Case study: Pastor under attack from a church member

This is a conflict-management situation. How would yo handle it?

How should a pastor respond to a church member's baseless accusations?

Last week, Nora Jellinek, president of the Women's Ministry group, had startled the church membership meeting with a motion: "Moved that the fees set by the Women's Ministry for serving at weddings be recognized as belonging to them."

When Pastor Stanley Cramer asked Nora about the reason for the motion, she said there were "serious problems in this area" that should not be discussed in public.

Unwilling to let the matter drop that quickly, Stan asked if there had been any instance in which the women had not received money designated for them. Nora's flat "yes" stunned him.

Nora had been a member of Second United Methodist Church for over thirty-five years and was a powerful influence in the congregation. In the past, she had been Sunday school superintendent, church treasurer, and chair of numerous committees.

Nora was recently widowed. Her husband had been a prominent local citizen. When he died, her three married children and their families had all come from distant places for the funeral. Pastor Cramer received many compliments for the way he had conducted the funeral and for how he had extended himself in ministry to the grieving Jellinek family.

After Nora made her motion, a couple of people spoke up, suggesting that the problems be worked out in a less formal situation. However, when they invited Nora to withdraw her motion she declined.

"No, I will not," she declared, "and if it is tabled, I will appeal. I know the church constitution and," she said, looking at Stan, "you know I'm right." Over her objections, action on her motion was postponed (or "tabled").

During his four years as pastor of Second United Methodist Church, Stan had come to view Nora as manipulative. Because of his discomfort in dealing with her, Stan had distanced himself from Nora. For instance, for the past two years, he had not attended the Women's Ministry officers' meetings.

Stan had a sense that Nora continually questioned his leadership. However, he could not avoid interacting with her at official board meetings (where she was an ex-officio member). In those meetings, she would drop hints that the congregation was in some kind of serious trouble. Board members usually allowed Nora to state her feelings. Then, they would move on without addressing the issues she raised.

On Monday morning after the meeting in which Nora made her motion, Stan talked to some of the Women's Ministry officers. He was shocked to hear that Nora had told them that he had decided the women would no longer receive any fees for their serving. That move had never entered his head. Further, Nora had said he had diverted the payment for a particular wedding from the women's group treasury into the general church budget. That was untrue.

That same day, Nora phoned the district superintendent. He urged her to "get down to your pastor's office and work things out." When Nora called Stan to say she was coming in that afternoon, he called the Women's Ministry vice president to ask her to come as well.

That afternoon, Nora launched into a long list of charges against Stan. She accused him of misconduct and unethical behavior. Claiming there was widespread dissatisfaction with him and his ministry, she indicated she disapproved of him as a pastor and a person. Then, in rapid succession, Nora brought up (1) the difficulties he and his wife had been having at home with their teenage daughter Karen, (2) his seeming aloofness when preoccupied, (3) the falling into inactivity of several long-time members, and (4) the gradual decline in membership and attendance during his pastorate.

Stan, a sensitive and introspective person, was shaken. However, he tried to listen without becoming too defensive. After two and a half hours, Nora left with an ambiguous response to Stan's proposed first steps: "Well, that's the way things should be."

Tuesday's schedule gave Stan little time to work on the situation. However, it was uppermost in his mind. What was behind Nora's attack on him? What had he done to raise her suspicions and lose her trust? How could he stop the rumors and get the truth out without appearing defensive? What could he do to foster honest communication and vindicate himself without causing Nora to lose face?

Second United Methodist Church had stood on a prominent downtown corner of a small Midwestern city for nearly 100 years. The aging congregation was losing members to death and retirement and was not attracting younger people to replace them. In the last twenty years, the membership had declined from over 500 to about 330. A drop of over 40 had occurred during Stan Cramer's four years as pastor.

The present membership required a lot of pastoral care. Stan didn't mind that. He loved preaching and pastoral visitation in hospitals and homes. He liked teaching and leading small groups. He liked working with people who were motivated to learn, serve, and grow. On the other hand, he didn't enjoy the constant bickering, the frequent conflict resolution, and the endless "pushing to keep the wheels moving."

On Thursday Stan called Doug Wagner, chairperson of the church's Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. He asked Doug to meet with him and the Women's Ministry officers. That same night, the group met for three hours, covering essentially the same ground as the earlier meeting with Nora and the vice president.

Nora moved from topic to topic. Stan found this meeting extremely frustrating. Nora would seem to agree with him on a particular point, and then later she would backtrack and bring up the same points of contention. Stan didn't know where to go at this point. Nora's original motion wasn't a huge problem. However, he would like her to say publicly that, although she had believed what she had earlier stated, she now knew that there was no factual basis for her allegation to the Women's Ministry officers. He also would like for it to be made clear there had never been a time when money designated for the Women's Ministry had been diverted elsewhere. But he didn't know how to make all this happen. Realistically, what was the best he could hope for? What was the worst-case scenario? What should be his strategy? Finally, he decided it would be best to . . .

Case study originally written by Douglas E. Wingeier, copyright © Case Studies Institute. Distributed by Yale University Divinity School Library, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511. Adapted and used by permission.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

A seven-step guide to critical reflection on a case study

Suggestions on How to Proceed

Dealing with manipulative and vindictive individuals requires a delicate balance of assertiveness, boundary-setting, and self-care. First and foremost, it's essential to recognize their tactics and maintain a level-headed approach. Establish clear boundaries and stick to them firmly, refusing to engage in their manipulative games or retaliatory behaviors. Maintain a support network of trusted friends or family members who can offer perspective and encouragement. Practice self-care diligently, prioritizing your mental and emotional well-being. Remember that you cannot control the actions of others, but you can control how you respond to them. Continue to show love and grace: Remember that everyone is on their own journey, and redemption is always possible. Offer forgiveness and reconciliation when genuine repentance is shown. By staying true to your values and boundaries while minimizing direct confrontation, you can navigate interactions with manipulative and vindictive individuals with greater resilience and peace of mind.

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