I am currently serving in a church that is best described as toxic. The staff is dysfunctional, the personnel committee seems to be disinterested in creating a work environment that is nurturing, anytime I bring up any concern I’m automatically shut down, and I am fed up. I have been searching for jobs for many months now but am having a difficult time. I am starting to realize I may be stuck here for a while. What can I do in the meantime to survive my toxic work environment? Or should I just run for the hills?
Dear Fed Up,
You are not the only one. Unfortunately, all too many young clergy women are trying to serve Christ and his church in the midst of dysfunctional work environments. While we shouldn’t regard such situations as normal or acceptable, Askie fears that toxic congregations will probably be part of the lives of some pastors until kingdom come.
You’re wise to search for a new call, and Askie urges any YCW in a toxic setting to keep an updated resumé, Ministerial Profile, PIF, or whatever your denominational equivalent might be. Even if you feel called to stick it out (or are compelled to do so by your familial or financial circumstances), toxic churches have been known to turn unexpectedly on their pastors. So even if you’re not ready to pack your bags just yet, be prepared.
All that said, here are a few strategies for surviving until you’re able to move on:
- Build (and use) a strong support network: This is important for all of us, but especially so in an environment like yours, where you can’t expect support from colleagues and lay leadership. You may want to work with a spiritual director, a therapist, a life coach, a mentor, or all of the above! Be intentional about nurturing friendships both with clergy colleagues in other settings and with non-clergy friends. Online community (like the TYCWP Facebook group) can be a great source of support as well, although it shouldn’t replace the personal, incarnational support we all need.
- Be attentive to your spiritual life: When God is your job and your job is awful, your spiritual life sometimes takes a hit. Don’t let them do that to you, sister. Make sure to intentionally care for your soul in this season of your ministry. Could you find an evening or weekday worship service that you can attend from time to time? Carve out more time for prayer? Read books that nourish your soul?
- Do your homework: If you haven’t studied family systems theory, now would be the time to start! Understanding how systems work can help you figure out how to survive in yours. You might gain some insight about how the system is working, a strategy about how to change the system and your role in it (hint: probably non-anxious presence), or a reminder that interactions that feel very hurtful often have little or nothing to do with you personally. Friedman’s Generation to Generation is a classic starting point, but there are plenty of great resources out there. You may want to look for a course or conference to help you dig deeper, as well.
- Feed the function: Thankfully, even the most dysfunctional church usually has a few bright spots. See if you can identify the parts of your church that are healthy and put lots of your energy there. Affirming and supporting the healthiest areas of your church’s life helps them to grow… and not only is it good ministry, it’s also life-giving for you!
- Put on your own oxygen mask first: There are people whom you will never be able to make happy, even if you work twenty-four hours a day and cater to their every whim. So do what it takes to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get outdoors, take a yoga class, enjoy good chocolate or coffee or wine. Binge-watch some fluffy television from time to time. Spend time with family or friends. Take all of your vacation, and your days off. Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it!
- Find some distance: When Askie is at the absolute end of her rope with some bit of petty church drama, she imagines what a great chapter it will make in her memoir someday. That’s my trick, but you’re welcome to use it, or find one that works for you… something that helps you to step back, to disengage emotionally a bit, and to remember that in a few months or years, this will all be over. When it is, I hope you will find yourself with some hard-won new skills, some outrageous stories, and your integrity. Keep the faith, sister.
Wishing you deep peace and a speedy exit,