Coping with Antagonists in the Church

Given the possible volatile confrontations with antagonists,those who deal with them must be as wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove.

Gaius Anonaba Umahi, PhD, is director, Foundation Diploma program, as well as pastor, Siloam Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church, Babcock University, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria.

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Pastor, that was the worst sermon I have ever heard you preach.” Have you ever experienced this kind of dis­couraging comment or something similar? Because individuals who operate under an “antagonistic” flag seem to exist in the majority of church groups, pastors who are anxious to learn ways to handle these awkward situations, induced by persons with strong opinions, will need assistance. Author Kenneth C. Haugk defines antagonists as “individuals who on the basis of nonsubstantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the per­son or performance of others.”1

Any pastor who has served for several years in pastoral ministry understands the trauma of living in the atmosphere of these kinds of contenders. Most pastors would not ordinarily ask for more of these antagonists in their congregations, although these members may, sur­prisingly, have good intentions. I was told, in a pastoral administration class, to create conflicts once in a while because when the dust eventu­ally settles, there will be greater peace in the congregation. This should not be confused with destructive conflicts often generated by different shades of antagonists.

I believe strongly that such works as Kenneth C. Haugk’s classic Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict and G. Lloyd Rediger’s Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack will assist pastors and other church leaders who are challenged with this bitter, but unavoidable, pill in pastoral ministry. These materials are recommended for those who want to understand the underpinnings of antagonists, how these individuals could be understood and dealt with, and the incidences reduced to a minimum.

My interactions with a few of these “suspected” antagonists, in my more than 15 years in pastoral ministry, have taught me some endur­ing and endearing lessons. Beyond the occasional relational bumps and brushes with them, there are some religious values to be gained. In this article, I will focus primarily on my interactions with some of these antagonists, the lessons learned from their activities, and how pastors have dealt with problems especially from the African perspective.

Origin of antagonists

The first antagonist can be identi­fied as the devil prior to his fall. He exhibited one of the qualities mentioned by Haugk when he went out of his way to make insatiable demands and then attacked the per­son and the person’s performance. In this case, the person was God.

Ellen White portrays how Jesus had to plead with Lucifer to drop his agenda of trying to torpedo the congregation of heaven. But, like many antagonists, all the overtures of Christ did not stop Lucifer. Author Al Maxey confirmed this when he posited that “most psychologists will readily acknowledge that the majority of aggressive antagonists are so obsessed with their cause that attempts to reason with them generally prove futile. They are right, and you are wrong . . . Period.”2 For the hard-core antagonists,3 which I believe Lucifer was, Haugk believes that they “cannot be reasoned with because they lack the emotional stability to understand.”4 Maxey suggests that these antagonists are “Satan’s most effective workers!”5

Description of antagonists

Twenty “red flags” that identify a potential antagonist are listed in Haugk’s book. Those that have played out clearly in my ministry are the following: nameless other flag, predecessor downer flag, church hopper flag, note taker flag, and the flashing money flag.

 The nameless other flag refers to a situation where a potential antago­nist expresses an ill opinion about a pastor, tells the leader that “some other” (unnamed) people also have the same opinion about him or her but will not give you their names.

The predecessor downer flag refers to those individuals who will come to you as the new pastor who has just moved into a congregation and begin a litany of the predeces­sor’s shortcomings, whitewashing you with praises that you are not like your predecessor. This kind of flag tries to malign and destroy your predecessor and, in turn, adjudge you as the maverick who will fix things in the interest of all.

The church hopper flag refers to members who hop from church to church. They are never content to stay in any one church for a definite and lengthy period of time. This composes one of the most easily observed flags of a potential church antagonist.

Naturally, the note taker flag includes those who are always taking notes even at a time when people may be relaxing or listen­ing to a discussion. Usually, they believe that such documents will assist them when they decide to nail the victim someday. In our contemporary high-tech world, such potential antagonists may use their mobile phones to record discussions among people just to have “some evidence” for ditching the pastor.

