Antagonists in the Church
“How to Identify and Deal with Destructive Conflict”
By Kenneth C Haugk 1998. Augsburg

A brief overview: Darryl Stewart

Defines the issue:

“Antagonists are individuals who, on the basis of nonsubstantive evidence, go out of their way to make insatiable demands, usually attacking the person or performance of others. These attacks are selfish in nature, tearing down rather than building up, and are frequently directed against those in a leadership capacity”. There are different levels of antagonists, and varying levels of conflict in a church. There is also healthy conflict.

Why antagonism can exist. 1. Nature of antagonists, 2. The support they receive and 3. The structure of congregations.

Start with hope that the issue can be solved. Pastors gravitate to being the nice guy and this can lead to ineffectiveness and guilt.  Lots about this in the Bible, Paul has much to say. Titus 3: 10,11 has the last word when all else fails. You have to do something, you can’t do nothing!

How to Identify antagonists:

Checklist the above definition. Personality traits include negative self concept, narcissism, aggression, rigidity, and authoritarianism. There could also be psychiatric traits or disorders.

Red flag behaviours: Person has a track records elsewhere, quotes support from “others” who may not exist, criticising predecessors, the instant buddy, gushing praise, catching people out, extraordinary likeability, church hopper, liar, uses aggressive means to accomplish ends, flashing dollars, note taker, portfolio carrier, sarcasm/barbed jokes, the different drummer, the pest, running their own cause from within, from the school of hard knocks, and those who have taken recent losses in conflict. 

Warning signs include: Chilling in relationships, honeyed “concerns”, picky questions, mobilising opinion in the background (private and alternate meetings etc), meddling in areas not responsible for, resistance and independence, use of slogans, accusations, spying, distorting, misquoting (including Scriptures), letter writing, smirking, pestering, pretence lobbying etc.

Prevention: All things to be done decently and in order: follow policies, good communication and feedback, clear job descriptions, broad base of responsibility, discipline process that actually works, on the front foot with change (i.e. minimise surprises), have united leadership and support staff.

Educate leaders in effective ministry… soon and continuously.

Be a strong leader, one who people will respect. Do not strive to please all.

Relating to dormant antagonists: Professionally. Keep your distance, be accurate, avoid excessive positive reinforcement, tighten the reins, hold fire till timing is right, bite your tongue till words are measured, face the truth and move on quickly, don’t play the antagonist game and seek sympathy, don’t call committees or for a vote of confidence, be very self confident and don’t recommend counselling.

Seek out a confessor – confidant, possibly outside the congregation.

Dealing with Antagonism: There are invisible antagonists, but just keep on, don’t panic, weigh up the seriousness, be strong and confident, check the mood when certain people are around.

When finally confronting an antagonist plan and understand the dynamics of the meeting. Firstly, the leader is not on trial, no matter how composed the antagonist seems to be. The leader must be in control, assertive and firm at all times. Let the antagonist initiate the meeting (yes!) Meet at an office of your choosing without signals of intimacy (like a meal). The leader sets the time, diffusing any sense of urgency. No witnesses. Be on time. Sit in your office chair, preferably across a desk. Listen attentively and quietly. Take private notes, no recordings. Answer all questions briefly and use positive general terms. Don’t get drawn into arguments or taking sides. Don’t bait the antagonist.

Maintain confidentiality as in any church contact. Leaks and hints of slander will only be used by the antagonist. If the implications are serious, document all history, conversations and events well. Strictly limit records to facts and observable behaviours.

Resist the temptation to confront the antagonist in the public domain through veiled references in sermons and prayers etc. Similarly don’t feel the need to reinforce the authority of the church structure.

Antagonists, when in groups seek attention to disrupt and/or take control. Get strong chairpersons, members to be bold to keep things on track. Ex-officio members can influence through respect from others.  Quote Rom 16:17-18. Antagonists seek to divide and conquer, maintain unity. Keep other leaders in the picture with any encounters with antagonists.

There WILL be a time for discipline if behaviours have not changed. Things won’t change by themselves. Someone has to lead. Follow procedures to the letter.

Antagonists don’t see the leaders’ families as off limits. Communicate well and pray with those closest to you and protect them as first priority.

Most denominations have working support structures, use them. “Notify early, request help late”

When does a leader or member leave? Generally “Hang in there”. Will leaving fix the problem? There will never be 100% popularity. Conflict can be healthy “As iron sharpens iron…” but maybe was not handled well. Maybe the issues are temporary, were not the leaders fault or even his problem. What are the family needs and what is the high moral ground?

Consider resigning when: you have lost effectiveness, you have committed a serious offence, when a significant majority of the church is against you, when staying poses a health risk, or when recommended by the denominational leaders. Leave no ticking time bombs, be honest, follow formal procedures with graciousness and apologise where necessary.

In any conflict there will be an aftermath. Look after yourself, care for the causalities, put the past behind you. Forgive, but be a lot wiser now, protecting the church if the antagonist is still around.

Be warned: Antagonists can rise up in even your church, you will have to overcome discomfort to fix the problem of antagonists in the midst, we have normal people in all our churches who have the potential to be antagonists, we will not be universally liked, shepherds did carry a slingshot or something real to protect their flocks, sometimes leadership is lonely, and this can be all very draining!