Presbyterians Today

AUG-SEP 2018

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Pr e s by te r i a n s To d ay | AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2018 37 manipulate his committees. When he failed to appear for a worship meeting, for example, she declined his invitation to make the decisions just between the two of them. When he bragged about his leader- ship in multiple other congregations, she politely noted his young age and questioned his longevity in any one of those congregations. When the church officers informed her that they had not received training in 14 years, she established consis- tent elder education and supported the empowerment of leaders across the board. Over time, committee members began to articulate their own perspective in meetings, rather than simply going along with what was expected of them. Myers also did her best to maintain a loving, compassionate presence amid establishing these healthy boundaries. Rather than blaming the newcomer and stoking a sense of victimhood within the congregation or within herself, she stressed the well-being of the congre- gation as a whole. She encouraged the leaders to focus on the goals of the interim period, rather than dwell on the dilemma of "how we got here." She cultivated the hope of a more vibrant future, even as she acknowledged the ongoing pain of the situation. Over time, the congregation settled into a more Presbyterian way of functioning. Ruling elders became more confident in their calling to govern the congregation as a team. Parishioners became more comfort- able in relationship with one another as appropriate boundaries became established. Myers determined they were ready for a direct intervention with the parishioner whose behavior had caused such difficulty. Again, she relied upon Presbyterian polity to undergird the process. She reached out to the presbytery for the support of the moderator. She secured professional services for any in the system, long before systems theory became common conversation in church circles, led Myers to develop an expertise in interim ministry. By the time she retired, Myers had trained hundreds of other pastors to adopt a similar approach through the interim ministry training program of the Synods of Mid-America and Lincoln Trails. "The truth is, just one or three or four people can destroy a church with their controlling behavior," Myers said. All too often, though, the default of most congregations is to accept the behavior rather than challenge it. "It's far easier to say, 'Oh, that's just so-and-so,' " Myers said. But when pastors prefer people- pleasing and parishioners prefer keeping the peace, what might be dismissed as someone's challeng- ing personal characteristic creates a toxic environment for the entire congregation. In his book The Toxic Congregation: How to Heal the Soul of Your Church, the late Presbyterian minister G. Lloyd Rediger wrote: "Where toxin is intentionally allowed to remain, it will contaminate, sicken, impair, and generate lethal consequences." He calls this "the law of toxicity." A case study In her formative years of ministry, a small, struggling, Midwestern congregation teetering on the edge of this kind of toxicity hired Myers as their interim pastor. The toxic situa- tion had snuck up on the well-mean- ing community with a commitment to inclusivity. Like many aging, exhausted communities, the congregation had embraced the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-something young man eager to serve wherever necessary. He had painted the kitchen. He had volun- teered his services when the church secretary resigned. He had become moderator of the worship committee. He had agreed to serve on session. By the time Myers arrived, however, the relief and gratitude of the congregation for his service had turned to fear and panic. Within a year and a half, the newcomer had taken over nearly every commit- tee. He had ordered costly worship supplies without permission. He had "borrowed" thousands of dollars from several parishioners. He had used his volunteer position in the church office to present himself as an ecclesiasti- cal leader. Something had to be done. But what? As Myers considered her options, she came to a powerful realiza- tion: Presbyterian polity offers an inherent antidote to unhealthy behavior. "No one person in the PC(USA) system is ever allowed unchecked authority," said the Rev. Jan DeVries, general presbyter of Grace Presbytery. "The foundations of the faith simply do not allow it. Instead, Presbyterians govern as a group, discerning the mind of Christ in com- munity, rather than individually." To confront the toxic behavior, Myers needed to remind her congre- gation "how to be Presbyterian." This was easier said than done. As a first step in a long process of "Presbyterian 101" re-education, Myers was determined not to allow the parishioner to continue to The truth is, just one or three or four people can destroy a church with their controlling behavior. — Lynne Myers

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