Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Leadership Conundrum: Minding Martyrs

(Like all posts in the Leadership Conundrum series, this post is somewhat of a ramble.)

What do you do with people who refuse to help themselves? And what do you do when, even though you've been trying to help them, they blame you for their not feeling helped?

I spent some time in Galatians 6 this morning, and one passage in particular I feel really applies to such situations, but I can't exactly pinpoint how. Practically, speaking.

Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
-- Galatians 6:2-5

Paul commands two seemingly different things here: carry each other's burdens and carry your own load.

Your small group has been meeting weekly for over a year. It has reached a place of initial intimacy; people are opening up, sharing past hurts and present worries. People are praying for each other, offering support and advice to one another, and wrestling with Scripture together. People in your group are experiencing encouragement and help. Except for Sheila, a young woman who brings the same problem to group every week. Week in and week out she expresses doubt that God loves her and worries that she'll never be happy. Every week in "share time" Sheila laments the same things, using the same words, with no discernible change in outlook or approach. Every week the group offers her support, listens sensitively and respectfully, and offers different advice. Every week someone is available for during-the-week support. But nothing changes.

A year later the group is weary of hearing the same emotional struggles from her. They are still respectful in group but some are so tired of what they consider whining, they find reasons not to attend because Sheila sucks up so much of the meeting time repeating the same self-centered complaints and sucks up so much of the meeting energy.
It is hard to help Sheila because while she is clearly looking for help, there appears to be no practical way to help her. Her problems are mostly about feelings, about perceptions, about past hurts. So people listen, people talk, people hang out. But they stop because even social events become "therapy sessions," and it tires people out. People are finite resources, and even helpers need rest to heal when those they're helping are hurting them with infinite neediness.

The Church exists, in part, so the broken (which is all of us) can experience restoration. It exists because following Jesus is designed to be done in community, because no one is supposed to go it alone. The radical mission of grace in Jesus means never giving up on anyone, never writing them off, never treating anyone as expendable or beyond love.
Still. How tough can love be?
When it is discerned that hurting has become whining, is it graceless to step back?

What if you've been trying to carry Sheila's burden but she refuses to make any changes in her life so that she can carry her own load?
What does church discipline in such a situation entail?

What happens when not only is Sheila not doing the hard work of carrying her own load, but she denies you've been trying to help her? What if, because she doesn't feel different or because she isn't experiencing improvement, she blames you and accuses you of not caring about her?
What do you say? What does the community do?
She's not only ungrateful and forgetful, she's hurtful now.

Sheila's participation in the community is bordering on spiritually toxic. A program-centered ministry would have no problem giving her the boot, ignoring her until she finds her way out and into another group. But a gospel-centered approach wants to address the problem, wants to be honest about Sheila's drag on the group but proactive about doing what is right.

There are lots of people in the Church who have been burned by churches or pastors, who've been left hurting by communities and small groups, ignored or marginalized. Many of them have given up on church. Some of them are still trying to find a place of help and healing.
Some are bitter. Some are so blinded by their own issues they don't realize people have been trying to help them.

When is it the community's failure to carry Shelia's burden, and when is it Sheila's self-centered failure to carry her own load?
What does a leader do in a situation like this, with people like Sheila?

Previous entries in this series:
Leadership Conundrum: Challenging Apathy
Leadership Conundrum: Transitioning Generational Ministries
Leadership Conundrum: Rescuing the Trampled On
Leadership Conundrum: People
Leadership Conundrum: People (Again)


Rob said...

It might be helpful here to draw on the Greek--Paul appears to be using an old distinction between two words that wasn't very common in his day but would still have made sense: baros ("burden") basically meant "weight" and was used of something heavy that weighed you down, while phortion ("load") meant something you carried--ordinary cargo you packed on your back, or perhaps on an animal. The distinction then is between the ordinary stuff that we all shoulder through life and the extraordinary burdens that sometimes come along.

