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One Bad Apple CAN Spoil the Whole Bunch

By Renee Ruchotzke

The 1970's heart-throb boy band The Osmonds provided a disservice with their ear-worm hit song "One Bad Apple." They sang,

"One bad apple don't spoil the whole bunch, girl, Oh, I don't care what they say, I don't care what you heard now"

when it fact it really can and will, especially in our congregations. By saying "bad apples" I'm referring to behaviors of people in our congregations that can act like the ethylene that rotting fruit emits that will eventually rot the fruit nearby. But instead of causing rot, the human version of the bad apple breaks the bonds of community. Let me be clear that it's behaviors that I am talking about, not the people themselves. As creatures of free will, we can make choices about our behavior. As communities, we can set standards of behavior to encourage people to be their best selves, at least at church.  As I've heard many parents express, "Going to church helps to remind ourselves that "the world does not revolve around me." Congregations that are unable to grow, or that are declining in numbers and enthusiasm often have ignored the bad apples among their midst and yet are puzzled about why visitors don't return or why new members drift away without saying why.  (Even if they did, it's a rare congregation who would take such feedback to heart.) I am passionate about this because--every week--someone walks through the doors of a UU congregation who needs the saving message of liberal religion (you are not inherently sinful!) and the saving community of covenant (we pledge to support and encourage one another to spiritual growth). It breaks my heart when anyone is repelled from "the bunch" of healthy, vibrant community by the "bad apple" of an individual or two. Why do we tolerate behaviors that repel not just visitors but healthy and contributing members? I think it's because our leaders exhibit a failure of nerve to stand up to such destructive behaviors and sometimes even enable them with excuses or explanations like:

"Oh, that's just Jack.  He's always been like that.  Lot's of people are huggers.  Jack just doesn't know when to stop."   "We know that Mary is always criticizing the minister and board, but she is one of our major donors.  We wouldn't want to risk losing her."  

"We're the only community that Greg has. He may have some incidents of aggressive behavior, but they've never happened at church so it's none of our business."  

"It's too bad that we've gone through eight administrators in five years because of Pat pointing our every little mistake. Pat used to be our volunteer administrator and is a member of one of our founding families.  They have too much power for the board to do anything."  

"Letting someone like Bill talk for 5 minutes during Joys and Sorrows shows newcomers that we are welcoming and supportive of everyone."  

"A lot of our older members had bad experiences with Christian churches in their childhoods.  People should understand when they condemn Christianity they only mean certain kinds of Christians."  

"If people aren't sticking around after a few bad experiences with some of our crankier members, it just means there weren't all that committed to our church in the first place."

If you currently have a similar "bad apple" situation in your congregation, don't despair!  There are many resources to help your leadership team (and it takes a team!) to stand up "to bad apple" behaviors:

About the Author

Renee Ruchotzke

Rev. Renee Ruchotzke (ruh-HUT-skee) has served as a Congregational Life Consultant in the Central East Region since September of 2010. As program manager for Leadership Development, she is responsible for providing consultation, programming and training material (including webinars and videos) on...

For more information contact conglife@uua.org.