By Doug Talley
Expectations. Ever since we were kids, we’ve developed expectations of other people, events, situations, and ourselves that led to disappointment when they weren’t realized. One reason COVID has hit us all so hard is that it took our expectations for 2020 and much of 2021 and then beat them repeatedly over our heads. At least it felt that way.
Expectations are one of the hardest things to manage when it comes to church. People’s expectations. Colleague’s expectations. State pastor’s expectations 🙂 (I had to throw that in!). Spouse’s expectations. Your own expectations.
Every pastor who goes to a new church thinks this church will be THE ONE – the church of their dreams. And every time a church gets a new pastor, the people expect her or him to be THE ONE – the pastor of their dreams. Problem is we aren’t all having the same dream. Some of our dreams are hallucinations. Others may turn out to be a nightmare.
As I work with churches, I find that many church people have unrealistic expectations of their pastor. No human being could fulfill those expectations. When the pastor reveals that she or he is human and not fully Jesus yet (just to be clear – that is ALL of us), expectations are dashed and tensions escalate. Everyone is left wondering what went wrong. You know the pain of which I speak. When we pastors fail to meet the expectations of our church people, we feel shameful, insecure, inadequate, worthless, and like a failure.
Even if you are doing a really good job at being a pastor, you will feel those horrible feelings when someone tells you, “You’ve not met my expectations, so my family and I are going to another church where the pastor will be better than you.” True, they don’t word it as bluntly as I just did. But that’s what WE HEAR. And that’s probably what THEY MEANT. Yet, you may have no idea how you’ve disappointed them because they never shared their expectations. They expected you to magically know what they were… and to meet them.
In The Resilient Leader, my good friend Al Ells talks about Karpman’s drama triangle. It helps us understand unmet expectations and why some people who had been supportive of us turn against us. It wasn’t originally developed to shed light on leadership interactions, but it gives us insight into the dynamics involved when someone betrays you and/or attacks you.
Here is how it works. There are three key players involved:
- The victim is the person in the congregation who looks to you for attention, love, affirmation, and/or approval. They wouldn’t describe themselves as a victim, but that is what their thinking and acting patterns reveal. There is likely an emotional wound or two in the victim’s past, and this person is looking to you to provide what she or he is missing. The victim cherishes any attention received by you. In return the victim showers you with expressions of gratitude and with compliments. This person idolizes you to a degree. The unstated assumption of the victim is that you, the pastor, are expected to meet his/her needs and to rescue him/her from their emotional wounds.
- The persecutor (could be parent or spouse) is the one who failed to meet a need, such as a need for being loved, valued, affirmed, etc. The persecutor hasn’t taken responsibility for his or her actions, and there have never been any apologies or genuine attempts at reconciliation. Instead, the persecutor hurls shame, rejection, condemnation and blame on the victim. And usually the person’s conscience chimes in to beat them up emotionally.
- The rescuer is you, the pastor. As we love on people, our need for affirmation is met through the victim’s appreciation. We enjoy being looked up to… maybe even idolized. It reduces our feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. This dynamic sets us up for drama.
Here’s how this plays out in the church. The victim has unmet needs and looks to the pastor to meet them (expectation). The pastor enjoys helping people and responds by playing the rescuer – probably without even realizing it. Al writes, “Over time the congregant becomes emotionally dependent and puts the pastor on a pedestal. The pastor can do no wrong – that is until the day the pastor disappoints… Then the needy congregant will shift from idolizing the pastor to despising him. All the unresolved and pent-up feelings of rejection and pain originally blamed on the persecutor will now be directed toward the pastor… the pastor will be shocked at the attack by someone he was only trying to help” (page 69).
Then the victim tells others in the church (Karpman’s drama triangle is a first cousin to the conflict triangle.) and garners allies against the pastor. If you’ve been in this kind of situation, then you know firsthand the pain it causes. And how it blows up a church.
Al reminds us that there are variations of this dynamic where the victim may be a staff or board member who turns against the pastor. The pastor does or says something that triggers an unhealed wound, the victim’s emotions go ballistic, and a conflict erupts. Everyone thinks the conflict is related to the issue that was being addressed, but it really has to do with an unhealed wound. The wound overrules the mind’s ability to process what happened, emotions shift, and the leader becomes the enemy. Even if the conflict is resolved, if the wound is not addressed, then the emotional shift will surface again and again as the victim is trapped in a loop.
Here’s an example: Will is the pastor in a church that needs to add an additional worship service. The pastor has been processing this with the church board for a while, and there seemed to be consensus. But one board member, Richard, who had been in the church a long time and who was a strong supporter of the pastor, had missed the last board meeting. Richard and his wife find out the decision to add an additional service had been made when they received the church’s digital newsletter announcing the change. Richard felt like he hadn’t been consulted and his wife, Susan, was offended. Richard became very angry at Will and lashed out against him on several occasions.
Will had no idea that Richard grew up in a family in which he felt like no one listened to what he thought. As a result, he had a deep need to be heard and affirmed. The newsletter announcement triggered the wound Richard had been nursing since he was a child. Susan hurt for her husband. Richard and Susan gathered some allies who were sympathetic to their emotional dissonance about adding the service, and the church paid a huge price.
We are complicated. Relationships are complicated. Churches are complicated. We are all affected by family and culture of origin issues (as well as subsequent hurts) in ways we tend to be unaware. When old wounds get triggered, we react… often overreact. And the fallout is damaging to us and others.
Al writes, “When loyalty to a person supersedes loyalty to the mission, problems and drama are likely to arise down the road” (page 71). I’ve experienced this in my ministry, and as state pastor, I see it happening in churches all too often. All of us carry emotional baggage from painful experiences in the past. If people aren’t aware of their wounds, they’ll be triggered by things that happen, and their pain will get the best of them. But because they didn’t realize what was happening, they feel justified in their actions. Then they gather allies to assuage their hurt and support their unhappiness. Relationships and ministry suffer a huge blow, and people are left with their heads spinning.
So, what do we do to prevent Karpman’s drama triangle from erupting? Al gives some great steps to follow. But my article has gotten too long to list them. So, get a copy of the book and find out what to do. The Resilient Leader (published by David C. Cook) is full of incredible insights about people and ministry. This would be a great book to study with your staff and board. Check it out.