Policies for Handling Disruptive People

By Donald E. Skinner

As Unitarian Universalists (UU), we pride ourselves on being inclusive and forgiving. We celebrate diversity and welcome all individuals.

But occasionally a person comes to our door who is bent on causing physical or emotional damage. What do we do then? Specific policies can help in deciding what to do when troubling and possibly dangerous situations develop. Many UU congregations have devised their own policies, but two, from West Shore UU Church in Cleveland, OH, and First UU Church in San Diego, CA, have been widely adopted. Copies of both are available here, or you may contact the churches directly. Most policies permit expulsion of anyone, with due process, who becomes a perceived threat to safety, disrupts activities or diminishes the appeal of the church to potential and existing members.

The UU Church of Palo Alto, CA, (413 members) developed a policy after a man made inappropriate comments to women, stood uncomfortably close, and made prolonged eye contact. Occasionally there was unwanted touch in the guise of friendship. This made women fearful and they complained.

Church leaders confronted the man and established guidelines that he had to follow if he wanted to continue to attend the church. For several years he moderated his behavior, but then last spring there was a recurrence and a formal complaint was filed with the board. He was dropped from membership. "He didn't take it very easily," said Rev. Dr. Kenneth W. Collier. "He made veiled and vague threats by phone and email," but nothing came of them.

"There was disagreement about the board's action," Collier said. "How do we simultaneously respect this man's worth and dignity and the worth and dignity of those with whom he was inappropriate? I believe that part of respecting people's worth and dignity is holding them responsible for what they do."

The Palo Alto board had no policy on disruptive individuals when this situation started. Members forged one from corporate models. "In retrospect the church was fortunate," said Collier, who believes every congregation should have a policy on bad behavior. "Inevitably there will be these kinds of crises," he said. "It's really important to have thought through these issues before they occur."

Many UU congregations have adopted the policy developed by West Shore UU Church (625). Rev. Marjorie Skwire said the policy grew out of a more basic one that was quickly adopted when a man who had a history of disrupting other churches began attending West Shore and announced his intention to cause problems.

West Shore's policy calls on the minister or group leader to handle immediate situations, calling police if necessary, and refers other cases to an ad hoc committee. In some cases disruptive individuals left the church when confronted with the policy. In several other cases they stayed and changed their behavior.

"First Unitarian Church in Des Moines, IA (284), adopted the West Shore policy in 1997, calling it a "Responsible Behavior" policy, when a difficult interpersonal problem between two members of the congregation led board members to imagine what other incidents might occur," said Rev. Thea Nietfeld.

When Rev. Anne Odin Heller, district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Pacific Northwest District, was cominister of a large congregation in Minneapolis, a member who disagreed with her religious philosophy began verbally abusing her and calling her a "handmaiden of the devil." He went so far as to set up a card table in the lobby on Sunday mornings to promote his vendetta, claiming freedom of speech. The board, which had no policy on disruptive behavior, forced him to resign from the church.

"UUs have not been willing to confront dysfunctional or dangerous people," Heller said. "We're either chicken or softhearted," she says. "We don't like to deal with conflict. But ultimately members have to speak up and boundaries have to be made clear. This kind of conflict, which results from toxic personalities, happens all the time." Heller has written "Churchworks, a Well-Body Book for Congregations, published in 1999 by the UUA's Skinner House Books, and available at the UUA Bookstore.

First UU Church, San Diego, CA (810), has had a policy since 1988 dealing with disruptive behavior. "The policy is not used often, but it's there for when people can't work out their disagreements," said Rev. Dr. Carolyn Owen-Towle, cominister. The church also has a six person ombuds committee to resolve disruptive situations and other disputes.

When a nonmember threatened to disrupt an ordination ceremony because he had a dispute with a church member, two people were delegated to sit near him and ask him to leave if necessary. When another person frightened preschoolers by his inappropriate, nonsensical behavior, the church got a court order to keep him away. Owen-Towle emphasized that every case is carefully considered and democratic processes are honored.

Rev. William G. Sinkford, the UUA's director for Congregational, District and Extension Services, said the UUA does not recommend a specific policy on disruptive behavior, but suggests that congregational leaders look at policies from other congregations and pick one that fits their general philosophy. "Congregations are in better shape to deal with destructive behavior," Sinkford said, "if they've had a chance to reflect on a policy before things get complicated with high levels of energy and emotion."

Policy Regarding Disruptive Behavior (West Shore UU Church, Cleveland)

Adopted by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees
West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, Cleveland, Ohio

While openness to a wide variety of individuals is one of the prime values held by our congregation and expressed in our denomination's purposes and principles, we affirm the belief that our congregation must maintain a secure atmosphere where such openness can exist. When any person's physical and/or emotional well-being or freedom to safely express his or her beliefs or opinions is threatened, the source of this threat must be addressed firmly and promptly, even if this ultimately requires the expulsion of the offending person or persons.

