Have you ever been blind-sided by a snide comment in a meeting? Has anyone ever called you a “pit bull” or a “witch” (or other name) and then claimed to be joking? This week’s question calls for our best strategies for dealing with those passive aggressive — or simply full-out aggressive — comments.

Dear Matriarchs,

The other night in a church meeting, the convener of the meeting said, “we need extra prayer” so I was asked to close the meeting in prayer as we dispersed. The person sitting next to me said, loudly enough for me and a few others to hear: “Good. She needs to make up some extra work for all the time she’s taken off lately.” Of course, this very group had given their blessing to that vacation time and continuing ed time.

She may have been kidding. She may have been serious. It made me feel sick inside.

I have heard from my colleagues that they also find themselves in similar situations that make them feel put down and yucky inside:

“You’re such a feminist.”
“That’s because you’re an attack dog.” (or “too nice” or “from Philadelphia”)
“Some people actually know what’s going on in the world.”
“The last pastor always . . . (fill in the blank)”
“If you were more experienced . . . (fill in the blank)”

What is the best way to handle these situations?
In the moment or later one-on-one with the person?

Or assume that it amounts to nothing, grow a thicker skin and move on?


Rev. Stomach Full of (Stuff)

* * * * * * * *

Our Matriarchs are ready with some good ideas:

Dear Rev. S. Full,

While I advise ministers to develop thick skins, what I really mean is learn to discern which comments to blow off. The blow off comments are made when a group is tired or afraid; made by someone who cannot say ANYTHING positive EVER; or, maybe the comment is made by someone with the social skills of my cat, Agatha. Process these comments and move on.

 If you find that a comment is sitting on you for more than a day, give it good thought. What is the comment setting off in you so that you find it hard to shake? If the comment lingers longer, would it help to talk to the person and find out what they meant? You know, get more information about what was said? Think this through, as well.

People say the stupidest things. I can speak at the Stupid Party too. You may say things you regret at times.

Try to balance a good-hearted response to stupid/careless comments with not allowing yourself to take abuse. You can do this.

St. Casserole aka Sally-Lodge Teel

Dear Rev. Stomach Full —

Sigh. These kinds of comment can take the wind right out of your sails. An IDEAL response would be 2-pronged: 

1) in the moment respond in a light-hearted way in the group’s hearing. Try to own whatever the insult is. It’s unfair, but to that person the comment has truth. If you own the seed of truth they are disempowered. “You’re right! After all that vacation I could pray for hours. Somebody may have to jump in and say Amen!” OR “I didn’t realize you knew I was a feminist, I thought I kept that a secret. So now maybe I can just admit it — my middle name is Gloria Steinem!” OR “Attack dog? Yep, I’m a pit bull with lipstick. Me and Sarah Palin.” Be outrageous!

2) immediately afterward respond in a serious way one on one with the offender. Ask them to stay after the meeting, and raise your eyebrow a bit so they know you mean it. “Can you hold up? Because I’d like a word alone. Maybe you were making a joke — that’s why I tried to respond with a touch of humor. But I sense that there’s something we need to talk about. Are you unhappy with me? I don’t want to have these tensions. It damages the Body of Christ.”

I know I’m talking IDEAL! In the moment you probably just want to swear out loud. The best you may be able to pull off is a glare and stony silence. And that is okay too. You’re allowed to have feelings! Most people understand a silent glare. Remember that the person making the comment is a solo individual. Chances are that others present are much more sympathetic to you and may seek you out afterward. You can go home and prepare the comment you wish you had made — because chances are the situation will arise again. Leading a church is a lot like parenting — the same sh@t rolls around pretty regularly. You will get a chance to address that comment and attitude again, but now you will be forewarned.

Good luck Sister!

Ruth Everhart, Writer/Pastor, blogging at www.rutheverhart.com.

Dear Rev. Stomach Full,

You are not alone in your experience of being demeaned. I am sorry your terms of call were used against you in a disrespectful way.

I think the best way to handle such situations is to talk to the person one-on-one expressing your concern for her comment. Assure them of your care for them as pastor but also let them know that such comments undermine your leadership.  Also, allow them time to ask any questions they might their have about your terms of call.

Blessings in Christ,

Rev. Kelley Wehmeyer Shin

Memorial United Presbyterian Church

Xenia, Ohio

Dear Rev. Stomach Full,

In pastoral ministry, this can happen in church meetings and it can also happen in other church group settings, or in a one-on-one conversation. Because everyone who is present is a participant — and because this is a pastoral opportunity — my best strategy is to respond in that very moment.

Important: I put on an face and a voice that are as completely charge-neutral as possible — not anxious, or defensive, or offensive, or hurt, etc. I adopt a flat and curious affect and look at the person and no one else.

