The darker side of parish life

by
06 December 2006

MIKE COLLINS/IMAGES OF PRAISE Happy now: a congregation shares the peace. But relationships aren’t always so harmonious in some parishes

MIKE COLLINS/IMAGES OF PRAISE Happy now: a congregation shares the peace. But relationships aren’t always so harmonious in some parishes

by Sara Savage


The psychological tensions can become a source of growth

When viewed from a psychologist’s perspective, is the parish system more gift than burden? What are the taken-for-granted positives — and what are the negatives that shackle the unwary, ministers and congregations alike? Can these be transformed to foster a healthy social dynamic in the parish?

From my psychologist’s chair, my chief impression is that the parish system is remarkably generous. This generosity is demonstrated through clergy and the committed core seeking to extend spiritual care to all.

In Britain’s post-Christian context, this inevitably takes an attenuated form. The open-handedness of the parish system reflects the grace of the gospel, and yet, like an over-generous woman, now risks depletion. So the time is ripe to lay out the parish system, as it were, on the analyst’s couch.

The open-handed generosity of the parish system enables a sense of ownership and ease of access in a number of ways:

• The parish church, as a landmark and a sacred place, is “owned” by attenders and non-attenders alike.

• The outreach potential through occasional services, schools, and links with wider society encourage ongoing evangelistic opportunities.

• Links with wider society minimise social-psychological distance between church and culture, thus easing access and conversion.

• Ideally suited to our privacy-loving society, parish church protocol is rarely invasive; introverts can remain intact if they so desire.

• The cognitive and emotional complexity fostered by the Church’s rich heritage of art, music, architecture, and liturgy deepens religious knowing and nourishes ongoing faith development.

• The range of theological perspectives within Anglicanism speaks of a diverse, organic, supple community.

• Checks and balances in the system of church governance work to a fair degree. While not unknown, religious abuse is relatively rare.

Where else in society are these very British, luminous positives so generously lavished? Yet, as in all human systems, paradox and contradiction prevail. These positives possess an underside. Such is the generosity of the parish system that the burdensome costs of the positive features are borne mainly by the clergy.

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We now examine the psychologically dark side of church life. These features are termed “negative” simply because the shadows are cast more widely: they touch not only clergy, but committed members as well. Fringe attenders and newcomers are often blissfully unaware that a dark side attends the genuinely warm welcome they have received. (They will become disillusioned when they find out!)

‘Indirect hostility is an easy way for congregations to control clergy’

We now examine the psychologically dark side of church life. These features are termed “negative” simply because the shadows are cast more widely: they touch not only clergy, but committed members as well. Fringe attenders and newcomers are often blissfully unaware that a dark side attends the genuinely warm welcome they have received. (They will become disillusioned when they find out!)

‘Indirect hostility is an easy way for congregations to control clergy’

The ray of hope here is that the negative features of church life are its growth point; change and healing in these dimensions, while difficult, produce a radiant authenticity in church life.

The norm of niceness
Clergy are expected to be nice. This softens the impact of the hierarchy, while preserving it. The norm of Christian niceness is ubiquitous, despite the portrait the Gospels paint of Jesus as an assertive, sometimes acerbic personality who readily confronted people in order to pursue their spiritual welfare.

While nastiness is clearly unproductive, the norm of niceness can tie churches up in knots. This is, of course, in the context of church life heavily reliant on the good will of volunteers and many in official but unpaid roles.

Volunteer workers for example, are, in general, relatively intolerant of conflict in comparison with paid employees (who realise they simply have to put up with it). Volunteer workers expect appreciation and a good deal of freedom to carry out their activities in their own way. They do not expect to be confronted by the “nice” vicar over a procedural disagreement.

Given the human tendency to “want things our own way”, examining the motives for ministry should pertain as much to volunteer lay involvement as it does to clergy, who at least are screened by trained selectors. Yet, by necessity, it is believed, volunteers are taken on trust. In so doing, churches offer “small fish” an opportunity to be “big fish”.

Churches offer people an opportunity to defend their world-view. Volunteer workers (as well as clergy) sometimes take their stand “on principle”, a verbal signal that genuine discussion is now disbarred. Voices are raised in a tell-tale way. World-views are at stake. Power is at stake.

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How best to express leadership in this emotion-laden context is a mystery for many. This kind of problem arises less often in secular organisations, as these have the freedom to be hard-hearted and weed out the “wrong” people. The generous, trusting (naïve?) tendency in parishes may go a long way to explain why churches are so often less effective as organisations than their secular counterparts.

Conflict
An uneven relationship thus ensues between clergy and volunteers. Clergy desperately need their lay workers and volunteers, of whom there is a limited supply. (Organists know this.) A collaborative approach is desirable, but these relationships can easily swing from the minister’s being too directive, thus spoiling it for the volunteer, to the minister’s having too little authority, even being bullied.

