How do I deal with this person?
September 18, 2011 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with borderline-inappropriate/socially inept parishioner at my job?

I work at a small Presbyterian church as the music director and administrative assistant. I've been there for 7 1/2 years, and I love my job.

However. There is a young woman member who has been a thorn in my side for my entire tenure. She stands there and eavesdrops on conversations that she is not involved in. She butts in to said conversations. She answers questions that are not addressed to her and that she is not qualified to answer. The list goes on and on. I'm sure most of you know someone like this.

I cannot just confront her and tell her to mind her own business, as she is a member and I am an employee. This is a VERY small church, and I cannot avoid her...she is a member of my choir as well. How do I continue to deal with this without completely losing my temper, but still somehow letting her know that she's overstepping?

One caveat: she may possibly be mildly developmentally disabled. No one knows for sure. Her intelligence seems average, but it may possibly be affecting her social skills.
posted by altopower to Human Relations (20 answers total)
This seems tailor made for a weak smile and "Well, bless your heart."

If you want to be more direct than that, I'd go with something like "Oh, hi! Hold on one moment -- I'll be RIGHT with you." Then turn your back on her. If she persists, you can do that a couple more times, but eventually give a heavy sigh and tell the other person "I guess I'll catch up with you later," then turn to her and say "Now! What can I help you with?" The idea is to reinforce that that is a different conversation that she is not part of.

The most direct is to ask her to have a private conversation, go into your office and shut the door, and then say "Hi. I don't want to cause any hard feelings, but this is a church, and frequently people are discussing sensitive things. I need you to give me and the people I'm talking with more space than you currently are, because you're making people uncomfortable. You're a great person and I'm so happy to be part of your church family, but I need you to take me seriously on this." Whether or not that will fly is iffy, though.
posted by KathrynT at 5:20 PM on September 18, 2011 [8 favorites]

Can you re-direct her? When she butts in or is lurking and listening or says something off the wall, can you say "Oh, Katherine, would you mind (handing out the music / checking the punch will be ready / helping Mrs Murphy with her coat)? You are so helpful, thank you!"
posted by DarlingBri at 5:27 PM on September 18, 2011

Best answer: If she eavesdrops, stop talking to the other person and address her, asking with sincere politeness what she needs. The answer she'll come up with will most likely be to talk to you, or to the other person, or 'nothing', and you can then say, I'll come find you just as soon as I'm done here/I'm sure Ms. Jones will come find you just as soon as we're done here. Thank you! And then you look at her expectantly and wait for her to leave. If she doesn't, I'd go to her and talk to her so only she can hear and tell her that Ms. Jones needs her privacy, or that you need to talk to Ms. Jones alone, and you're sure she understands, all the while walking /away/ from Ms. Jones with her. You may have to do this a lot.

If she answers questions not addressed to her, simply thank her (not in a dismissive or snotty way) and then say something like, And PersonOriginallyAsked, what's your thought?

This is a case where true politeness seems like your only resort. Good manners are supposed to be about making people comfortable; I think relying on them to deal with this person is the way to go.
posted by lemniskate at 5:48 PM on September 18, 2011 [24 favorites]

What is the pastor's take (or elder/deacon/leadership team/etc.) on this? Assuming you are a Christian, have you prayed about it?

Also, if you feel like this is an appropriate stance, talk to her about it as a discipleship issue. Christians are called to learn from each other and raise issues in love and humility. It would be a conversation similar to the one KathrynT outlined above.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:54 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would tell her " I/we need to talk privately with x",
posted by brujita at 6:00 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great suggestions so far...thanks!

guster4lovers, I'm actually an atheist, so praying isn't really any option. :) The minister has similar feelings as I do about this person, and we've talked about it, but haven't managed to come up with the answer for dealing with it.