If the comment sounded like it could be a sincere complaint, I treat it that way by a reflective listening response:

“It sounds like you are saying that I’m taking too much vacation. Will you say more about that?”

“You miss the way that Rev. Former Pastor use to (fill in the blank). I’d like to know more about that.”

If it sounded more like name-calling or a snide remark, I unearth that by saying (flat voice, no offense):

“That sounds like a dig. Did you mean that as a dig?”

They will most likely say that they were joking &/or tell me not to be so sensitive.

And I repeat: “It sounded like a dig. Did you mean that as a dig?”

And I stay with it until the person owns their own meaning for what they said rather than deflect it to how I am responding (“too sensitive” “can’t take a joke”)

After the person has clarified their remark on their own:
If they have made a decent case for their comment — or tried to — then I ask the group: “Who else is having “Fred’s/Frieda’s” experience of this?” I learn something about what people are really thinking, and they (maybe) get the idea that there is nothing too scary to talk about around me.

If the person backs down — or if it becomes obvious that this is a personal problem that just got projected onto me — I give them the most elegant, good natured and compassionate way out I can manage, and then follow up with that person later. The congregation (I hope) sees a way to care for someone when they are acting out.

I worked this out after way too many times of leaving meetings feeling slimed, leaving a mess on the table, wishing I had known what to say in the moment. I hope this helps you come up with your own way.

Be bold, Rev!

Sharon Temple, blogging erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy

* * * * *
Well, there you have it — a fabulous Matriarch buffet of possible responses to the little comments that kick us in the gut.

What do you do with the comments that make you feel yucky inside?
Share your own strategies in the comments below.

Are you dealing with a ministry situation that leaves you tired, frustrated or confused?  Send it to AskTheMatriarch (at) gmail (dot) com and let us help!

* * * * * * * *
Rev. Sharon M. Temple currently serves as Designated Pastor of the delightful Brookmeade Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Nashville TN.  She blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy and contributed an essay to There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.

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9 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Name Calling and Nasty Comments

  1. Such good advice. I have nothing much to add but I want to commend you for wanting to bring this to light rather than let it pass. Having a relatively thick skin myself, I tolerated such behavior for a long time hoping that my kindness to the offender would overcome it. But a) it escalated, and b) the rudeness and judgment was directed at others as well and “damaged the body of Christ” as Ruth notes above. By the time we addressed it, the problem required formal proceedings. I’m quite sure it could have been headed off earlier by naming it and using some of these excellent approaches.


    1. Judith, you are not alone! I suspect that we have all dealt with some rude outbursts or under-the-breath comments, as well as the occasional truly problematic nasty person. It was good to have the opportunity to share some strategies that might help.


  2. I asked a similar question earlier this week in another forum (examples were, “…justify your expenses’ and “what do you do for us anyway”?, and found one of the replies quite helpful. The author suggested “You are saying … I wonder what is happening in your life that causes you to focus on this? A UK Anglican response is also “Would you say that to a male vicar?”.


  3. I was fortunate. Had the “too much time off, and it’s just not right!!” (complete with emphatic fists on table) comment from the Chair of my Ministry Personnel team (a kind of HR Committee) and reminded her that it’s the Board which makes those decisions, and the committee would need to recommend to the Board that I not get the vacation requested. The Board listened, asked a couple of questions, determined that I was not asking anything over what was in the agreement, and voted in favour of my vacation. She stopped coming to church. Attempts to discuss were dismissed, and even that Committee did not meet, until I reported to the Board that they were not functioning. My concern for you is that maybe there’s something underlying her comment – such as envy, perhaps. I know that the woman who tried to curb my time was envious of the travelling I did with my husband. Our lives were so different – my husband and I are healthy and financially able to travel, her husband was dying and they had nowhere near money for trips. I think having a conversation with the person you mention is a good idea, but perhaps have someone else with you. It seems like a slight thing, but those slight things can grow – whether you do or don’t. Is there someone you really trust, who you could ask to gauge if you are reacting too much or not?


    1. Fran, isn’t it amazing how what’s going on in one person’s life gets splashed all over someone else’s? I struggle with that myself sometimes. I also agree that a little thing, if not attended to, can grow into a big thing.


  4. The thing I find hardest to deal with are the under the breath mutterings. Even an “Oh, I’m sorry Joan- I didn’t catch what you just said” is usually met with “oh, nothing.” I believe strongly in not shaming people, but have yet to find a good way to model that that behavior is not appropriate.


  5. I just need to say thank you for this nugget from St. Casserole: “The blow off comments are made when a group is tired or afraid; made by someone who cannot say ANYTHING positive EVER; or, maybe the comment is made by someone with the social skills of my cat, Agatha. Process these comments and move on.”
    I feel like I have been given permission to do what my gut has been saying, but I’ve ignored while over-thinking.


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