I have a church member who is requiring an inordinate amount of energy. It seems with her that I can never get it right or never give her enough time. While she holds only a minor position on one of our church committees, she turns every meeting into a complaint session about me and no one will take the initiative to stop her. How might I deal with this person?
— A Frustrated Pastor
Your observation of “inordinate” demands for time and energy rightly raises the curiosity that what you are dealing with is more than an “ordinary” relational issue or personal conflict. While it is important not to quickly label someone with a mental health issue, it is also wise to pay attention to signs that something unusual is going on. In this case it would be wise to consider if the person has a personality disorder, or personality disorder traits. If this is the case, “normal” responses to attend to the relationship or work through difficulties will not work.
We may all have heard terms like antisocial, borderline, histrionic, or narcissistic personality disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders–5 defines a personality disorder as, “. . . an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”
As to the impact we might see in a church setting, Carol Schweitzer (2011, p. 279) says, “. . . individuals who suffer with these types of personality disorders are often impulsive, angry, lying, needy, reactive, and have relationships marked by instability. They desire to be the center of attention, but have few close friends. Family members are often worn out by frequent emotional explosions. . . . They are not receptive to constructive criticism and generally go into attack mode when they find themselves at the center of criticism. These individuals are among the most destructive in terms of collateral damage caused in congregations.” I would add that the most damage is done when these persons with intense inner needs get matched with a church that has intense needs and leadership that desires to please and is afraid to confront.
Most of the time, these persons do not want, or feel that they need, help. However, the greatest chance for help comes in an environment that is clear and consistent. Your ability to set boundaries on your time with this person; your ability to be clear about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior; your ability to consistently refer them to professional help; your ability to consistently be non-reactive and not hooked by their emotions; and your ability to set limits on the positions held by this person in the church, will give the best opportunity for change not only for this woman, but also for the church system, and perhaps for your own leadership style.
— Tom Rodgerson