Even in the most placid churches, people will occasionally get offended or object to the way things are being done or not being done. Sometimes the problem is brought out into the open and dealt with. At other times, however, the people who feel troubled are not willing to speak about their feelings with the person, or persons, involved.
When people or groups of people feel uncomfortable with each other and don’t want to confront a problem directly, they will often triangulate by bringing in a third party to help them feel better. By putting someone else in the middle of the objection, they avoid dealing with the others involved. Triangulation can happen whenever a person gets emotionally involved with what is essentially someone else’s problem, issue, or fight. For instance, when the pastor who feels underpaid complains to the church secretary about how unappreciated she feels, the pastor is triangulating the secretary into what is essentially a matter the pastor needs to resolve with the session. She does this because it is easier to vent to the secretary and get it off her chest than it is to confront the session with her desire for a raise. Being triangulated is a hazard for church officers.
Maria Jimenez, an elder, visited Mrs. Sinclair, who was homebound. Mrs. Sinclair complained to Maria that the new pastor did not come to see her as often as she felt he should. She also mentioned that his sermons she had heard on tape were not as biblical as those of the last pastor. Maria asked Mrs. Sinclair if she had ever voiced her concerns to the pastor personally, but the elderly woman was shocked and said she would never think of such a thing. Instead she continued to pour criticism into Maria’s ears for the next half hour. Maria left the visit resolving to pray for guidance about the problem of Mrs. Sinclair’s negative relationship with the pastor.
Two weeks later, after engaging in prayer about the situation, Maria made an appointment to talk with the pastor. In her conversation with him, she focused not on Mrs. Sinclair’s specific grievances but rather on her close relationship with the last pastor and what Maria felt to be Sinclair’s need now to feel connected with the new pastor. The pastor responded by promising to visit Mrs. Sinclair soon and to try to get to know her better. Maria warned him to be prepared for a possible chilly reception at first, but they both agreed that it was worth the effort to reach out to a lonely homebound member in this way. As it turned out, Mrs. Sinclair received the pastor’s increased visits with guarded warmth. Over time they developed such a positive relationship that Mrs. Sinclair told him she wanted him to do her funeral, with the former pastor assisting.
In bringing Mrs. Sinclair and the pastor together, Maria was working as a true peacemaker. But what if the relationship between the pastor and Mrs. Sinclair had remained negative despite Maria’s efforts? In that case Maria should tell Mrs. Sinclair gently and kindly that she will not participate any more in conversations that focus specifically on the pastor. This is difficult, but it will help preserve Maria’s mental health and just might encourage Mrs. Sinclair eventually to be more open to the new pastor.
Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.