There have been times when the disruptive behavior of an individual within the church building has led members to voice their concerns about one or more of the following:

  1. Perceived threats to the safety of any adult or child;
  2. The disruption of church activities;
  3. Diminishment of the appeal of the church to its potential and existing membership.

The following shall be the policy of West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in dealing with these issues:

  1. If an immediate response is required, this will be undertaken by the Minister(s), if available, and/or the leader of the group involved. This may include asking the offending person or persons to leave, or suspending the meeting or activity until such a time as it can safely be resumed. If further assistance is required the Police Department may be called. Anytime any of these actions are undertaken without the Minister(s) being present, the Minister(s) must be notified. A follow-up letter detailing what steps must be taken before returning to the activities involved will be sent by the Minister(s) to the offending party or parties.
  2. Situations not requiring immediate response will be referred to an ad hoc committee appointed by the Board of Trustees. The committee will respond in terms of their own judgment observing the following:
    1. The committee will respond to problems as they arise. There will be no attempt to define "acceptable" behavior in advance.
    2. Persons identified as disruptive will be dealt with as individuals; stereotypes will be avoided.
    3. The committee will collect all necessary information.
    4. To aid in evaluating the problem, the following points will be considered:
      • DANGEROUSNESS: Is the individual the source of a threat or perceived threat to persons or property?
      • DISRUPTIVENESS: How much interference with church functions is going on?
      • OFFENSIVENESS: How likely is it that prospective or existing members will be driven away?
    5. To determine the necessary response, the following points will be considered:
      • CAUSES: Why is the disruption occurring? Is it a conflict between the individual and others in the church? Is it due to a professionally diagnosed condition of mental illness?
      • HISTORY: What is the frequency and degree of disruption caused in the past?
      • PROBABILITY OF CHANGE: How likely is it that the problem behavior will diminish in the future?
    6. The committee will decide on the necessary response on a case by case basis. However, the following three levels of response are recommended:
      • LEVEL ONE: The committee shall inform the Minister(s) of the problem and either the Minister(s) or a member of the committee shall meet with the offending individual to communicate the concern.
      • LEVEL TWO: The offending individual is excluded from the church and/or specific church activities for a limited period of time, with reasons and the conditions of return made clear.
    7. Any action taken under item f. (above) may be appealed to the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees and/or the Minister(s).
      • LEVEL THREE: The offending individual is permanently excluded from the church premises and all church activities. Before this is carried out, the committee will consult with the Board of Trustees and the Minister(s). If it is decided that expulsion will take place, a letter will be sent by the Minister(s) explaining the expulsion and the individual's rights and possible recourse.

West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church strives to be an inclusive community, affirming our differences in beliefs, opinions and life experiences. However, concern for the safety and well-being of the congregation as a whole must be given priority over the privileges and inclusion of the individual. To the degree the disruptive behavior compromises the health of this congregation, our actions as people of faith must reflect this emphasis on security.

Policy Regarding Disruptive Behavior (First UU Church of San Diego)

We, the members and friends of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, are a caring community where mutual respect prevails. We believe in the democratic process in human relations. Each committee/organization is encouraged to adopt and agree to ground rules for their meetings/events. When some participants in these meetings/events do not follow the rules, some policy is needed. Therefore a five step process has been proposed to deal with these problems of unacceptable behavior.

  1. Disruptive behavior does not need to be tolerated by a committee/organization. When it occurs, a member of the committee leadership should draw the disruptive person aside and state that the behavior is not acceptable.
  2. If a second complaint about the behavior occurs, a formal letter will be written by the appropriate leader to the person, stating that the behavior needs to be corrected, with copies to Ombuds (committee) and to the President of the Church. The letter should state that if the individual chooses to do so he/she can request that the Ombuds Committee mediate the dispute. The individual needs to state the problem to Ombuds in writing.
  3. Ombuds will discuss the problem and assign a member of the Ombuds Committee to meet with the person and the committee/organization leadership to resolve the problem. Ombuds will report back to the Board.
  4. If, after making all reasonable attempts and consulting with Ombuds, the problems seem unresolvable, the leadership of the complaining committee/organization should request the Board's permission to deny the person access to the committee/organization's meetings/events.
  5. If, in time, the person reconsiders and wishes to reenter the group, he/she may meet with the leadership of the committee/organization to request reentry, subject to Board approval.

Note: In some situations immediate action is warranted and should be taken. It is appropriate to call the police to remove an person exhibiting violent behavior. Note, too, that the five steps may be accelerated if the behavior is threatening.

Regarding rights of individuals who feel threatened by behavior of other individuals: No heretofore stated policy of the church applies to an individual, on the premises, who feels threatened and calls the police on his/her own behalf.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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