A 21st Century Church Epidemic

Anyone who has been in ministry for any length of time will encounter many different human foibles and failings. We're all broken. We're all imperfect. We're all at various stages of figuring out how to become ourselves, let alone the loftier task of becoming like Jesus Christ.

Over the years, I've prayed with and for people struggling with addictions, suicidal tendencies, depression, sexual sin, you name it. But there is one dysfunction that I've become increasingly aware of, that people generally don't talk about: passive-aggressive behavior in the church.

Passive aggressive behavior is a mechanism for handling hostility or anger in an indirect way, often in an underhanded or devious way that is hard for others to recognize, let alone deal with. Sometimes the passive-aggressive is aware of what he or she is doing, and other times not.

In the church, people typically want to appear "nice," cooperative, loving, etc., because we all know that's how "good Christians" act...right? So a passive-aggressive strategy is a way to lash out or get even while still maintaining "plausible deniability." A skilled passive-aggressive person is slippery, hard to pin down, quick with excuses, justifications, or rationalizations for his or her behavior.

Some common examples of passive- aggressive behavior:
* Leaving out important information which gives the person I'm talking to the wrong impression about whoever I'm angry with.

* Expressing "concern" and spreading rumors about someone, without going directly to that someone ("I'm just concerned, that's all.") Gossip is a big gun in the passive-aggressive's arsenal.

* Exaggerating a person's faults to others while maintaining an attitude of "sweetness" toward that person.

* Playing dumb or inadequate to frustrate someone or gain advantage. .

* Making offhand or under-the-breath comments about someone that are intended to express displeasure...but never directly.

* "Forgetting" things they have said, promises they've made, assignments given, etc., in all "innocence." "I don't remember saying (or doing) that," is a typical remark, intended to avoid all responsibility for past actions.
Dealing with passive-aggressive behavior is extremely challenging. The only way I know of to do it is to directly and repeatedly (and calmly and kindly) confront a person displaying such behavior. Be prepared for a show of innocence, hurt, or outrage, but simply communicate clearly and effectively about behavior you find objectionable and unacceptable. Do not blame or shame, but simply let the other person know in what way their behavior is unacceptable.

It will be difficult. And it may be fruitless. But Jesus gives us no alternative. In Matthew 5 and Matthew 18, Jesus endorses direct communication (not passive-aggressive behavior) as the way to reconciliation whenever conflict arises. He says, in Matthew 18,
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector" (Matthew 18:15-17, NIV).
And in Matthew 5, he says,
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5: 23-24, NIV).
In other words, to the passive-aggressive, Jesus says, "Stop! Deal directly with people. Go TO anyone you have a problem with...or anyone who has a problem with you." And to the passive-aggressive's victim, Jesus says, "Stop! Deal directly with people. Go TO anyone you have a problem with...or anyone who has a problem with you."

In this area as in many others, if I am a follower of Jesus, I must do what he says...or I should not call myself his follower. Though it may be difficult, and it may be a long, tough slog, it is the way of Jesus. And that means, one way or the other, it is the best way.


  1. Home run, Bob! You've identified something we've seen at the church leadership level, but we haven't been able to give it a term: The Passive-
    Aggressive Church. I'm working on a blog post for it right now, but it's going to take a few weeks.

    I've linked "Epidemic" from my site, rather than repost. Hopefully it will drive both of my readers your way.

  2. Thanks, Joe. Can't wait to read what you plan to write on the subject.

  3. Thank you for the encouragement. (I know this was posted a while ago). But this issue is so difficult to identify, and confront. Blessings, and praying we all have the courage and clarity to be able to effectively deal with this epidemic.

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  5. Catherine Todd commented:

    Thank you for this blog. I am having a terrible time with [a former pastor] and his wife.... They continue to attack me through family members, and refuse to respond to any of my communications asking them to stop. I have given up on Christians and Christian Charity due to their behavior.

    Yet Passive-Aggressive Behavior may well be what is behind all of it. I am going to continue to investigate this. The interesting thing about P.A.'s is that they are ALWAYS RIGHT, and YOU ARE ALWAYS WRONG. At least that is how it plays out with these two. Perhaps it really is useless to try and deal with them and correct the situation.

    I have told them I will take them to court if this doesn't stop, and perhaps this is what it will take. If it's a personality disorder and not Christ's work, then perhaps I can find a way to believe in God after all. Right now it is very, very hard.

  6. Catherine, thank you so much for your comment (I had to delete the original because it mentioned names, but reposted it above). I grieve for you and hurt with you. I'm so sorry to hear of your experience. I pledge you my prayers for healing and restoration.