The flashing money flag deals with members who give publicly in the church or for other needs that may have been promoted in the church or other places. This flag gets very close to ministers when they accept financial benefits from such people. In fact, beyond the possibility of an antagonist’s attack on pastors when the member has given some financial aid to them, there lies the possibility of gagging their mouths.

Given the possible volatile con­frontations with antagonists, those who deal with them must be as wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove. Christ displayed this wisdom often, knowing that to antagonize was but to harden, and thus He refrained from direct conflict.6 For example, Jesus did not want to confront Judas publicly, though His utterances notified Judas that he was the one whom Christ had just talked about. At another time, in order “to avoid useless conflict with the leaders at Jerusalem, He had restricted His labors to Galilee.”7

Lessons from the activities of church antagonists

Although antagonists cause untold pain and heartache in many churches, we can learn some veri­table life-impacting lessons from their activities and presence. I will describe these lessons with four Ps, namely, prayer, preparation, patience, and persistence.

Prayer. Reality indicates that we draw closer to God in prayer when we are assailed and confronted with various shades of perils and discomforts. Thus, the possibility that an antagonist may be waiting for me in today’s church service or board meeting should propel me to spend more time with God in prayer for the necessary grace to cope with and handle what may surface. In this connection, we would agree with Jesus when He counseled us to pray for “our enemies” while we have the innate assurance that God, who sees our innermost beings, will shield us from any danger. According to Alfred Tennyson, “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”8 Really, when we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17), we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” us (Phil. 4:13, NKJV), including patiently bearing with a potential antagonist.

As we observed earlier, the need to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) cannot be overemphasized. An Igbo proverb says that he who is carrying nothing on his head does not break anything. Put differently, it doesn’t matter how much an antagonist will harass you, if your hands are clean, you will come out unscathed. In this way, prayer prepares us to show a high level of tolerance and also prepares our hearts to handle any nonsense that may come from a potential rival. But, however we may look at it, we will concede that dealing with an antagonist becomes dangerous, and, as such, we should be very prayerful.

In his book, The Incredible Power of Prayer, Roger Morneau9 percep­tively notes that every problem is a call for prayer: marriage breakdown, deviant children, lull in business, unbridled consumption of liquor, poor financial management, and the possible attack of an antagonist. I agree fully with Ellen White that “without unceasing prayer and diligent watching we are in danger of growing careless and of deviating from the right path.”10 I think that we can all be grateful to antagonists if the possibility of their attack will help us to be constantly on our knees.

Preparation. In my very first pas­toral experience after graduation, I encountered someone whom I considered as a potential antagonist. Because of his constant prying and tricky questions aimed at tripping me, I learned the wisdom of prepar­ing very well before my church business and board meetings—to read my presentations over and over, making sure that figures were agreeing and congruent with the mandate of the church body. During this time, I could easily tell how vari­ous sections of the Church Manual relate to church situations. A natural outgrowth of my adequate prepara­tion was the fact that I bid farewell to a greenhorn’s administrative phobia. That translated into confidence, a quality I consider very important for a good leader. In that sense, I could say thank you to that perceived antagonist in that semiurban church where I began my ministry.

Patience. One day, a perceived antagonist pestered me so much with a needless question that I found my patience was being stretched to its limits. The more I tried to answer, the more he insisted, “that is not what I mean,” and I actually got exasperated enough to make a couple of unpleasant remarks. An antagonist will be pleased to achieve that kind of response. At such times, when potential antagonists want to upset you with their antics, remem­ber that patience and calmness in your responses can make the difference.

 These kinds of antagonists actu­ally wait for you to make some careless or unpastoral comments on which they want to capital­ize to legitimize their arguments. Antagonists look forward to any day when they have the opportunity to discredit a pastor publicly. Ellen G. White recommended silence or singing when “the patience of the most patient” is severely tested, and we are tempted to respond harshly to nasty comments about us. In context, she was speaking about a husband or wife who may “utter words that are liable to provoke a hasty reply.” She counseled, “Let the one who is spoken to keep silent.”11 A great deal of patience will be needed to accomplish this. Someone has observed that anger could be defined as one letter short of danger.

