Woe to You Passive-Aggressives!

This is just a theory based on my observations in ministry. I have no research to back up this claim. Here it is. Most congregations are petrie dishes for passive-aggressiveness.

I will start by saying that I experience passive-aggressivness more at church than anywhere else in my life. Now, a good deal of my adult life has been spent with church being pretty much everything (job, community, friends, etc), so maybe the rest of the world is this way as well. But I will say that in my work experience, congregations are the places where power is most hidden, covert, and non-discursive. And because of this, congregations learn unhealthy ways of relating, resolving conflict, working across groups, and maintaining open access to healthy expressions of power.

Congregations create this environment for at least two reasons: first, church people think of conflict as something bad. I remember a meeting at one church I served regarding proposed changes in worship where, as you might expect, there was conflict. Voices were raised, faces got red, veins popped on foreheads. But at the end of the meeting, positions were clear, relationships were still good, and decisions had been made. I turned to the woman next to me and said, “That was a good meeting.” She had tears in her eyes. “How can you say that? It feels like our church is falling apart.”

But it didn’t. And we got better as a congregation at talking about difficult issues. Fewer raised voices, red faces, popped veins. Open communication created an environment of trust over time. The deal is, conflict is inevitable. In fact, you don’t get change or transformation apart from it. The deal is not to avoid conflict (most of the time), but to learn how to deal with it in healthy ways. Because, however, people believe you shouldn’t disagree at church, conflicts tend to be avoided. One of the consequences of this is that it tilts the playing field in favor of passive-aggressives.

Second, we find the same kind of dynamic with the issue of power. Because we tend to think of power primarily in terms of control (a weak form of power rightly critiqued at church), we think of power as a bad thing, or something that shouldn’t be in play in church. Again, this tends to reward passive-aggressives who have learned how to influence situations for their benefit in ways that don’t overtly say “power.” And sometimes, it makes them seem more “spiritual” than the rest of us. Their power agendas are covered in a veneer of piety.

In my fantasy version of Matthew 23, Jesus adds a woe for passive-aggressives. “Woe to you passive-agressives, for you pay people compliments only to stab them in the back.” But as I don’t have that card to play, I will appeal to Paul. He values a directness in speech and that comes for him from his experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice his language in 2 Cor: “we have behaved in this world with frankness and godly sincerity…we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity as persons sent from God and standing in his presence…We have renounced the shameful things that one hides, we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth, we commend ourselves to the consciences of everyone standing in the presence of God.”

In each of these contexts, Paul describes his life in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the benefits of trusting in God for your life is that you no longer have to play games with others. I think one of the marks of a Spirit-inspired ecology is the capacity to speak openly to one another which in turn makes a congregation powerful.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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8 Responses to Woe to You Passive-Aggressives!

  1. kevink says:

    Really good and really true….and I am not just saying that!! BIG proponent of direct, open conversation…thx

  2. Carol Van Hooser says:

    The problem with being open and honest is that when you say anything other than how perfect and wonderful everthing is you are labeled as a complainer, divisive, and sinful among other things. My experience is that people tell you they want you to be real but they don’t actually want that, they want someone who agrees with everything they do and say. It becomes exhausting to try and engage people in an honest discussion. I’m not saying it isn’t a worthy pursuit, but it is exhausting.

  3. Mark says:

    Carol, of course good communication requires a lot of elements, openness being one of them. There could also be a post here about listening well, about the problems of being aggressive-aggressive, working toward understanding as the first goal, etc. It is exhausting, as are many worthy pursuits, like parenting and relationships, etc.

  4. chelan says:

    I used to communicate with words, emotions, and body language–no matter what the topic or setting. But I’ve learned from others the wisdom of calming my facial expressions (no eyebrow movement or sneering grin!) and opening my posture up to be less intimidating to my listeners, and speaking slowly and peacefully. This has made all the difference in being labeled a complainer or divisive. Being an effective communicator doesn’t mean you articulate something well, it also means you express it well. And that includes more than just the words that come off your lips.

  5. Susan Mitchell says:

    Mark, what a timely post! My sister and I were discussing this very thing a couple of months ago.
    However, your text doesn’t just hold meaning for me; it created meaning in me because I realized there were four fingers pointing right back at this writer. I’ve been in a politically delicate situation within my church family, and I found myself going around the person central to the issue rather than dealing directly with that person. Sigh. So I changed my strategy to be more direct, implored God for direction, and took the fairly immediate opportunity that presented itself. As a result, the thing has resolved much more elegantly and quickly than if I’d finessed it. So, for this instance at least mea culpa, and I’ll try to overlook the specks in my neighborhood for the planks in my eye.

    Mark Galli doesn’t label this issue as passive aggressive, but I think this is part of what he is speaking against in his book Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God. If we believe Jesus was a “nice” guy (meek and mild, in the popular understanding of those words) and carefully ignore many passages like the cleansing of the temple or the “woe to you” sections, then you can see why we would imitate that sort of Jesus and tiptoe around confrontation.

    And, for a musical reference, as I was pondering all these things in my heart, John Mayer’s voice came drifting out of Pandora: “…say what you need to say … even if your hands are shaking … your faith is broken … do it with a heart wide open….” http://www.sing365.com/music/lyric.nsf/say-lyrics-john-mayer/3d2e7d46ffd7df404825739900111af7

  6. Mark says:

    Nice story. Thanks, Susan.

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