It's me, Margaret

It's me, Margaret

February 25, 2013
Written by Daniel Hazard

Dear Theo,

I write with a problem which seems to have plagued the church since the dawn of time. While it is not a huge theological issue, it causes a great deal of unrest in the congregation, and I wonder if this friction is preventing us from moving forward with the mission of the church.
We have a building which was built in the 1850's and has a large kitchen in the basement. We have a number of groups which have access to our kitchen. Most of them, in my opinion, leave the kitchen in better condition than when they found it. Our sexton's responsibilities are only to make sure the floor is mopped and the trash is out.
We have a kitchen witch; a longtime member who has granted herself dominion over the kitchen. She has set impossibly high standards for others, and feels it is her job to call people out if she is dissatisfied with anything she feels was done improperly.  She feels it necessary to root through the recycling and reorganize it, and rewash dishes that others have washed. Woe betide the soul who leaves a plate to dry in the dish drainer!  It's not that she does all that much cleaning, but she seems to thrive on picking fights with people who have as much right to be in the kitchen as she does.
I have spoken to the church council about this, but they seem disinclined to call her on her behaviors. I do know several members who simply will not volunteer to work in the kitchen, or even attend events if she's going to be there.  We're a small, spirit-filled church, and we seem to have been taken hostage by this one woman. I, myself, am tired of walking around on tenterhooks.
I know that Jesus says I have to love her, but like her and her behaviors? Not so very much.

It's me, Margaret.


Dear It's Me Margaret,

It's rare to drive by a church that doesn't have this message on their sign out front:

"All Are Welcome."

Unfortunately, a fair number of the people who take that welcome seriously are control freaks, chronic complainers, and/or territorial nags bent on sublimating whatever stuff is happening in their private lives so that their unhappiness oozes out all over the public church.

One of our jobs, in church, is to help each other work off our warts, and become more mature and generous than we would be otherwise. One of the ways we do this is by cultivating our tolerance for people who are different from us, and for their preferences. Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church famously called this the 75% rule. The 75% rule says that in a healthy, heterogeneous church, we are only happy with about 75% of what is going on at any given time—because we are giving up 25% for the person down the pew who is different from us.

But inevitably there are folks who still want 100% of their preferences met all of the time. They can make life hard for those of us who are working toward more flexibility—and those of us who understand that when newcomers come in, and overhear our family squabbles, they may run for the hills.

One of the best teachers I ever had, when she was teaching us about the book of Proverbs, told us: "criticism is a gift." Roughly half of Proverbs is obsessed with correcting our behavior around the things we say to one another—gossip, slander, logorrhea and all the other shades of "bad speech."

But how do you criticize a criticizer? Part of growing up is learning to offer criticism in a loving way—"speaking the truth in love" as the apostle Paul put it—and also learning to take it. You can't control the kitchen witch response, but you can be canny and kind in how you confront her.

One technique parents use to correct their children's bad behavior is ignoring the bad and praising the good. Can you notice all the good that the kitchen witch does, and praise her for it? Are you sure she is always a bad witch and never a good one? Some churches would kill for someone to take notice of the dirty dishes. And if she's spending that much time at church, she probably gets a lot of her sense of self from her role. She may be looking for some affirmation for doing what she does, and a little may go a long way.

Another sneaky way some parents get their children to behave in ways that are more sociable is to state the positive opposite—in other words, they don't say "Don't hit your sister!" because all their child will hear is "...Hit your sister!" Rather, they say, "Please be gentle with your sister." Maybe this would work with your witch. I wonder, too, if you can enlist her in brainstorming what would create more of a culture of cooperation in the kitchen. Can you say, "I can see how much work there is to do around here, and am wondering if you're getting worn out. What do you think would inspire people to help in the kitchen? If you were new here, what would attract you to volunteer here?" Get her reminiscing on her own welcome into the church as an adult. It may be too indirect, and you may need to have a more pointed conversation with her at some point if her salty speech continues, but it's a start.

And if all else fails, you can hang up a shingle like this over the sink, and let scripture speak for itself:

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,


Who is Theo?

"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds--one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.

Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.

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