North American Guide to Church Dragons
How to identify and approach two dangerous species.
April 1, 1998
Two categories of people can make life particularly hard for a pastor: the passive-aggressive person and the projector. I call them “dragons,” a metaphor Leadership senior editor Marshall Shelley coined in his book Well-Intentioned Dragons.
Here’s how to recognize when such dragons sneak up on your back side and how to deflect their assaults—crucial survival skills in pastoral work.
1. Frustratorius Slipperious
The passive-aggressive congregant is more likely to smile than to snarl. This person appears friendly and supportive.
Only after you’ve entrusted this dragon with an important task will you begin to be confused. You thought you heard, “Oh, yes, I’d love to do that,” but the job went unfinished. Worse, you seem powerless to discover what actually happened. Attempts to confront the issue are likely to end with you looking like an insensitive dictator (rather than the compassionate, understanding person you really are).
Individuals whose primary relational style is passive-aggressive are hard to pin down. Their negative feelings remain submerged. Even though they disagree with you, they’re unlikely to assertively confront you. Instead their defense against the discomfort their anger creates internally is to deny it and then simply to retreat into a passive position.
This may manifest itself in procrastination, lateness, uncooperative behavior, or behind-the-scenes manipulation of others.
Recognizing the rumblings
In her first pastorate, Sarah was energetic, creative, and eager to minister effectively. Part of her philosophy was to involve lots of lay people, so when Joe offered to serve, she was delighted. Her only mental reservation was her discovery that Joe hadn’t done much in the church before. She told herself that was probably related to her predecessor’s leadership style.
Since Joe showed enthusiasm about the youth program, Sarah gave him the opportunity to develop some summer youth projects. Joe was full of exciting ideas for inner-city outreach, recreational events, and spiritual development. Sarah and Joe discussed several specific scenarios and what Joe would need to organize them.
By mid March Sarah began to grow concerned about the lack of progress. When she talked to Joe, he explained that his work had been more demanding than usual but that he would soon have more time. He said he definitely wanted to continue.
Easter was in early April, so Sarah became preoccupied with its events. After Easter she checked again with Joe, but this time she had trouble even making contact with him. Her messages on his answering machine weren’t answered. He failed to show up at a meeting.
Sarah never saw Joe at church after Easter Sunday, then began to hear rumblings that Joe was fed up with her controlling “micro-management.”
When she finally talked with the church chairman, Sarah found out Joe had a long history of procrastination, failure to follow through, and petulant back-biting when challenged by authority figures.
She discovered that her experience with Joe was a pattern he also exhibited with family, friends, and work colleagues.
How to tame this dragon
Two approaches—assertive confrontation or protective distancing—can lessen your vulnerability to passive-aggressive people and reduce your frustration. I prefer confronting such dragons. Doing so not only relieves my irritation, but also models a more productive skill for the passive-aggressive person.
To confront such a dragon, make an appointment with the person, and prepare to be persistent when he is late or misses the meeting altogether. Then, follow these four steps:
1. Identify the pattern from your perspective . Identify what you perceive happens in your interactions with him, and then invite the person to share his perception of those events.
For example, you might say, “Joe, I want to share some feelings and observations with you that have been difficult for me to handle. Then I need your help.”
Describe the pattern you’ve seen with specific illustrations: “It seemed to me your role as chairman was the pivotal point of breakdown. When I expressed my concern or questioned the progress, I thought everything was being handled. When it was too late to involve someone else, I discovered that the project wouldn’t be accomplished after all. That seems to be a pattern I’ve seen on other occasions, and I wonder if you’re aware of that?”
2. Own your feelings . You might say, “Last spring I asked you to organize some summer events you had expressed interest in. The events never happened. When all was said and done, I was disappointed and angry.”
3. Make clear your decision not to contribute to an ineffective pattern . State that you prefer to avoid perpetuating a pattern of relating that leaves you both guilty and frustrated. If he wants to commit to a future ministry activity, ask him to arrange an accountability system that will enhance the likelihood of his success, such as a series of deadlines and someone to report to regularly (not you).
4. Make the dragon responsible for his or her choices . After some input from him, acknowledge his explanations but say, “It really looks to me like an ineffective pattern in your life. I know it’s frustrating to me, and I suspect it’s uncomfortable for you. It might be something you’d want to look at for yourself. I know for me it’s more comfortable when I’m direct with my feelings—well, like I’m doing now with you.
“Otherwise I’d struggle with my anger and end up feeling guilty or just avoiding our relationship. Think about what I’ve said and let me know what you think.” In this way, you make the dragon responsible for his or her choices, and you invite the dragon to become more assertive in expressing his or her anger and fear.
Follow up your confrontation with some distinct boundary identifications depending on the response (or more likely, the nonresponse) you receive.
Dragon or just disgruntled member?
How can a pastor distinguish the passive-aggressive person from someone who merely seems to be?
The level of deceit
The dragon will flatly lie about his behavior: “Oh, I sent that. Didn’t you receive it?” The deception tends to proliferate as each act of refusal is justified or hidden.
The degree of hostility
In a dragon, the underlying anger toward anyone in authority or exerting a measure of control becomes obvious. It will probably surface as blaming statements (“Well, you never told me what you expected”) or as degrading comments spread to others behind your back (“Don’t ever trust something that pastor says!”).