Part of my problem is that I absolutely hate any kind of confrontation. The only time I feel like it is when I'm angry, but that's the worst time to do it, especially in this type of situation. lemniskate has some great ideas that I'll ponder.
posted by altopower at 7:02 PM on September 18, 2011

Okay, this is going to sound flippant but I mean it seriously: what would Jesus do? If there were ever a situation that cried out for the use of the 'what would J-Dawg do' metric, dealing with an annoying parishioner would is it. I suspect Jesus would be a bit irritated but --given that the malfeasances aren't really harming anyone-- he would tolerate her butting in. Especially if she's possibly slow. Churches are full of well-meaning but clueless busybodies like her, and don't they tend to be sort of benignly tolerated?
posted by jayder at 7:36 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is a woman who probably experiences daily exclusion because of her awkwardness; I'm willing to bet that the church is one of her last refuges of acceptance - which is why I'd support lemniskate's approach of sincere politeness combined with the gentle setting of boundaries. I don't see any need to necessarily pull her aside unless these gentle hints don't take or if they became more than just an annoyance.

Personally, I'd be disappointed in my church and priest if I saw them eye-rolling or making someone feel excluded, because I see church as a place of acceptance, for the sick, the poor, the destitute, the lonely, the marginalized, and, I guess we can add, the very very annoying and socially awkward. Communicating a message of acceptance to that parishioner tells everyone else, too, that all are welcome in this community without reservation or judgement.
posted by noonday at 8:36 PM on September 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

She's lonely.
posted by mleigh at 1:56 AM on September 19, 2011

Imagine that you're attending an event at a new group that you've never attended before. Everybody else already knows one another and are good friends and while they aren't against having you in the group, they're also not particularly good at getting you involved, because they've already established things pretty well without you. You've gotten past the introductions, and now they're not sure what to talk to you about anymore. Probably what you would end up doing would be similar to what she's doing. Stand at the periphery of groups having conversations, and listening in to get a feel for what's going on. Occasionally answer questions if you feel like you have an inkling of what the answer is (even if you don't have the full history in the group to really know the right answer). You would try to include yourself into conversations by throwing in a comment once in a while.

I get the impression, like mleigh, that she is feeling kind of lonely and somewhat ostracized even in the bounds of the church. She is trying to find her way "in" to conversations that other people are having because she ends up being the person that nobody is talking to. She isn't exactly eavesdropping, but instead trying to feel that she is part of a conversational group. It can really suck to feel like the one person who keeps failing at getting into a conversation with someone.

If the conversation really is private, tell her directly. But otherwise, I think it would be a very kind thing to actively try to get her involved in the conversations. Perhaps once she feels like she is being included in conversations instead of always at the periphery, she'll actually quiet down a bit and say something primarily when she's addressed and otherwise be happy to listen.
posted by that girl at 2:42 AM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

You say "young woman." Exactly how young is going to make a difference here. If she's not an adult yet, where are her parents? If she's actively causing a problem for the church staff, it's entirely appropriate to bring this up with them. Helping parents raise kids is a big part of what most churches consider themselves to be about, so provided this is done with compassion and tact, there's no reason this has to go badly or even be all that confrontational.

If she's an adult or her parents are otherwise out of the picture, this gets a bit trickier. Now you have to deal with her directly and can't bring in any people who have actual authority. Here I think the suggestions about about firm politeness are probably on point, but I'd also suggest that making a more active effort to include her where you can will probably be helpful. She may feel less need to insert herself where she shouldn't if she's more frequently included. This will also just keep her occupied.

Then again, if she's disabled in some way you'll probably just have to deal with it, regardless of her age or parental status. Most people who get to be adults without picking up on the most basic rudiments of social interaction usually have something going on up there. I went to college with some kids who were unbelievably socially isolated while growing up, and let me tell you, most of the ones that weren't actually touched got the picture pretty quickly. The ones that didn't were few in number but included a guy with Aspergers, a guy with OCD, a few bipolar types, and one poor sod who was probably borderline sociopathic. There isn't a whole lot to be done in some of these cases except to bear up with patience and compassion.

If she is disabled, or you have reason to believe that she is, I'd actually consider calling social services. Not to get them involved per se--though if actually needs help, definitely consider it--but because someone there will probably be willing to talk to you about how to deal with this person, or will be willing to point you to someone who is. You might get similar help from the local school district's special education teachers. Heck, if she's disabled in some way, she's probably already got a caseworker you could call.
posted by valkyryn at 5:59 AM on September 19, 2011

If tbere's one thing religious communities are good for, it's making people like this person feel like whole members of humanity. There's lots of good advice above about setting boundaries and modeling behavior, and I hope you explore these options. In the end, though, isn't it the mission of a church like yours to make certain that a member like this feels loved, protected, and fulfilled as a person? That may not be coming to her from anywhere else in her life.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 6:13 AM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: You guys bring up good points. However, she is very involved in the church (sits on the executive committee, chairs Christian Ed, etc) and is, by all I've seen, accepted and included. That's not to say that other people don't have issues with her, but it doesn't seem to be as consistent as it is with me. She is included in many conversations, so I don't think that's the issue. She seems to feel the need to insert herself in every aspect of the church, like the choir, for example. She does not sing well, is clearly uncomfortable, and this year can't even come to rehearsals, but still expects to come in on Sunday morning and sing. This obviously adds to my frustration with her.