Moses has been considered to be the meekest man who ever lived. However, we must not forget that during the wilderness journeys, following the exodus from Egypt, his patience was severely tested by his brethren and his own siblings. In one of those times, his siblings, Miriam and Aaron, “spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married” (Num. 12:1). Beyond the accusation above, they also accused Moses of thinking too much of himself: “Has the Lord indeed spoken only to Moses? Has He not spoken by us? And the Lord heard it” (v. 2).

This kind of antagonism is typical of practicing antagonists today. Did Moses not have the right to marry the woman of his choice? Did he make himself to be the spokes­person of God? The definition of antagonists by Kenneth C. Haugk is instructive here: “individuals who on the basis of nonsubstantive evidence, go out of their way to make insa­tiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others.12

Sometimes the way we respond to antagonists will assist a great deal in protecting other parishioners who must also face the frequent scathing remarks of antagonists.

Persistence. The presence of antagonists in the church prompts a pastor to persist against all the odds. I was once harassed by an antagonist because I had made some alterations to the program format of most of our meetings and church services. Because of my per­sistence to what I considered was right, I won the hearts of many in the church who saw the bickering as unnecessary and baseless. And with them on my side, God helped me to accomplish more in that church because I did not back down from the issue at hand. Good ministerial training becomes vital for the overall success of a pastor in the face of antagonists’ attacks. The essence of such training is brought out clearer when an interaction between a pastor and a potential contender occurs. My argument then is that the presence of an antagonist, while it may tend to frustrate the efforts of a pastor, will eventually make the minister come out burnished like gold that has gone through the fire process.

Conclusion

Often when we see a practicing antagonist in our board or business meetings, our hearts tend to jump into our mouths, and we begin to gripe and whine, wondering why the “pest” is here again. Whereas I dreaded these potential and practic­ing antagonists before, and whereas these were not the best moments for me or any pastor, nonetheless we can gain some virtues from those interactions. In my ministry, antago­nists have propelled me to be more prayerful, helped me to prepare well before coming to meetings, exhibit more patience in ministry, and become more persistent in maintaining what is biblically right. An added benefit has been that antagonists have aided me to be more professional and awakened me to the realization that I have to protect other parishioners from their destructive tendencies.

Therefore, the next time you identify antagonists among your congregation, while you agonizingly cope with them, you will realize that they have helped you to develop some qualities that you previously did not have. Antagonists can really, and do normally, aggravate people in a faith community, but we can be grateful to antagonists in the midst of their often cantankerous attitudes, for they have helped us to realize that this world does not qualify as our home after all.

Notes:

1 Kenneth C. Haugk, Antagonists in the Church: How to Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), 21, 22.

2 See Al Maxey’s Murmuring Members article at http://www.gracecentered.com/murmuring_church_ members.htm (accessed August 15, 2010).

3 Kenneth Haugk, has divided antagonists into three categories, namely hard-core, major, and moderate. In his words, hard-core antagonists “tend to have incredible tenacity and an unbelievable desire to make trouble.” The major antagonists essentially are those who refuse to be reasoned with, while the moderate antagonists are those who are not willing to make trouble. This group also lacks the perseverance of the other two.

4 Haugk, 29.

5 Maxey.

6 Ellen G. White, Education, 92.

7 Ellen G. White, The Desire ofAges, 450.

8 See Dictionary of Quotations (Scotland: Geddes & Grosset), 222.

9 Roger Morneau, The Incredible Power of Prayer (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1997), 74–81.

10 Ellen G. White, A Cal to StandApart, 27.

11 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home, 442

12 Haugk, 21, 22.

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Gaius Anonaba Umahi, PhD, is director, Foundation Diploma program, as well as pastor, Siloam Valley Seventh-day Adventist Church, Babcock University, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria.

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June 2012

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