The non-dragon will admit his failure, probably with lots of apologies. Pastors likely won’t become the object of blame for delays or become the target of slanderous comments.
2. Accusorius Selfrighteousi
The projector is a more primitive beast than the passive-aggressive person. The dragon denies anxiety-producing feelings or impulses within, then projects them onto some other person.
The behavior is more openly hostile than the actions of the passive-aggressive person, and is hurled with blame, coated with self-righteousness: “I’m not angry (lustful, controlling, etc.) but you, Pastor, are the most angry and hostile person I’ve ever seen. I’ve had to tell the ‘truth’ to others about how you’ve attacked me (tried to seduce, manipulate, etc).”
This dragon will make you not only furious but can back you into a corner. You may begin to sound like the angry, controlling, abusive person described in the projection.
People who use projection are often insecure and have developed a rigid self-righteousness to avoid dealing with their humanity. The resulting legalism is a comfortable fortress into which they retreat. Others with similar personality structure may be drawn to this dragon’s apparent confidence and strength. Consequently a dragon who is projecting unholy attributes onto you can generate lots of conflict.
Priscilla was a strong and vocal member of First Church. Her parents had been charter members and were pillars of the church. She had always been part of the core group.
Strict and devout, Priscilla came across as critical and rigid in her attitude toward others, especially church staff members. That was particularly true about lifestyle issues like drinking, dancing, card playing, dress codes, and sexuality. She seemed at times to be obsessed with concerns about sexual harassment and abuse. She had purged the church of three previous staff members whose morality came under scrutiny because of her “sensitivity and alert watchfulness.”
Consequently the selection committee had been extremely careful in recommending Pastor Strate Arrow. Arrow had an unblemished record of twenty-four years in dynamic churches. His moral standards and behavior were above reproach.
It was a bit surprising when Priscilla stopped by the study to express her concern about the pastor’s “lustful glances” at the soloist Sunday morning. Arrow didn’t know Priscilla’s history, but he remained calm and nondefensive, thanking her for expressing her concern.
Strate didn’t have to search his heart on the issue. He knew himself well enough to be aware of such feelings. He did have to search his mind a little to remember who the soloist was. He’d been absorbed in his sermon outline. He mentioned Priscilla’s comments to his wife that night. She laughed at the idea because she did remember Sunday’s soloist.
Later, considering the dangerous tone of the accusation, they made some discreet inquiries about Priscilla. They quickly determined this was no laughing matter, hearing that Priscilla had expressed her concern to a few other people.
Although Pastor Arrow was inclined to ignore the whole thing, he took some precautionary steps. He first talked to the chairman of the board and then the staff. Having recently come through an ugly experience with a staff member, the church chairman and the staff saw the importance of dealing with the accusation decisively before it created doubt and suspicion.
Priscilla was confronted by the chairman, the executive committee, Pastor Arrow, and the church’s legal counsel. It became obvious Priscilla’s accusations, which by then had grown to include Arrow’s “inappropriate touches” when she came to his office and his hostile outburst since she had “exposed” him, had no basis.
In the meeting, the attorney warned her about liability for slander and recommended she consult with a professional counselor about her areas of concern. She stormed out and left the church, but the decisive action prevented what could have become a long, nasty fight.
How to tame this dragon
It’s tempting for a pastor, operating from a rational, logical position, to try to prove his or her point by reasoning with an individual who uses projection. Arguing your point or trying to persuade her to see the truth will only add to your frustration. Equally ineffective, and even more dangerous, is trying to mollify her by admitting some degree of culpability—”Well, Priscilla, I can see how you might have thought that … “
That sort of statement is likely to come back to haunt you. Better to say, “I’m sorry you thought that, but that didn’t happen. I suggest we talk this through with the people you say were involved and the church chairman so the facts can come to light.”
The most important defense against projection is to refuse to be drawn into trading accusations. Stick with the truth, and be sure you have witnesses to conversations. The truth will generally be recognized by others when they are exposed to the unrealistic aspects of the projections.
Whenever you must respond directly, don’t blame or discredit. Accept that this angry person has a right to her opinion and interpretation. But make it clear that her perception is not who you are. It is wise and may become necessary to enlist the power and authority of the denomination or congregational leaders to intervene and silence the accusations.
It is important to record events and have witnesses to every transaction, showing you have given this person every opportunity to act freely and that any decision to limit or silence her has been taken by the entire body or the leadership, not by you alone.
In today’s litigious climate it’s important to consider legal advice as well. Projection often comes with intense feelings and convincing descriptions so the accusations should be taken seriously.
Dragon or just disgruntled member?
The cardinal feature that distinguishes a disgruntled or disappointed congregant from a person using projection is the intensely held false belief.
An unhappy individual may come to you with intense feelings but can be reasoned with. He or she will be quite willing to meet with others to assess the facts and give up the accusations. At times you’ll discover the explosion was actually sparked by some unintended or misinterpreted statement you made. A simple apology will suffice, “I’m sorry my comment sounded that way, but it wasn’t meant in the way you thought. Thanks for letting me know what you were thinking. I hope this clears things up.”
You might use the occasion to explore other impressions: “Are there any other areas of concern you may have?”
At this point you’ll sense whether the person has a fixed and aggressive position. If so, put on the full armor of God.
Louis McBurney is a psychiatrist and founder of Marble Retreat in Colorado.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today International/Leadership Journal. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.