Kick Them Out
Over the past year, I’ve spoken with numerous colleagues who have faced a similar problem: an antagonist in the congregation seems hell-bent on opposing everything the church does, yet somehow never leaves.
Sometimes it’s more than one antagonist. But the question is the same: how do we handle the relentless stream of criticism, the never-ending roadblocks and willful obstructions, the undercurrent of conflict and rumor? Beneath that question is another, harder one: how do we make them stop?
I’ve come to believe that every church in this position has to ask itself what the goal is. Is your goal to be the healthiest church possible with that person in the system? Or is your goal to be the healthiest church possible, even if it means that person has to leave?
You need to know that those are two different scenarios, with two very different possible outcomes.
They’re Not Going to Stop
The other thing you need to know is: they’re not going to stop.
Please know that I’m not talking about a congregant who is just now learning about anti-racism and is still working through some things. I’m also not talking about a congregant who is personally struggling, and needs our grace, forgiveness, and support. I’m not talking about a congregant who is complicated or troubled — so many of us are.
I’m talking about a congregant who is dead-set against anti-racism and will never agree with the church’s anti-racism work, no matter how we distort that work to make it palatable to them;
a congregant who denies that privilege exists, and demands that everyone around them pretend theirs doesn’t, even as they weaponize it against their fellow church members;
a congregant who not only refuses to learn anything new, but demands that the church never teach anything new, and viciously fights against any changes the church tries to make;
a congregant who thinks the minister and staff have too much power, and has spent years undermining and berating them;
a congregant who has seized control of a committee and made it their minor fiefdom, strangling out all newcomers;
a congregant who insists that any consequence for their behavior, no matter how minor, is an outrage and an insult.
I’m talking about the congregant who has picked a hill to die on and has more free time to do it than anyone else.
There is no answer you can give them that will satisfy them, no resolution that will make them abandon course, no calling-in gentle enough that they won’t blow up over it. They don’t want a “resolution.” They want to keep doing what they’re doing. Forever.
I have my theories as to why. Many Unitarian Universalists first joined their churches in an era when atheism and even agnosticism were not socially acceptable, when rational thought and skepticism were edgy and even irreverent. They were heretics and they were proud of it. Their faith was formed — and fixed — in a stance of opposition, the way the iron molecules in molten lava cool and harden in alignment with planetary north.
But the poles have shifted. And now that they have won — now that the humanists are no longer heretics, now that atheism is pedestrian — I think they find themselves still fixed in a stance of opposition, forever running offense against an opponent that got bored and left the field.
And now, like a white blood cell without a pathogen to fend off, they wind up attacking the healthy tissue around them. But because it’s in a church, they do it religiously.
I’ve been thinking back to that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote:
“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”
“If they hate the church so much, why don’t they leave?”
I’ve heard the same question, or similar, from so many lay leaders and pastors. If Ted is so unhappy with the minister, and so disappointed in the Board, so angry about the direction the church has gone, so uninterested in worship, why doesn’t he leave? If his needs aren’t being met, as he keeps reminding us, why is he still here?
I think it’s because Ted’s needs are being met.
His need to be a heretic, to be the sole voice of reason, to feel exceptional, to be at the center of every conflict, to challenge “authority”… those needs are all being met at church, and by the church, whether or not he — or we — will admit it.
A man will worship something.
“Don’t give it any energy.”
I’ve heard versions of this circulating among our religious professionals for a year and a half now, with regard to clusters of congregants who are busily working to undermine their pastors, their churches, and the denomination as a whole. I think this approach is wrong for several reasons.
For one, I believe clarity and directness are a kindness. Our churches are not right for everyone, and I’m astonished that this doesn’t get said more often. If someone’s personal spiritual practice involves undermining the rest of the church, they should leave.
For another thing, I think there is a wide gulf between the kind of dissent that is dear to our tradition, and outright sabotage.
When we thought we were starving them of energy, we were really just granting permission. It’s like saying you don’t want to give the poison ivy in your yard any energy by pruning it, while trusting it will respond to your tolerance by withering away.
I’ve also seen a lot of discussions online over the past year about the direction our denomination is headed, that have revolved around “democracy” and “freedom.”
For the church antagonist, “democracy” is them getting their way; if they hold anything less than total control, they’ll portray the situation as being a grave threat to “democracy.” Such is the depth of their entitlement.
Meanwhile, every time Ted forces someone else out of the church, his vote subsumes theirs. There can be no real democracy when the voice of one member drowns out the voice of five. Any attempt to limit Ted’s outsized influence, or shrink his ever-growing footprint, or mitigate the wake of damage he leaves, Ted will frame as an undemocratic silencing of his voice.
In the church antagonist’s conception of democracy, their voice would naturally be recognized as the most important.
For many of them, “freedom” is the ultimate and defining characteristic of our faith (it’s not) — best exemplified by their freedom to be a racist or transphobe on Facebook. The Facebook groups where problem congregants have piled up to defend their right to “dissent” are cesspools of hatred.
