Church consultant Thom S. Rainer recently published two articles about church bullies. While I appreciated Rainer’s advice about this kind of misbehavior, I struggled with the word “bully.” Such a loaded term.
In order to address a problem strategically, it needs to be described in language that feels fair and doesn’t add fuel to the fire. As an alternative to naming bullies in your congregation, I encourage you to consider who has power. A simple definition of “power” is the ability to influence. Power isn’t inherently a bad thing, of course. In fact, much of the time (most of the time, hopefully), it’s a very good thing! In thriving congregations, power is abundant.
We all have power. We can use our power well, we can deliberately cultivate it in ourselves, and we can appropriately empower others. (I’d like to think I do a lot of this!) At times, we might misunderstand or misuse our power, hurting the system or damaging relationships in the process. (Been there, done that.) And sometimes we simply fail to utilize our power in the most productive way. (Guilty of this, too.)
Here are five types of power found in organizations:
- Authority that accompanies one’s role (authority is a right)
- Ability to reward or punish
- Unique expertise or information
- Connection with others in power
- Earned trust and respect
The five types of power are neutral. Learn to recognize them in yourself and others, and pay attention to how people use them. Whom do you associate with each type of power in your congregation? When have you witnessed people utilizing their power so that your congregation could live out its best values and fulfill its mission? Which types of power do you hold? Which would you like to hold?
Okay, back to the topic of Rainer’s articles. From Nine Traits of Church Bullies, a bully is someone with an agenda who seeks allies (individuals or groups) to help them push it. This congregant will often have an enemy: a person, program, or process that is interfering with their agenda. Maybe you have a picture in your mind of someone like this in your congregation, past or present.
Remember, displeased and demanding people only cause chaos and division if they have some form of power in the system. Without power, they don’t gain traction and they’re just a thread in the tapestry of your congregation. If you have a congregant who has an uncomfortably loud voice in congregational matters, who is intimidating others with their intensity or going to lengths to get their way, think about which kind(s) of power they are using. Simply by articulating the nature of someone’s power, you should begin to see your way toward resolving the difficulties they are causing.
Keep your own power positive by avoiding inflammatory language. I recommend reframing Rainer’s Nine Ways to Deal with Church Bullies as ways to address a congregant’s misunderstanding or misuse of their power.
Jan Gartner serves as UUA Professional Development Specialist. Her mission: to liberate and leverage the potential of congregational staff! Jan telecommutes from her home near Rochester, NY. She is a joyful soprano in the choir at First Unitarian Church of Rochester.