Many congregations face the challenge of a disruptive member. Here are some good guidelines to follow in deciding how to respond, keeping in mind that not every situation is equal.
A typical situation involves a person who joins a congregation and quickly gets involved on committees. Members are welcoming but they soon find that this person begins to dominate the agenda with his or her pet projects and concerns.
Some people support this person’s ideas and like having a new spokesperson. Others find the behaviors intolerable, but struggle to act because this after all is a church (or other religious organization).
People say or think things like, “We are here to share the love of God with all people. We need to be compassionate and accepting, therefore we cannot be critical.”
Here are some guidelines to follow when the congregation you belong to has a disruptive member. Most situations are not extreme, but it is important to start by listing the recommended ways to act in those situations.
1) If the person uses behavior that jeopardizes the safety of members, such as threatening words or actions, physical or verbal intimidation, harassment or stalking, then the situation needs to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. First, a person in authority asks the offending person to leave the property. If there is any resistance, call the police. Next, create a safety plan to protect the congregation from this individual.
2) If the person has a criminal background involving abuse of children, the congregation is morally and often legally responsible to protect children. If the person is likely to continue to be involved in the congregation, create a written document signed by all parties outlining how this person’s participation and activities will be monitored and restricted to protect vulnerable people.
More typical situations. These techniques apply to less clear-cut situations such as those described in the opening example.
3) Focus on the group as a whole. Reflect on the rights and responsibilities of members of the congregation. How are the rights and responsibilities of individual members balanced with those of other members and with the group as a whole?
4) My contribution. Identify how you personally contribute to the situation. Do you do or say anything (or refrain from doing or saying things) which enables the disruptive behavior to continue. What might you do differently?
5) Other people’s contribution. Identify ways that other members of the congregation contribute to the disruptive behavior. When one person acts inappropriately or interferes with the civility of a service or event, how do others respond? Work on helping other members identify their contributions and change their own behaviors.
6) Try a new approach. Try a new behavior aimed at removing your own contribution to the situation. Notice how you feel and how others respond. Does anything change?
7) Reflect on whether there are policies and procedures in place to protect the needs of all members and the group as a whole. Do policies focus only on the rights of individual members, or do they set limits on destructive behavior?
8) Create a disruptive behavior policy or refer to it if it already exists.
9) Reflect on the concept of love. Love isn’t always warm and fuzzy. Sometimes love involves setting clear limits, speaking a painful truth, and helping people to balance the needs and demands of one person with the good of the group as a whole.
Choosing not to respond at all could lead to increasing levels of distress in the church.
The basic premise of these guidelines is that negative behaviors don’t happen in a vacuum. Congregations often allow disruptive behavior to take place by responding to situations in ways that enable that behavior.
Getting rid of one disruptive person may only temporarily alleviate a problem. If nothing else has changed in the congregation, there will be a systemic hole waiting to be filled. This hole exactly fits the profile of another disruptive person. Instead, take these nine steps to change the patterns.