To a one, these groups fail to distinguish between the freedom to do something (like harass their fellow congregants and demean church staff), and the freedom from things (like their hate speech and problematic behavior). They believe in one conception of liberty but not the other. It’s an understanding of freedom that’s both incomplete and immature.
And this is why I think our churches need to stop getting dragged into endless discussions with them. The National Coalition of Church Antagonists doesn’t care about other people’s viewpoints. It is not within the scope of their caring, or their terrible project.
They are religiously devoted to doing what they want. That’s all that matters to them — their “freedom” and the supremacy of their voice. If you try to convince them to do differently, you will fail. And you will exhaust yourself in the process.
And their needs will be met.
Why We Tolerate Them
I have found that Unitarian Universalists are incredibly reluctant to kick people out of their churches. One of our unspoken values seems to be that even the most difficult personality can find a home with us. It’s seen as a failure of the church, a failure of our tolerance and compassion, when such a person voluntarily leaves claiming that the church didn’t meet their needs.
But the church shouldn’t meet everyone’s needs. Some needs are toxic. I have no doubt that a sociopath needs victims. It is not the role of the church to provide a steady stream of them.
When an antagonist voluntarily leaves the church because their selfish and toxic needs have not been met, that’s not a failure. It’s a sign of resilience and health in the church.
Why is it a truer test of our compassion to forgive the transgressor than to protect the wounded? I have heard something similar over and over again: “I know what Ted said to Meghan about her body was wrong, but Ted shouldn’t have to lose his church” — as if Ted’s place in the church were the one in need of protecting!
Too often this means that the rest of the congregants must endure Ted’s bullying, racism, or misogyny as a test of their faith… rather than Ted being asked to become a better person as a test of his.
And Meghan quietly leaves. Rarely have I heard people ask whether it’s fair that Meghan has lost her church.
Meanwhile, many of our churches are still asking how we can get more Meghans to attend. “How can we attract more of them to the pond?” ask the turtles, in their underwater committee meeting, as they gather around the drowned mouse. “We have so much to offer them.”
It’s a false understanding of Universalism that insists that we must universally allow abuse as a testament of our faith, with abusers as the benchmark of our capacity for love. As if our enlightenment will be measured by how awful a person we are able to tolerate. What does that theology say about Meghan, when she is no longer able to tolerate the harassment and hypocrisy, and leaves the church?
I think Ted should lose his church.
I question what the rest of us get out of letting him stay. I think there’s a certain degree of self-martyrdom in it, that makes religious liberals feel good — even noble — about the amount of bad behavior we’re capable of turning a cheek to, about how far we’re willing to bend.
But we wind up bending our ethics around him, to make his place more comfortable and secure. And with every concession, we reaffirm that Ted’s comfort is more important to us than our standards — and that our standards should be defined by what Ted is comfortable with.
Our Lack of Real Boundaries Enables Them
I sometimes fear that among the ranks of tolerant saints who make up our churches, bad actors are particularly suited to thrive. I fear that good people are too easily manipulated because we conflate gullibility with being good.
If you gently ask the church antagonist to do better, or try to set a reasonable and healthy boundary around their behavior, they will blow up as if you have committed an incredible injustice against them. They’ll email the entire church and threaten to leave over how unfairly they’ve been mistreated.
This is a classic tactic of abusers because it works.
Predictably, their fellow congregants will rush to try to comfort them, to apologize, to convince them to stay. After all, we’re good people; isn’t this what good people do? The church winds up in the unexpected position of having to repent for its health, and winds up emotionally beholden to the abuser.
It’s no surprise that people who intend to do harm react badly to boundaries that would prevent them from doing harm. It’s no surprise that they characterize reasonable limits as unfair or undemocratic. It’s also no surprise that antagonists within the church are often anti-clerical, working constantly to undermine the minister — whom they see as the person with the most potential to stop them.
I wish our churches would stop mistaking the antagonist’s “blow-up” as a sign that they have been done wrong — and start recognizing it as a sign that they might be toxic.
A church without healthy boundaries will often convince itself that it’s a haven of acceptance and tolerance, where everyone is free to be themselves. But it’s not. It’s a place where bad actors have free reign. Suggest a boundary, and the antagonists will react as if their most fundamental rights have been trampled. As if the church itself has been dishonored.
It is the church of their own imagining, a church built in service of their own ego, and they think everyone else should worship there, too.
The church’s lack of boundaries winds up enshrined in an invisible altar at the center of the sanctuary. Nobody can touch it. To encourage the congregation toward healthier relationships, healthier boundaries, and open communication, is akin to desecrating the altar.
A person — and a church — will worship something.
It is incredibly rare — to the point of being scandalous — that a person gets removed from one of our churches. It shouldn’t be. It should be no more notable than when a bouncer throws a belligerent patron out of a bar: predictable, and their own fault.
Unfortunately, so many of our beloved siblings in faith — especially our queer siblings — have suffered the trauma of being kicked out of other religious communities in the past simply for being who they were. Within Unitarian Universalism, we are understandably reluctant to inflict the same spirit-shattering damage on our members.
