged.
Churches are hotbeds of rumor, gossip, secrets, third-party complaints, and murmuring. But these behaviors are not just difficult in themselves; they are often significant ways of resisting attempts at good health in our congregations. They enable and perpetuate difficult behavior.
Sometimes gossip and rumors are innocently called the “grapevine.” Some believe that grapevines have a noble and essential ministry: ensuring that the whole community is kept informed of what is important. Positive potentials aside, systems theory takes a dim view of rumors, gossip, secrets, and murmuring.
Circulating information indirectly and secretly causes many problems. It easily tends to exaggeration and distortion. The person receiving the information does not understand the context of what is reported. Indirect anonymous communication can be a passive-aggressive cover. A simple problem between two people, communicated indirectly through rumors, may end up involving many more and spreading pain and anxiety further and further.
When people perpetuate secret information, they may claim to communicate someone else’s agenda (what “someone else” said), but they communicate their own anxiety. Such behavior shows a problem in the system, possibly the absence of established grievance procedures. It is tempting to point fingers at people who gossip, spread rumors, anonymously accuse, and backbite. But such behavior exists only if the system itself permits and enables it.
One church I served actually institutionalized such behavior! A “voice from the pew” was permitted to sit on the administrative board as mouthpiece for any complaints brought to this person. The complaints were always handled anonymously. I noted a rise in anxiety whenever complaints were brought forward in this way. It was difficult to weigh complaints: How serious is the person who is concerned? How many are concerned? How committed is the person to the church?
Responding to Rumors
We need to remember that we cannot change the behavior of others or force them to be responsible. Gossipmongers, backbiters, and complainers might make a nice target for our own gossiping, backbiting, and complaining, but that is no help. Congregations and their leaders are called to healthier functioning.
There are two primary principles for disabling rumors, gossip, secrets, and third-party complaints. First, since secrecy is a serious part of the problem, churches and leaders should not keep secrets about secrets. Exposing secrecy can feel frightening, especially in a system that is used to secrets (and when the group’s norms or family’s rules encourage secrecy). Liberation is possible in this process: when secrets are revealed, anxiety usually decreases.
Refusing to keep secrets about secrets means naming and addressing unhealthy behavior. Some believe that gossip, rumors, or anonymous complaints will “just go away” if ignored. But ignoring such behavior perpetuates it. Admitting, exposing, and naming such difficult behaviors is the first step in overcoming them.
The second principle is this: viruses cannot be spread if we do not spread them. We disable rumors, gossip, secrets, third-party complaints, and murmuring by refusing to pass them on or perpetuate them. “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases” (Proverbs 26:20). Such ancient passages remind us how long-standing and ingrained our patterns and systems of conflict are!
Churches can be debilitated by gossip and accusations. When people make accusations without addressing either the proper authorities or the offenders, they hurt the community. If you hear a rumor about someone, check with him or her directly about what you have heard. Also respond to rumors at their source. If leaders believe gossip is happening, they should gather some information. Find out who is gossiping, have evidence of the gossip, and speak to the offender directly.
Rumors can be undermined by providing prompt and accurate information about decisions and process. When one congregation experienced a high degree of conflict, the board decided to write up a regular newsletter about decisions and church events. This simple act was one of the most popular moves the board ever made. Correct information is especially important when rumors are apt to spread or are already spreading.
Worth the Effort
While firm behavior is healthier for all involved, it will not always meet with universal approval. Some people simply do not have the ego strength to learn firm and direct address. Nevertheless, responsible leaders need to behave this way. While the effects on others cannot be guaranteed, persistence is essential. Direct approaches to indirect behavior will be difficult to learn for those more practiced in indirect ways. Most will have to practice these styles. These standards, however, are worth setting, declaring, and upholding; they are a mark of emotional health.
Adapted from Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior, copyright © 1999 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.
Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior by Arthur Paul Boers
No church is immune to the problems that can arise when parishioners behave in difficult ways. Responding to such situations with self-awareness and in a manner true to one’s faith tradition makes the difference between peace and disaster. Boers shows how a better understanding of difficult behavior can help congregational leaders avoid the trap of labeling such parishioners and exercise self-care when the going gets rough.
The latest book from internationally respected consultant and Alban best-selling author Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times delves deeply into what it takes to be an effective congregational leader today. Steinke inspires courage in leaders to maintain the course, unearth secrets, resist sabotage, withstand fury, and overcome timidity and doubts.