Why passive-aggressive Christian leadership must go away

on June 21 | in Blog, Devotional, Living, Theology | by | with 4 Comments

When I was a young pastor I had a scattergun approach to preaching. Like many I tended to take a text, depart therefrom and go everywhere preaching the gospel.

Regrettably this approach also led to preaching in which I would “confront” a member of the congregation at the expense of the many. Rather than meeting with people individually about a certain issue, I would use the preaching time to address it. I would scattershot. In my ignorance it never dawned on me that the majority of the congregation had no idea what I was talking about and the intended target probably thought I was talking about someone else.

When I wanted to do it, I could really put the “bully” in bully-pulpit. This was a terrible pattern of preaching and leadership. Over the course of many years God got me mostly beyond preaching and leading that way, and I am grateful.

Although the term was not en vogue then as it is now, the common term to describe this kind of approach is passive-aggressive. Once diagnosed as a mental disorder (!), it now is more suggestive of a negative character trait. One online dictionary defines passive-aggressive as:

being, marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness)

The Mayo Clinic website provides this more in-depth description of passive-aggressive behavior:

Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them. There’s a disconnect between what a passive-aggressive person says and what he or she does. For a passive-aggressive person, true feelings are shared through actions, not words.

For example, a passive-aggressive person might appear to agree — perhaps even enthusiastically — with another person’s request. Rather than completing the task, however, he or she might express anger or resentment by missing deadlines, showing up late to meetings, making excuses or even working against the task.

Specific signs and symptoms of passive-aggressive behavior include:

Resentment and opposition to the demands of others
Complaining about feeling underappreciated or cheated
Procrastination
Stubbornness
Inefficiency
Memory lapses
Sullenness
Irritability
Cynical or hostile attitude

Passive-aggressive attitudes manifest themselves in church life, in marriage, from parents toward children and children toward parents, in school and in the workplace.

A popular online meme shows passive-aggressive behavior in the forms of notes left in restrooms, break rooms and kitchens. The notes address everyone in the office rather than the guilty party.

passive aggressive behavior

I suppose it could be argued leaving a note is better than murder… [Image credit]


As with other sinful attitudes and actions followers of Christ are not immune to passive-aggressive responses to conflict.

Dealing with passive aggressive attitudes

I think passive-aggressiviness among Christians in general–and leaders in particular–must go away because it runs counter to the ethics of the Kingdom. Consider the following:

1. Jesus was not passive-aggressive. The Lord did not hesitate to address people directly as needed. No cryptic messages when He stood before Pilate, not parable at the house of Simon the Pharisee (“You did not wash my feet.”), and in sending a message directly to Herod.

Imagine Jesus as a passive-aggressive social media user. Rather than saying of Herod, “You tell that old fox…” He might have tweeted, “Uhm, some politicians need to get their act together.” Followers of Christ should act like Christ.

2. It fosters a negative “blame the many instead of the problem” culture. Culture problems in a church or business do not erupt overnight. On the whole they are not like an underground volcano that has escaped all seismic detection. Systemic problems exist because of a systemic failure to effectively address them.

As in my personal example above, consider the number of pastors who deal with one or two individuals in the church who are troublemakers. Everyone knows Deacon Jones is stirring up dissension. There is no doubt. Yet, rather than talking directly to Deacon Jones about it (with witnesses if there is not repentance), the pastor preaches against Deacon Jones’ divisiveness as if the entire flock is guilty.

3. It is contrary to New Testament fellowship. Paul apparently understood this as he tended to call people by name. He did this both for commendation and correction. See about any of his epistles for examples of this.

4. It creates distrust in the leader. Church staff never know how to act around a pastor who is passive-aggressive since they never know when the pastor is upset with them. Because the pastor does not address the problems in a forthright way, instead being sullen and irritable, a pall is cast over his leadership. Few things cause more uncertainty in followers than passive-aggressiveness in leaders.

5. It removes the imperative for the person to change his or her ways. If a person in church or an organization has done something wrong, or is habitually a problem to the organization, that person should be addressed directly by the person to whom he or she is accountable. Snide remarks, walking the other way, or ignoring them completely does nothing to help he or she become a better employee, church member, manager or leader. Passive-aggressiveness is a failure of leadership that allows, even enables, problems to continue unabated. It more than doubles the original problem since others, who should not be involved at all, become victims of the overspray.

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