But there is a vast difference between persecution for who you are, and accountability for what you have done. Church antagonists tend to frame themselves as victims of persecution, precisely because they’re assured of our unwillingness to be associated with persecutors. They repurpose our compassion as a shield to protect themselves from consequences.
Aren’t we supposed to be the good ones?
Most of our churches have no real or effective behavior policy — as if the very existence of such a policy would be damning evidence of our lack of faith in one another. The policies that do exist tend to be vague to the point of uselessness, or excessively detailed to the point of being too difficult to practically pursue.
Please note that church antagonists love to haggle over the process of disciplining them. Instead of trying to become a better friend and church member, they will complain endlessly that the process wasn’t followed properly, or they weren’t informed in the right manner, or they’re being unfairly silenced, and so on. This reinforces the narrative that they were a victim of mistreatment by the church — when in fact, they are a skilled manipulator who is banking on the process being ill-defined.
Don’t fall into the trap of adding extra clauses to your covenant, or new policies and bylaws, to address bad behavior after the fact. There are an infinite number of ways to hurt our fellow human beings, and no policy manual can advise against them all. Turning your bylaws into a record of every bad thing that has happened at church won’t undo the harm. And it’s not real accountability.
It doesn’t constitute real disciplinary action when you act upon a document to avoid acting upon the antagonist. When our bylaws undergo more scrutiny than Ted, it’s a clear sign that of the two, only Ted is untouchable.
A church will worship something.
We could have a church where everyone was assured of their worth. But it would have to be a church where everyone knew that if they were harassed at coffee hour, or if they were bullied on a committee, or if their humanity was called into question by another member, their abuser would be swiftly ejected. It would have to be a church where everyone knew that they were expected to behave respectfully and kindly toward one another and the staff, or else be immediately separated from the community.
No other consequence is real.
Whenever I publicly mention the possibility of removing problematic members, someone on social media inevitably responds that for Unitarian Universalists, it would be unthinkable. They’re right. It currently is unthinkable, and that’s precisely the problem.
If it feels too extreme or scandalous to kick abusive members out of the church, please consider that abusive members force other people out of the church with regularity. Vulnerable and marginalized members silently drift away, assured that nobody will protect them. Ministers and DREs resign broken and dispirited, assured that things will never improve. And they’re right.
But the most toxic people in the congregation remain, assured that to remove them would be unthinkable.
They Refuse to Learn or Grow
If someone refuses to learn or grow — indeed, believes the church has nothing to teach them — what are they worshipping except themselves? And what does our church have to offer them?
Being a member of a church comes with obligations and duties, and I think one of the criteria for remaining a member should be active participation in religious education classes. It is not enough to make a financial contribution of record every year in order to purchase the affirmation that everything you think is already correct.
Our denomination has made incredible progress over the past few years with regard to racial justice, progress that has often been led by religious educators, people of color, and youth. But that progress has been continually frustrated by the most recalcitrant common denominator in our churches, who wield inordinate power.
If a member of your church doesn’t believe they should have to listen to people who are unlike them, or learn anything that challenges them, I question what they expect to do on Sunday except antagonize.
We cannot be all things to all people. And there are some gods we cannot honor.
You should be asking the antagonist in your church, “Why are you here?” And ask it seriously. If their answer doesn’t include “to worship,” “to become a better person,” “to grow spiritually,” “to deepen my connection to the universe,” “to learn,” or some variation thereof, please consider what their actual needs are, and who is being sacrificed to fulfill them.
I believe in the incredible healing power of being accepted for who you are, warts and all. All of us have rough edges. To be held in community and loved despite them is one of the most powerful ministries the church can offer us.
But a church that offers only acceptance, without the encouragement to learn and grow, does its members a disservice. I suspect that many of our church antagonists are spiritually stagnating in communities that are afraid to challenge them to do better.
I believe in transformative justice and a path back into right relationship for those who transgress — as long as they’re willing to make things right. But if they’re unwilling to participate in the community in good faith, or be accountable to it, they shouldn’t be allowed to stay.
I think we should have high expectations of ourselves and each other. And it’s not that high of an expectation to believe that if someone is determined to undermine the work of the church, they should leave.
Stop Tolerating Them
What are the circumstances that would lead you to ask someone to leave the church?
How dire and iron-clad would it have to be? How much undeniable damage would have to be done?
Why do we pride ourselves on being the religious home of people whose spiritual practice is fighting with everyone around them?
What spiritual growth is possible for people who don’t believe their pastor, religious education staff, or fellow congregants have anything to teach them?
Why do we insist that the church can’t possibly move forward unless we bring along the people who are committed to making sure the church doesn’t?
Ask yourself these questions, and then ask yourself one more:
Is your goal to be the healthiest church possible with that person in the system?
Or is your goal to be the healthiest church possible, even if it means that person has to leave?
Then kick them out.
No other consequence is real.