by Christopher C. Thompson | 02 September 2021 |
Sometimes ministry kills.
We ministers deal with healing words, but sometimes the work has a toxic and abusive impact—on those who are in the work.
We need to talk about this. There have been several books written on this subject (Well-Intentioned Dragons and Clergy Killers come to mind). Yet, we don’t talk enough about how ministers are often the victims of abuse perpetrated by administrators. The following sequence is told using generic professional terms so that anyone experiencing this kind of treatment in a professional space might be able to identify it and be confident to call it what it is.
My supervisor called me in February of 2010, right after a blizzard. I was in the driveway shoveling two feet of snow. Shoveling blizzard snow will make you reconsider everything about your life. I was seriously thinking about what success was really about when the phone rang.
He had called to ask me if I had filled out a form to apply for special funding. I said that we had raised all the funds we needed locally, and so I hadn’t applied. I thought I was taking initiative by raising local dollars and thus saving the office money by not applying for funds.
I thought I had done something good, but I was wrong.
I think the funding application was what the leadership used to monitor and evaluate the strategies of leaders across the region. So if they didn’t get a funding application, they assumed you weren’t doing anything. (It seems like a poor evaluation model, but I think it’s what was at work.) He proceeded to lecture me about what I needed to do in order to be successful and how I needed to work smarter, not harder.
Here’s what I should’ve done. I should’ve said, “Yes, sir. My application will be on your desk on Monday.” Instead, I pushed back.
And here’s why. One of the previous ideas he had given me was to use a program that he had used when he served in my position. So I had ordered the program. But when it came in the mail, I had opened the package, pulled it out, and tried to be objective. I found it poorly developed, unsuitable for meeting the needs of the community. The program was really bad. It was as if I had gone to my great-great-grandpa’s garage looking for tools, and found that the only tool my great-great-grandpa had was a handsaw that he used fifty years ago. Maybe it was still sharp, but it was rusty, dusty, and dirty. The time and trouble I’d have to go through to just clean it up and get it ready for use could be saved by simply buying a new circular saw. I couldn’t see how this program would be my secret to success, and that affected how I received my supervisor’s feedback.
My supervisor proceeded to tell me how he was always among the top performers in his day. I pushed back again. I asked, hasn’t this been one of the lowest-performing regions for decades? Is it really honorable to be at the top of the list if this has been among the worst of all the regional lists for a very long time?
He was offended, and maybe even rightfully so. He then tried to insult me by calling me an under-performer. He intended to be insulting while touting his own supposed success. I clapped back by saying I wasn’t impressed by mediocrity.
That’s when the real fight began. It was the prime moment when all of my drama with the organizational leadership started.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I called my mentor to tell him what had happened. He counseled me to call my supervisor back and apologize. I did just that, but I noticed that my supervisor didn’t apologize for his insults. This turned out to be a correct observation.
It was too late. I had already been moved to the top of his enemy list. From that day forward, that guy made it his personal business to spend the next five years making things difficult for me. The lies he told, the vindictive decisions, and the “constructive criticism” that was hardly constructive but heavy on the criticism, were leveled at me for several years because of that one phone call. (To his credit, he did actually apologize to me years later, but before that point, he did everything but.)
Aside from that, 2010 was especially difficult because I was working in a place that was known to be exceptionally challenging. My local leadership team acted like a band of bickering, bloodthirsty savages. Meetings were extra cantankerous. Financial resources were few. Morale was really low. I tried to remedy the situation by recruiting an intern—fresh out of college—to move to the area and provide some additional support. I helped him get a job with a local non-profit organization, and his contribution to our team would be a few volunteer hours in the afternoons and on weekends.
It was a disaster. The team ate him alive. They were so mean-spirited and manipulative that they found a way to misconstrue everything he did. I don’t think he ever recovered from how badly they treated him.
If that wasn’t enough, 2010 wanted to make absolutely sure that I knew how much it hated my guts. In September, I got a call from a friend who was having marital problems. She talked about the mistakes she had made, but was afraid that they couldn’t be remedied. I tried to give her some encouragement and sent her on her way. That was on a Tuesday.