  7. This article is excellent! Hit the nail on the head. My ex-boyfriend is passive aggressive. He stands on worship team at our satellite campus (with his new gf who I think he was planning on dating prior to our split). It's been over a year since I broke up with him. I didn't break up with him bc I didn't love him, but because he would never deal with anything. He dragged his feet on anything he didn't really want to do. It affected our relationship and our Christian walk. We share some mutual friends, so it makes matters complicated. All I can say is I'm still dealing with the residual effects of his behavior. Everything got twisted around do I was to blame. I was definitely punished - withheld affection, brought me down in the form of jokes, had no problem pointing out my behavior but never took ownership of his own, lied by omission....Sigh. I am still so emotionally damaged. He broke my heart. I feel like I am stuck with him as he is a part of the Christisn Community I introduced him too. Sorry to babble on, still stings. So much more I could say, but this is it for now. Thank you for your post....

  8. Wow. I came across this blog as well as your other one about the Dysfunctional Church. I am reading about MY church. (sadly) My church is dying.....heck, it's probably already dead, but the nerve endings are just still twitching, giving it an appearance of life. Eight years ago, the pastor had an affair with a married woman in the church. The affair was found out after a good while, and the pastor offered to resign, but the Personnel Committee did not accept his resignation. So, he remained and the woman left and eventually divorced her husband. In the years since that time, the church has been in a steady state of decline: Decline in attendance, decline in giving, decline in attitudes toward one another, etc.

    All this to give you some background. At the present time, there is sin in the camp....at least one deacon is a serial cheater, another deacon does not tithe or give, and the associate pastor and his wife, the deacon body and the church secretary are shunning the senior pastor AND his wife, who is innocent. But I guess because she chose to stand by him and stay with him, and exercise her faith and forgiveness, she is collateral damage.

    I love my pastor and his wife....they are dear friends who are suffering terribly. I do all I can to be a supportive and loving friend, and I am appalled at the actions of the key leaders (most of whom are in their 20's....young and immature). Something has to happen here, and we have prayed and fasted and prayed some more. I feel compelled to DO something, I just don't know what.

    Perhaps it IS time for the senior pastor to "retire" since he clearly is not regarded with any authority and is constantly being undermined at every turn, but I don't think that will save this church body. Our church has attracted so many people with a "me me me" attitude, want something for nothing, don't give, don't volunteer, don't do anything constructive or uplifting, only negative and tearing down. How could any congregation possibly survive??

    Do you have any thoughts on this?

    1. I do. I'm just so sad for your loss, because it is a loss, a very real and painful grief you feel. And I know the feelings you express of wanting to DO something, but feeling helpless. Based on no more information than you give, it does sound bleak for the church. It sounds like the pastor has lost all authority and therefore cannot serve effectively in an apostolic or prophetic role to that congregation, which is what it so desperately needs...someone to see clearly and speak truth and cast vision and lead change. And I suspect you need room to grieve your loss...which is an ongoing loss...and help to come to terms with your own powerlessness (which is often a door to new blessing and fruitfulness). I tell people often that "mental health is working to change what you CAN change and simultaneously NOT trying to change what you CAN'T." So, I wish I could be more encouraging, or even more specific, but I do pray (right now) for healing and renewal for you and for that church.

  9. Great article. This is our (now former) pastor. I was church admin asst for over a year & the pastor gave all the excuses in the book for everything. Manipulated everyone in his little loving, sweet talkimg way. It took us a little over a year to spot it. He wont confront sin, wont go to work, wont show up for things, always has a likely story or excuse & the list goes on. Thanks for writing this.

  10. Bernie, thank you for commenting. I continue to be amazed at how prolific this behavior is in the church...and among pastors!

  11. This was a great article. My google search was because I'm on a creative team, where I see my pastor consistently use sarcasm and sometimes "humor" (which isn't funny...) to cover up his anger. He's as sweet as can be/ southern Georgia charm to your face.... so you don't expect it. Not growing up in a family that used sarcasm, it takes me a few hours to realize the "poison" that just bit me. Such an unhealthy way of relating to people. Anyways, I have realized I have a few choices: confront him/ stay on the team, leave the team, or confront then leave. I am praying through which way God would direct me. I have been walking on eggshells, thinking maybe it was me/ my approach. I've used the sandwich approach with him, 'over' respect, etc.... nothing has worked to keep his sarcasm at bay. I want to be in a healthy church- where I can feel safe. I'm just not sure there are emotionally healthy/ thriving churches out there...