There exists a well-known conflict between those who are more mission-minded (often the clergy) and those who are more maintenance-minded. Similar problems exist in ministry teams, and yet few are practised in the skills needed for resolving conflicts face to face. Indeed, a high proportion of vicar-curate relationships are reported to be unsatisfactory. None of these tensions is helped by the pervasive norm to be polite and to “not upset anyone”.

Without the skills to resolve conflicts directly, indirect hostility is an easy way for congregations to control their clergy. Gossip is usually the weapon of choice. In response, the pulpit can offer clergy a safe place from which to tell people off.

It is obvious that in organisations as complex as churches, conflict is unavoidable. Yet to tackle conflict one has to surmount a taboo: the belief that church should be a conflict-free zone of heavenly peace. Far from being a sign of failure, conflict is a growth point; it is a rare arena in which religious people are forced to relate honestly to one another.

Collaborative win/win solutions take a great deal of maturity and skill to achieve. Compromise, where both parties win some and lose some, are perhaps a little easier to achieve. These two conflict-resolution styles are riskier, more exposing, but often more productive. It can be easier simply to compete and impose one’s own diktats, if feeling strong, or to acquiesce, if feeling weak.

Avoidance is perhaps the most prevalent of the five styles of conflict resolution in “nice” churches. An acidic tone of voice can alone swing the vote of a PCC meeting — as everyone present, peace-loving Christians one and all, seek to avoid an impending conflict.

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All five conflict-resolution styles are appropriate in church if used with transparency and a commitment to be constructive. Relationships are more secure once they have negotiated conflict. Being realistic, most church leaders need outside support and training to equip them to resolve conflicts effectively. Clearly, conflict resolution needs to be taught throughout ministerial and post-ministerial training.

Difficult people
I am informed that one of the most stressful features of ministry is the effort to be nice to “difficult people”. Defining others as difficult can be, of course, a projection of one’s own personality problems.

However, it is salutary to realise that according to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual IV (the manual that categorises the range of psychological disorders), there is a small portion of the population who, while not psychotic (in other words, they are in touch with reality) have developed inflexible, maladaptive personalities with a striking inability to reflect on their own need for change. Thus the clinical outlook for those afflicted is bleak.

People suffering from personality disorders often avoid social groups such as church. Yet people with a narcissistic personality disorder can in fact be attracted to the way a religious belief-system provides a pretext for self-righteousness and self-centredness.

Narcissists are marked by an inability to see another’s point of view. They can be charming and outwardly successful, but other people are not “real” for narcissists; they are objects that should conform to the narcissist’s “correct” point of view.

Ministerial selection processes usually manage to screen clergy in this regard, but no similar mechanism exists for screening lay volunteers. Given this lack of screening, at times the wrong people will get into influential positions in church.

Theological training rarely includes “handling difficult people” on the syllabus (although it should). Handling difficult people requires compassion and firm boundaries, as in one vicar’s pithy advice: “Form a real relationship with them, and then sit on them.”

‘It is not possible to shed the problems simply by starting new forms of Church’

Theological training rarely includes “handling difficult people” on the syllabus (although it should). Handling difficult people requires compassion and firm boundaries, as in one vicar’s pithy advice: “Form a real relationship with them, and then sit on them.”

‘It is not possible to shed the problems simply by starting new forms of Church’

The frailty of the over-generous parish system is all too evident, yet this vulnerability can also be seen as a mark of journeying with Christ. Given the rate of cultural change during the latter part of this journey, it is clear that a host of “fresh expressions” of Church is needed if the Church is to re-connect with culture.

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However, it is not possible to shed the problems discussed here simply by starting new forms of Church. Embedded in the human condition as the negatives are, the dark side of Church will persist in fresh expressions, although this will not be evident until the honeymoon period is over.

We need to guard against fantasy solutions that make us think we can leave the current problems behind simply by creating new forms of Church (though this will be difficult enough). We need to learn from the social-psychological processes endemic in the parish system.

The positives of church life, in the face of church decline, are attended by a fear of loss, which results in constricted thinking. The harder people cling to the positives, the more exhausting are the conflicts produced by the negatives. Yet these negative features, while daunting, contain a germ of hope.

As a psychologist, I am sorely tempted to give advice. If the parish system could be condensed into a single “patient on the couch”, my advice would be:

• Stop clinging to the positives. Let them float on the water. What can survive, will survive.

• Face into the negatives. Develop the means to deal with them; use the resources that exist.

• Trust the process of change. Change is necessary and will occur whether it is welcomed or not. To welcome change is to trust that the Church always has been, and will continue to be, a wise householder bringing out treasures both old and new.

Sara Savage is a social psychologist and Senior Researcher with the Psychology and Religion Research Programme in Cambridge University.

This is an edited extract from The Future of the Parish System, edited by Steven Croft (Church House Publishing, £12.99; 0-7151-4034-5).

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