Stand Up to Problem People with Protective Policies

When a man who had just joined a West Coast congregation volunteered to take care of the grounds, the overworked folks in the congregation were thrilled.

But when he hacked off all the branches of several small trees, they had second thoughts. More alarms sounded when he forcefully criticized the congregation at a district workshop. On Sunday mornings he used Joys and Concerns to promote his own interests at length. He was rude to the minister and to people who challenged him.

In time he acknowledged that he had a mental illness but was not taking his medication. What to do? The minister, who asked not to be identified for this article, says the congregation had a history of looking the other way when people created disturbances. But this case couldn't be ignored.

The board president wrote to the man, telling him his behavior had to change. He was asked to meet with the minister and two church leaders. He became antagonistic and as of early this spring had not met with the group. He is banned from church property until that happens. Meanwhile the board developed a policy governing such behavior.

Another congregation had difficulty with a man who argued aggressively with people who disagreed with him. He used threats of lawsuits and unnamed calamities that would occur if he didn't get his way.

"People tried to ignore it," says the minister. "Others left, saying they didn't come to church for this. I put up with it for awhile, but then when I decided I had to quit discussing church business with him, he engaged people who were more vulnerable and we had to do something."

The governing board asked the man to leave. He did, angrily, along with several other people who had supported him. The congregation, which had not had a policy on coping with disruptive individuals, has now developed one.

The Rev. Anne Odin Heller, district executive for the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Pacific Northwest District, says Unitarian Universalists (UUs) have often been reluctant to confront dysfunctional or dangerous people. "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."

Develop a policy covering disruptive behavior before it's needed, says Heller.

The Rev. Ken Reeves, a psychologist in Dedham, MA, leads workshops for congregational leaders in creating healthy congregations. His recommendations:

  • Support constructive behavior. Create a congregation-wide expectation that disruptive behavior will not get much mileage.
  • Set and articulate standards for behavior, and insist that they be met.
  • When disruptive behavior surfaces in the form of pressure, respond with calm and clear thinking.
  • Cite principles—either UU principles or your own.

"Principles trump pressure," says Reeves. "When a difficult person tries to use pressure to get his way, respond with the appropriate UU principle that counters it, such as, 'We're following the democratic processes as stated in our Principles.'"

Reeves also recommends strengthening the congregation. "A strong, high-functioning congregation will be less likely to have disruptive people because it will support healthy behavior rather than destructive behavior. Select people for leadership positions who don't raise a lot of fuss when things don't quite go their way. And strengthen it through specific actions such as mission statements and everyday acts that demonstrate that people support each other. That creates a difficult environment for difficult people to operate in."

Keep a confidential file of all actions relating to significantly disruptive people, says Liz Jones, director of religious education at First UU Church, San Diego, CA (795 members). "Some tend to come for a while and then disappear only to return again years later. We also know that some go from church to church." Another reason such files are important, she says, is that if church staff leave, then none of the new staff would recognize the person if he or she returns.

When a Midwestern congregation brought in an interim minister a few years ago he told it something it already knew—that it was being held hostage by a few people.

One person would bring unimportant personal complaints to the governing board, which would then drop what it was doing to address her complaints. Another person, who was ordered out of the church a few years previously for continually speaking ill of others, had been allowed to come back, but soon began to repeat his bad behavior.

"Our minister explained to us that our covenant to be together was not a suicide pact," says a former board member. "It did not require us to do things that were damaging to us."

The board stopped listening to the complainer, who eventually left. It again ordered the man who had returned to leave. "We had a crisis of conscience over whether we could actually kick him out," the former board member says, "but we decided we had a right to feel safe." Since that time the board has adopted a policy governing such behavior.

In one small UU congregation a couple who had run the church in an intimidating manner for years and were highly critical of others were finally confronted. When they resigned, "We found that we'd spent 20 hours a week just dealing with them," says the minister. "People took their church back, more people got involved in leadership, and they began to move the church forward." They also developed a policy covering disruptive individuals.

"They did what they needed to do," says the minister.

Resources

The UUA website has a guide to Disruptive Behavior Policies. District offices will also have examples of such policies. Most policies permit expulsion, with due process, of someone who becomes a perceived threat to safety, disrupts activities, or diminishes the appeal of the church to potential and existing members.

Available from the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076:

Churchworks, a Well-Body Book for Congregations, by Anne Odin Heller. (Skinner House, 1999) $20, #7008

Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior, by Arthur Paul Boers (Alban Institute, 1999) $15, #7181

Available elsewhere:

The Coward's Guide to Conflict: Empowering Solutions for Those Who Would Rather Run Than Fight, by Timothy E. Ursiny. (Sourcebooks, 2003)

About the Author

  • 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.

For more information contact interconnections@uua.org.

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