Wednesday, I had a phone conversation with my boss that didn’t go so well. My local team had called him to complain about a decision I had made. He called and told me to reverse it. I admit that the decision I had made wasn’t the best, but it could have been easily remedied. Also, I maintain that it’s inappropriate for local team members to skip several levels of protocol to get what they want and be granted access. I told the boss that I was beginning to feel micromanaged. He responded by having his assistant summon me to the office headquarters for a meeting the following Monday.
On Friday, the friend I had consulted with on Tuesday committed suicide. It was so hard. I felt responsible. There were certain things that she said during our call that I should have recognized. There was more that I could’ve—should’ve—done. I felt terrible.
On Monday of the next week, I showed up to the meeting with my boss, my supervisor, and other organizational leaders. After going around the table rattling off all of my shortcomings, they took turns hurling insults and jabs. There were several lies told that day. There were several low blows. I just sat there trying to conceal the shock on my face.
Nevertheless, in that meeting there was one especially vicious sneak attack. Prior to this meeting, the local leaders had been working hard behind the scenes to get rid of my intern. They had been calling my supervisors and boss regularly to protest. This meeting was partly intended to address the matter of my volunteer. One of the lower supervisors had advised me to write a business brief to outline the purpose and intent for recruiting him. I took the advice, wrote the brief, then emailed it to him for review. He replied simply saying, “Good work.”
At the meeting, this same supervisor pulled out the business brief and proceeded to point out for the group why my strategy and words were problematic. I was shocked. That’s how and when I learned that he couldn’t be trusted either. Years later, this guy got promoted and became the lead supervisor. Years later, he wrote a serious disciplinary letter against me, claiming insubordination after I ignored him at a funeral. I guess there’s some consolation in knowing that he never was trustworthy to begin with.
I’ve had so many of those toxic meetings over the years that I’ve almost perfected them. You just let them talk. Don’t rebut. That’s what they want you to do. Don’t bark. If they ask you a question, answer it. Don’t say too much. Answer the question and shut up. They’ll use your own words as the broth they’re going to cook you with. Take the beating. Listen to what they want from you. Anything they give that’s realistic and concrete, do it. This will be your saving grace. You want to be able to show and prove that you took seriously what they expected of you.
Let’s recap. On Tuesday I met with my friend. Wednesday I told my boss I felt micromanaged. Friday my friend committed suicide. Monday, I had the toxic meeting with the boss and supervisors. The following Friday was my friend’s funeral.
I was in a lot of pain because my friend had just committed suicide. I won’t say they didn’t care, but they made no effort to show that they did. It appeared that the only thing that mattered to them was putting me in my place. The supervisor who executed that sneak attack on my business brief was at my friend’s funeral. He came up to me afterwards and said, “I think the reason why you’re having such a hard time is because you’re really gifted.” I think he meant it as a compliment. I still couldn’t believe how he had betrayed me in the meeting earlier in the week. I didn’t say anything except maybe, “Thanks. I appreciate that.” I was lying. I walked away disgusted.
On Christmas Day 2010, I called my grandmother to say, “Merry Christmas.” My aunt answered the phone and asked if I had spoken to my dad. I told her that I hadn’t, but I’d call him as soon as I hung up. That’s exactly what I did. I called him and asked if he was watching the game. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James were squaring off in the annual Christmas Day match between the nation’s two favorite teams at the time – the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers. Dad said he didn’t even know that the game was on.
It was becoming a bit of a tradition for us to watch the Christmas Day game together. We both share a love of basketball, so when he said that he didn’t know the game was on, I knew something was wrong. 2010 proved that it was conspiring with 2011 to keep its stranglehold on my life because on January 4, 2011, my dad committed suicide. I couldn’t bear to see anyone else eulogize my father. I didn’t spend my entire life with him, only the last few years of his life. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to be able to sit and listen to somebody else give some frothy talk about how “weeping may endure for a night” or something like that.
After the funeral, a classmate of mine walked up to me and said, “You’re a very strong person.” I was still very numb, but I don’t even remember giving an actual response. I think I muttered something about God’s strength. I just remember feeling like I had no strength.
Sometimes there are monsters under the bed and in the closet. My problem is that I didn’t know they were there. They caught me unawares and almost gobbled me up, “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth” (2 Tim. 4:17 NIV).
Ministry is not supposed to be easy, but here’s to praying and working towards a less toxic work environment for ministers, and protection from the ministry monsters.
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of several books and an adjunct professor at Oakwood University in Alabama. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.