At this point, I would agree with you that Sheila is trying to get other people to carry for her what she should be carrying for herself; when, in your terms, "hurting has become whining," not only is it not graceless to step back, it's necessary, because you're not helping her to heal, you're enabling her in her sin. Sometimes you can't fix people, and sometimes trying only allows them to keep going on without really addressing their problems.

As such, while you certainly can't just write her off, I do think that it's necessary in that sort of situation to sit down with her, explain to her what she's doing and that she needs to shoulder her own responsibility in addressing her issues (which may very well not be, at the heart of the matter, what she's reporting them to be, as I'm sure you realize), and tell her that she's no longer free to dump all over everyone else until she's begun to do so in a meaningful way--and then let her reaction be whatever it is. You aren't responsible for her reaction to the truth, only for telling her the truth; you aren't free to stop offering her love, but that doesn't shackle you into letting her define how you do so, or require you to try to make her happy.

Jared said...

Rob, that's extremely helpful. Thank you.

Sheila is a fictional example, of course, but as I'm sure you know, this sort of thing isn't hypothetical.

Bill said...

I've had personal, painful experience with this - a person in the group we minister to who has a myriad of health and mental problems. For more than a year we helped her.

I finally realized that my "help" was hurting her, bailing her out of situations she had gotten herself in.

It's so complex. She's broken (as we all are) - she's not fully responsible, due to health problems. I still keep contact and may help again. But I'll bet she feels abandoned by the church.

It's hard to know how to "be" the church for this type of person.

Jared said...

Bill, I know what you mean. Also about our help actually hurting.

I think it seems harsh to some, but sometimes refusing to entertain the wallowing is actually the best thing you can do for some people.

It does run the risk of being lumped in with all the churches/people who "burned" them in the past, though.

Which gives an interesting perspective to the sympathetic. All along you are sharing the person's hurt and anger with the churches in their past for not helping, but suddenly you begin to have some grace for those strangers, thinking maybe they just got to the point you did.

At some point, when the "thing" just keeps happening over and over, it may not be hurtful churches. The common denominator might be the needy person who's expecting everyone to focus on them and misinterprets people being worn out for them being unloving.

Bill said...

My personal hunch: about 80% of church "burnings" are nothing of the kind. People love being victims.

(again, I said 80%. That leaves 20% that are real. And neither number is based on more than a hunch)

And - providentially - right after I left my last comment the person in question called me :-) - she's back in the hospital. I hope to get out there tomorrow night for a visit.

Rob said...

Glad it was helpful. And yeah, I knew you were tossing out a representative figure--I thought about putting "Sheila" in quotes and then decided there was no reason, it was understood.

There comes a point, with people like that, that I start thinking about the Dwarf/Tragedian (from Lewis' The Great Divorce): some folks are guilty of "using pity, other people's pity, in the wrong way. . . . Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used . . . for a kind of blackmail. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity." That's why, if you let folks like that lump you in with others, you have to let it be about them, not about you.

Emily said...

It sounds to me like Sheila needs some individual time with a trained spiritual director. Her needs are greater than what can be met in a small group situation, she needs more focused attention with someone who will listen to her story and consistently enter in to her experience and listen for where God is moving. It seems to me that oftentimes small groups can do everything they know how to do and it still not be what that person needs. What appears to be her "not helping herself" can really be severe emotional and psychological issues that aren't being properly addressed. I think it's unfair to expect someone to in essence "get over it" just because the group feels like they've done enough. And it certainly does sound like they tried hard!!! But you don't just give what you feel like you should give to someone who doesn't appear to make any progress and then assume that it's their fault and lack of willingness to try that keeps her from moving forward. I think the leader should meet with Sheila and tell her that they love her and want to continue to walk alongside her, but she probably needs more guidance and direction than the group can offer at this time. Refer her to a trained spiritual director and perhaps a therapist who is trained in giving what she needs. I don't think it's realistic to expect someone to "help themselves" out of a spiritual depression any more than you would expect someone to break themselves out of a clinical depression through sheer positive thinking. Frankly, I'm more than a little surprised and disappointed at the responses that attribute Sheila's dark night to sin and encourage the church to basically tell her to suck it up.

