I wrote last week about it looks like when parishioners are engaged in our parish. Today I want to look briefly at the other end of the spectrum, people whom Gallup calls “actively disengaged.” Unlike the middle group (the “not engaged,” who actually like the parish and find their needs met here, but aren’t on fire with commitment to us), the actively disengaged are – well, hostile, even though they may be around a lot. Here’s what Gallup has to say from its research:
These individuals are physically present but psychologically hostile. We call these folks “C.A.V.E. Dwellers: Consistently Against Virtually Everything.” They are unhappy with their congregation and insist on sharing their misery with just about everyone. … Their negativity is a huge drain on the effectiveness of your congregation’s mission and ministry … They are the ones who complain, “We’ve never done it that way before,” when you come up with an innovative ministry idea, and they are critical of any ministry that does not personally benefit them.
– Growing an Engaged Church, p. 70
I’m actually a little hesitant to write this column, but not because of its topic. Our recent survey showed that 39% of respondents in Our Lady of Grace are actively disengaged, and you should know that. I’m writing because you should also know what to do about it. Here’s the thing to remember about actively disengaged members: They want attention, and giving it to them makes things worse. I’ll say it again: Giving attention to active disengagement feeds it so that it increases. There are two things engaged parishioners need to do when active disengagement – hostility and negativity toward the parish – rears its head: Confront it: show that you won’t tolerate it in your presence; and then ignore it. We can starve active disengagement by ignoring people who try to be the “squeaky wheel” for their own personal benefit. That’s why I’m hesitant about writing this: I don’t want to give active disengagement any oxygen by paying attention to it.
Note that criticism by itself isn’t active disengagement: It’s vital that people disagree with me and with other ministry leaders – when it’s for the benefit of the parish, not for their own needs. And I am not rejecting actively disengaged people: everyone is welcome here. What people are not welcome to do here is to spread poison. Nor are people welcome to seek inordinate amounts of time and attention, to demand that reasonable rules be bent for their convenience, or to spread gossip and other negativity. I hope and pray that God converts actively disengaged people – I’m sure it’s no fun to have that sort of attitude toward the parish (and perhaps toward life). But the well-being of the parish demands that my and our energies go elsewhere – in particular to helping the not-engaged to become engaged.
This may seem harsh to some – after all, most church people think it’s a requirement of discipleship to be “nice” all the time. (Hint: It isn’t.) Certainly we need to be respectful of the dignity of others, we need to be civil, and friendly and hospitable; we need to tell the truth and to forgive and to be compassionate. But remember that the same Jesus who said, “Be gentle as doves” also said, “Be cunning as serpents.” He told the disciples to “shake the dust from their sandals” when people didn’t welcome them and their message. He called the Scribes and the Pharisees “hypocrites” to their faces (and in public – read chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel). And he called Saint Peter “you Satan” when Peter allowed self-interest to stand in the way of Jesus’ mission. There’s an unmistakable edge to Jesus in the Gospel (not to mention one to Saint Paul); it’s simply that the mission is so important that obstructionism won’t be tolerated. Parishes need to welcome and console the weak, and to help them to grow strong. Parishes also need to confront and condemn poisonous actions and attitudes that keep the Word of God from finding good soil in which to take root.
Takeaway: There’s more negativity – poison – in Our Lady of Grace than in most parishes. It’s never healthy, and it needs to be dealt with. If you find it in yourself, stop. If you experience it from others, tell them (respectfully but firmly) to “knock it off.” And beyond that, ignore it and leave conversion (which is what’s needed) to the grace of God. Until next week, peace.