Holy Hostage-Taking

Have you ever had to deal with a parishioner or staff person who acted like a hostage-taker? Consider these simple, but effective principles for dealing with a hostage-taker in your church or on your staff.

by Cal LeMon

There was no weapon, no ransom note, and no police cordon accented with blaring bullhorns bleating out demands, but the scene was unmistakable. This was an attempt to take you hostage.

And, this all took place in your office … at the church.

The hostage-taker is someone you know very well. This spiritually and socially gifted person has always attracted a following in the congregation. His smile is wide and the handshake firm. All of the personal assets are visible and in play. You know what is coming.

The conversation normally begins with some affirmation for your ministry: “I don’t think I have ever heard better teaching on 1 Corinthians 13. You continue to open up the Word for me, and I know many others in our church, with clarity and anointing.”

Get ready. …

“But I do have a concern about the master plan for the church. It just seems to me, and many of the believers I regularly talk with, our congregation would be better served if we put more of our resources into expanding our buildings. This home for abused women and children is a great idea, but there are other social agencies in our community offering the same services.”

Subtle is not one of this person’s gifts to the body of Christ. The implication is clear: he will not support and probably will actively lobby, with the active support of other powerful people in the congregation, against the ministry to abused women and children.

Admitting What You Cannot Control

The only person in this room you can control is you. Forget about the hostage-taker. Here is a brother in the faith who has an entrenched, definitive agenda and is not about to capitulate based on your prestige or position.

Any attempt to control this person’s thinking and feelings will only exacerbate the situation. What definitely will not work is, “Well, if you had only prayed about this, you would know this ministry is essential to our future. I’m sure you will come to the same conclusion after you spend some time on your knees.”

Right now, you and the hostage-taker are trying to figure out who has the biggest weapon. Have you seen it before? We all have heard the threats and counter-threats and know they are unproductive and ultimately lead to massive mounds of misunderstanding.

We can control a sanctuary, a conversation, and a budget, but we cannot control people in our faith community who choose to see just their perceptions. This is agonizing for the spiritual leader. After all, the person who has the title and corner office assumes, I speak for God. How is that for name-dropping?

Spiritual leaders do speak for God, but God is not timid about speaking for himself through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The ultimate expression of the Spirit-filled leader was when the Third Person confirmed the words of the apostles to their audience, and the Church enjoyed supernatural unity (Acts 4:33).

Learning the Language of Hostage Negotiation

Anyone who controls the language controls the environment.

Whether it is from a platform during public worship, a quick conversation with a pillar of the congregation in a deserted hallway, or leading church members in a vote to purchase a piece of property for the future, the right or wrong word will sculpt the outcome.

There are four linguistic skills to use with a hostage-taker in the church.

First, avoid declaratory statements; ask questions.

Let’s go back to the scenario when the parishioner offers his opposition to the ministry to abused women and children. Instead of responding, “Well, I am convinced this is a strategic ministry for our congregation in the future,” try, “What are the details of this ministry that make it difficult for you to support?” If you can ask a question, instead of drawing a verbal line in the sand, the other person will know you are interested in his perceptions so the conversation, not the war, can begin.

Second, after he has answered the question, assure the person his opinion is important. The statement could sound like this, “In the body of Christ we will always have different opinions about the ministries we should pursue. These differences do not destroy our unity. Our mutual goal is to lead our congregation into the fabric of our community so they will experience the same acceptance we have found in our Lord.”

Notice that statement affirms the value of diversity and reminds the person “one voice” is our goal when speaking to the community.

Third, assertively represent yourself. Make a strong “I” statement like, “I am convinced the ministry to abused women and children offers us two ways to reach our community. We not only make an immediate intervention for a segment of our community who are often forgotten or ignored, and this ministry is an obvious invitation to come and meet our Lord.”

Fourth, conclude with a question, “Where do we go from here? It is important we speak with one voice about our congregation’s intent even though we do not agree about the method. I am ready to work on this together. Are you with me?”

That last question is significant. If the answer is no, find out why and work on a mutual resolution. If the answer is yes, immediately design a way to get this person standing next to you when you announce the new ministry.

When the Hostage-Taker Works for You

If you are organizationally responsible for staff, hostage-taking will not be new to you. The most easily brandished passive-aggressive weapon is when a staff person, who is not happy about a decision you made or a public position you have taken, will try intimidation (hostage-taking).

Since you are, in effect, signing this person’s paycheck, the last option your staff may take is to be honest with you. They live by the aphorisms like, “Don’t make waves” and “Let sleeping dogs lie.” In other words, if you want to keep your job, make sure your criticisms never get back to the boss.

So, if there is no reward for honesty, the staff person will send the message reminding you of two important facts.

First, this individual assumes he has gifts the ministry of the congregation cannot live without.

Second, your staff person (a.k.a. hostage-taker) believes you will choose the same passive response by refusing to begin a conversation that may leave the church with both an empty staff office and a rumor mill that will incessantly grind out the message, “_______________(insert your name here) has been negative and unfair.”

For your expression of the body of Christ to be healthy, you cannot embrace either of these assumptions.

Instead, here is a three-step process for dealing with the hostage-taker who quietly sits in your staff meeting each week.

Step one: Openly talk about what you are nonverbally reading from this person and follow with an open-ended question. Structure your sentence like this: “I sense you are not in agreement with my commitment to the new ministry to abused women and children. Tell me, have I read you correctly on this issue?”

If the staff person responds, “I do not feel that way. You are wrong.” Immediately respond, “Thank you for clarifying your support. You know, the entire staff needs to be unified as our congregation considers this important shift in our ministry strategy.”

His other response, “You know, I do have some serious concerns about embracing this ministry,” is equally as advantageous to you. The clean, clear air of honesty will go a long way for the two of you to resolve the unspoken messages that have clouded your working relationship.

Step two: Walk the staff person around the fence line of your working relationship. Remind this person differing opinions or even spiritual convictions are okay. What this employment agreement does not approve is for either of you to express those opinions through other staff or congregants.

Step three: Affirm the value of this person’s gifts to the church. Assuming he has not yet scheduled the U-Haul truck, get back into the commitment you have to each other and your congregation by letting the staff person know how important his ministry is to the outreach of the church.

Making Holy Hostage-Taking History

If you have never had to deal with a parishioner or staff person who acted like a hostage-taker, consider yourself blessed — and add competent.

I am convinced hostage-takers are birthed in an ecclesiastical OB ward managed by passive leaders. On the other hand, hostage-takers never even consider auditioning for this role in the presence of a proactive, respectful, and competent spiritual leader.