meZ8wCk (1)What’s at the intersection of “things they don’t teach you in seminary” and “things you wish the search committee had told you”? This question!

Dear Matriarchs,

What if you had a small group of leaders who have ensconced themselves on one committee? They have controlled all church decisions for years, if not decades, and have run roughshod over pastor and session (governing body). Their power now threatened, they are quietly mobilizing to organize their election to several session positions. Of course, their understanding is that all they do is in the best interests of the church, and they are the only ones equipped to run the place, and they have articulated to me that “everything is fine, no conflict here.”

Is everything really fine? Approaches? Solutions?

How many of you readers recognize these folks in your congregation? Read on for some very fine Matriarch wisdom:

Rev. Kelley Wehmeyer Shin urges you not to ignore this situation:

That is a difficult place to be! Things are definitely not fine. From what limited information we have, it sounds like the patterns of power run deep and need several levels of change and healing. 

I would begin by ensuring that the Nominating Committee which elects session members (ruling elders) is made up of an appropriate number of members and abides by the policy of the Book of Order and the bi-laws of your church. 

And as Pastor, I would sit in on those meetings to make sure the Nominating Committee is not being manipulated.

If some of those controlling members do get elected to session, your job as moderator is to empower each member of Session to speak their mind and vote as they feel led.

Rev. Tracy Spencer-Brown reminds us to consider denominational polity and resources:

I agree with Kelley. One thing I would add is to ask some folks you trust to not manipulate the system to help compile a list of people for Nominating Committee to consider. Ask for nominations from the congregation by virtue of written form in the bulletin. Train the Nominating Committee well; ask them to look at the Biblical qualities of and the responsibilities of Ruling Elders as listed in the Book of Order. Then they should spend some time in prayer to DISCERN the gifts of people and who they think might be CALLED to this office. IMO, language is important. We aren’t just filling slots. Some relevant Book of Order sections: G-2.01, G-2.03, G-2.0401. Once they are elected, training and more training.

Rev. Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath points to places of support, whatever our faith tradition:

Different denominations do things differently, but no matter which body is yours, Tracy and Kelley have pointed out some key strategies.

1) Lean into the rules and by all means, know the rules. This is when that seminary class on “administration and understanding your constitution” can be really valuable.

2) Lean into trusted and ethical leaders. This might also include local or regional denominational leaders who may be able to assist you and/or back you up.

3) Lean into the cross. Setting aside time for prayerful discernment can be so crucial in these cases. It’s more than a good strategy, “We prayed about this and we feel you’re called to serve in this capacity,” it’s also faithful. Prayer can help us think outside the box when it comes to finding new or renewed leaders. A couple of other suggestions- when members do things they shouldn’t, even if they mean well, it’s never a bad idea to keep written notes for yourself.

And this may sound flip, but don’t take the attitude that “they’re old and they’ll retire, die or fade away.” Others have taken that approach and it’s not healthy or effective. Dare to be the leader your congregation called you to be.

My take-aways from our Matriarchs:

  • Leadership opportunities abound when the congregation — or some portion of same — is stuck in a pattern that is unhealthy.
  • Appreciate — and use! — the basics of prayer, faith tradition and denominational polity and associated resources.
  • Create and nurture supportive teams in the church and beyond.

One idea: Begin each and every meeting with some kind of story sharing. A simple one would be a check-in — “The best thing about today,” for example, or “the second best thing . . .” “Sharing time” is probably the last thing they want and it seems like the most naive thing you could possibly do. The thing is, hard-working church members can slip into using each other to fulfill agendas. You, dear pastor, know there is more to church — more to them — than what they see. Hold onto that deep knowing and be determined to make this shift. When a system is stuck, we pastors can initiate little shake-ups to help folks re-orient to their child of God/Body of Christ relationships.

How about you, dear reader? What advice would you add to the above? Is there anything here you could incorporate into your ministry setting? Please let us know in the comments below.

Is your congregation stuck? Let us offer you some ideas and support. Send your scenario to AsktheMatriarch (at) gmail (dot) com.


Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX.   She is a contributor to the RevGals book, “There’s a Woman in the Pulpit” and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.


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2 thoughts on “Ask the Matriarch: Help! They run the place!

  1. Excellent suggestions, Matriarchs. I would simply add, for your own knowledge base–and, yes, self-care, study some basics of family systems in churches–Friedman. Richardson has helpful and accessible church-based books.

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