Things had been rocky for a while. Anxiety had reached new levels. Long time members were getting twitchy. Then Tom announced that he wanted to see the executive committee in my office. (Yeah, it was just as officious as it sounds.)
“We’ve got problems,” Tom began. “We need to make some changes around here, and that starts with the minister.” (This wasn’t going well from my perspective.) “And I’m not giving another dime until those changes get made. I’ll leave it to you all to decide how that gets done.” And he turned around and walked out of my office.
That sounds like a deadly conversation to have just after worship on a February Sunday morning. And it was. Our mouths were all agape. The sheer audacity of Tom’s summons and eventual announcement was awe inspiringly brash. The executive committee sat there stunned, looking at each other slack-jawed. The whole thing struck me as almost cinematic in its dramatic sweep. The only thing missing was Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Now, it could have been awkward, but funny. Had it been anyone beside Tom we might all have looked at each other and rolled our eyes: “Do you believe this guy? Sorry to disappoint you—what with your self-inflated opinion of your own worth—but just who the hell do you think you are?”
But we knew who he was. Tom was the guy who subsidized the congregational budget by close to 30%. Tom was the guy who one year offered to do matching pledges for the congregation so that they could retire some debt. He was the guy who “wanted to step back from leadership,” but who—when things got bad—could be counted on to show up and “redirect” the congregation toward a “more sustainable path.” Most major decisions required conversations centering on the issue of what Tom would think. He was, in the words of Reggie Jackson, the “straw that stirred the drink.”
In what I took to be a brilliant show of courage, the chairperson of the congregation finally broke the silence by saying, “*#@& him.” This bit of folk wisdom brought us all back to the current dilemma: How do we deal with this problem?
The chairperson continued, “Look. This is hostage taking. We all know it.”
“Yep,” our treasurer chimed in. “If we cave on this, we’ll regret it in the long run. But what are we going to do? That’s a lot of money.”
The vice chairperson said, “It’s an awful lot of money. But he’s holding the budget (and us) hostage. And I’ve watched enough movies to know that if you pay the ransom, you’re only encouraging more hostage taking.”
“I guess we’re just going to have to learn how to make this work without Tom’s money,” said the chairperson.
So, we started going through the budget to see what we could cut, and how we could do some of the things that needed to be done by volunteer labor. But even though the executive committee couldn’t have been more supportive, I felt sick to my stomach. The whole thing, as you might imagine, felt extraordinarily personal to me.
But apart from the personal pain and the anxiety surrounding the knowledge that my livelihood was dangling by a very tenuous thread, was the fact that Tom, and the people who ultimately sided with him, refused to leave the church. They made a decision to stay—but no longer to contribute in a positive way to the life and ministry of the church.
That Tom and his supporters decided to hang around without helping out didn’t really surprise me too much. (I had developed a fairly low opinion of these folks by this time—as, of course, they had of me.) What really chapped my backside, however, were the other people who said they were supportive of what the executive committee was trying to do, but who insisted that Tom and the dissidents ought to continue to be given a seat at the table in discussions about how the church should move forward.
To this constituency of sympathetic longtime members, it only felt right to include Tom and the others because they had invested so much in the life of the congregation over the years. Tom and his allies had been such a big part of the decisions that had always been made, dating back to the church’s founding thirty years prior. How could the people who’d founded the church be cut out—even though they had decided to cease all contributions … save their criticism.
Allowing Tom and his supporters to continue to participate in leadership (if only from the sidelines with a bullhorn) felt to me like making the kidnappers a part of the FBI strategy sessions … about how to deal with the kidnappers. Why would anyone ever do that?
Now, after all these years, and having had time to reflect, I see how I contributed to the situation that led up to the fated meeting with Tom in my office. I fear that I let things get personal long before that post-worship tête-à-tête with the executive committee. So, I don’t want to leave the impression that I think I was blameless heading into that Sunday. If I had the whole thing to do over, there are a number of things I would have probably done differently.
What I’m concerned to talk about here, though, is the all too common phenomenon in the church of hostage taking—that is, “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to blow something up.”
Do you know what I’m talking about? That person who’s pretty sure that if she makes the stakes high enough, everyone else will blink, and she’ll get her way.
Sometimes, the utilitarian calculation made by the church leadership seems straightforward:
- If he does quit being a youth sponsor, is it something we can cover relatively easily?
- If she does stop bringing her prize-winning congealed salad to the potlucks, can we manage to continue to feed the folks who show up?
- Will his leaving the church cause more uproar than we’re prepared to deal with at this point?
Each of these situations presents a range of relative difficulty, from “Who cares?” to “Boy, that’s going to be a pain in the neck.”
But there are some hostage negotiation situations, the nature of which is potentially existential: If he does what he says he’ll do, we might have to fold our tent.
An important issue, and one that I rarely see discussed is: How do we deal with hostage takers—especially the ones who ratchet up the tension to DEFCON 1?
Of course, the easy answer would be to say, “Well, you just don’t negotiate with terrorists.” And, when you look at it on paper, it makes sense. Give ‘em an inch, and they’ll … take over the board.
On the other hand, standing firm can exact such high costs that the life and ministry of the congregation is thereby threatened.
What to do?
Here’s the part where, perhaps, you’re expecting some wisdom, some sage advice that will help save you from a possible disaster.
Here’s what I’ve got: If your church is going to collapse if the hostage takers carry out their threats, you’re already in the wrong place. Go. No, really, go.
Do you really want to work with people who are willing to kill something, just to get what they want?
At this point, someone will probably say, “That’s easy for you to say. This is my __ (job, family’s congregation for generations, community, vocational identity). I can’t just leave.”
Let’s take those objections in order:
- It’s not easy for me to say. After nine months of trying to make it work with Tom and his supporters, I couldn’t do it any longer. I resigned … without having another job lined up. I almost lost my house. My marriage took a beating. I never wanted to work in a church again (and my wife said she’d divorce me if I did). So, no, it’s not easy for me to say. But I’ll say it anyway: Go. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done, but it was also one of the smartest.
- Look, I certainly understand why someone with strong attachments to a congregation—personal or professional—would be hesitant to walk away. But let’s look at the options: You can stay and refuse to yield to the demands, watching the hostage takers commit their violence, and everything falls apart … then you leave (This was the path I tried.); or you can stay and cave in to the ultimatum, in which case you become a collaborator, by helping to sustain a toxic situation. Remember: Community is not a good per se. There are bad communities.
- Ok, when I say, “go,” I’m not necessarily advocating that you drop the mic and walk off the stage in some dramatic show of courage. You could do that, I suppose, but it may not be the best thing. Especially if it’s a job you’re walking away from, you probably ought to begin looking around. But you should look around.
Look, I hope your congregation never faces the mac daddy of all hostage negotiations. Ministers have nightmares about this kind of stuff. Literal, wake-up-in-a-cold-sweat nightmares.
I wish I had some secret move that could reliably resolve situations like these. Alas, I don’t.
Most of what I have to offer is on a meta-level: Ministers and congregations need to decide what they’re worth, what they’re willing to endure to keep things the way they are. Because there are some battles that just aren’t worth fighting. Not winning sometimes is inevitable.
However, there are some hills worth dying on, because to capitulate is to lose who you are and what you value most.
But you follow Jesus, so that shouldn’t be news to you.