Jared said...

Emily, I mentioned church members being available during the week to listen and help. Let me flesh out Sheila's story some more. She does have deep hurts and psychological issues, and has seen a therapist and was on anti-depressants but has discontinued both, believing they didn't work. Those who care most about her have spent quality, in-depth time with her individually (not in the "small group setting"), listening to her hurts, talking about them, praying with her, encouraging her, including encouraging her to resume seeing a trained therapist who can help with real treatment. Sheila refuses.

Sheila is a person who refuses to do anything to help herself but nonetheless blames people who have tried in earnest to help of not caring about her.

Is your response still the same?

Emily said...

The extra info. does help with seeing the situation more accurately. However, I still disagree that this is a situation that warrants any measure of rebuke toward Sheila. Anytime you put a psychologically unhealthy person in a small group setting, they will to some degree suck the life out of things. And by nature of having those issues, she's not going to respond in a healthy and appropriate way toward others, despite the efforts and love they have given. I just don't think there is any room for expecting her to just take responsibility for herself and get over it, expecting her to behave as a healthy person would. Now that doesn't mean that you can't set boundaries within the group and relationships.... I would think that the small group leader could sit down with her and explain that they love her, they want to continue with her on her journey, but they have offered all they are able and her needs exceed their ability to minister in a way that she desires. Maybe there could be talk about boundaries within the group time related to her sharing so she doesn't take-up the whole time... talking to her about how her comments make the other people feel. I think there is a way to tell her that she has need of professional attention that your group cannot provide while still affirming her and showing her that she is still loved and wanted. If she chooses not to seek help, then that's her decision. Additionally, a spiritual direction relationship offers a much different context and relationship than her speaking with others from church, and I think that would be a valid avenue to explore. It's an incredibly difficult situation, and I'm sure the "right" answer is different for each individual situation..... but when I think of how Jesus would respond as a group leader, I imagine there being boundaries set but also a willingness to walk with her and an understanding that hurt people hurt people, and you can't just expect a psychologically sick person to snap out of it no matter how long it's been and how many people have tried. You can't prevent her having hurt feelings, and you don't necessarily need to coddle her, but I just don't think it should be addressed as an issue of church discipline or rebuke.

Jared said...

I just don't think there is any room for expecting her to just take responsibility for herself and get over it, expecting her to behave as a healthy person would.

Without disclosing personal info, I'll just say this isn't being done and it isn't being advocated here.

"Sheila" is being asked to get help from a professional. Sheila is reminded she is loved. Sheila can call several people in the group any time for help. People in the group have had Sheila in their homes many times, have invited Sheila on family vacations with them.
Sheila is not an invalid. She is a functioning adult who holds down a job, jokes around, rents an apartment, etc.

This is what has been said to Sheila:
"We love you and we care for you. We're praying for you. We've tried everything we know to do and will continue to respond to talk and hang out with you, but we can't fix you and to expect us to and hold us responsible for not is unfair and wrong. If you're going to blame us for your problems and insist on doing so, we'll have to ask you to step back and get help. Until then, there's nothing we can do for someone unwilling to take responsibility for themselves."

I believe we are committed to longsuffering and endurance, to being grace, and many people say they have found it in our group. But even wronged people need to take responsibility for their feelings and actions. I certainly had to when I went through depression.

I just don't think it should be addressed as an issue of church discipline or rebuke

Well, perhaps if you knew Sheila or the situation firsthand . . .
I think it called for more sternness when Sheila basically said to those loving her "You don't love me. You just want to use me."
The only response to a lie is rebuke, in my opinion.

Thanks for your insights, Emily.