She is 25 and still lives with her parents, and has attended this church her entire life. She has a degree in math education, so obviously any disability she may have does not affect intelligence. However, she has never had a job, so may not be used to how adults interact.

I guess that I just need to do the gentle boundary-setting and see if she responds to that.

Oh, and she also stares at me and at the minister throughout the services. We've both tried ignoring her, as well as staring right back at her, and neither of those have been effective.
posted by altopower at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2011

She does not sing well, is clearly uncomfortable, and this year can't even come to rehearsals, but still expects to come in on Sunday morning and sing.

There's a boundary you should consider enforcing right there. Because that's crazy.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:05 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, my church choir (which has no auditions and takes all comers) has a rule that you have to have attended at least two rehearsals for the piece we're going to be singing in order to sing on Sunday. This is out of respect for the other choristers' time and effort. We have some members who don't sing particularly well and who are welcomed with open arms, because a church choir is about worship, not performance. . . but you still gotta show up.
posted by KathrynT at 9:35 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

As someone who has sung in church choirs for many years, I feel your pain. Unless you have an auditioned choir, "can't sing" isn't a good enough reason to kick someone out, more's the pity. Not attending rehearsals, however, is. Make it a blanket rule for everybody that they have to be at the prior rehearsal (or whatever works for you) to sing at the service.

As a socially awkward person, I feel her pain. I love going to church and singing with the choir and participating in the service. But I absolutely loathe the "coffee hour" afterwards. Standing on the periphery of groups, trying not to appear to be eavesdropping, sometimes adding a comment if I hear something that I think I can contribute to (and sometimes mishearing, so my comment is actually not appropriate to the conversation). Please try to be as nice as you can.
posted by Daily Alice at 9:59 AM on September 19, 2011

Best answer: She is included in many conversations, so I don't think that's the issue. She seems to feel the need to insert herself in every aspect of the church

Here's what I'd guess is happening:

A church is a group of people with shared beliefs and goals. When you have a group like that, there is often a socially awkward member who, rather than forming meaningful relationships with other members, simply throws herself wholeheartedly into the mission of the group. Because she fits within the parameters of the group, she considers it her community, but because she does not really have friendships with its members outside of the group, she still feels insecure. So she finds new ways to be even more involved in the group's activities.

I've lived this dynamic as a socially awkward teenager in a high school youth group, and I've seen it in several other groups.

I agree that you should find practical ways to set boundaries. But I'd just like to point out that being included in conversations at church or during church events is not the same as feeling accepted and wanted by the community. I suspect she's lonely, bored, insecure, and/or afraid of branching out beyond the church to find social activities.

Do you know why the pastor hasn't stepped in to talk to her, or tried to get insight from her parents? It seems to me that he should be concerned that a member of his congregation is clearly struggling, even if she doesn't realize it herself--25 and never had a job, seemingly desperate for ever more inclusion in church activities, obnoxious toward and disliked by her community. I think he has a real responsibility here to encourage her to address the issues underlying her behavior.
posted by Meg_Murry at 12:31 PM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: I do need to set a guideline for the whole rehearsal thing. People are gone every so often, but to not be able to come to ANY rehearsals is just unacceptable. She told me that 2 weeks ago, and I sort of raised my eyebrows and said that probably wasn't going to work out, but I apparently need to be clearer. I'm certainly not wasting Sunday morning rehearsal time running parts with her.

Meg_Murry, to answer your questions, I believe the minister has talked to her about some aspects of these issues, but not very in-depth. I'm not sure what her (the minister's) feelings are about talking to this young woman more. Your description of what she might be feeling sounds spot-on, from my observations. But I really don't see her being excluded or not accepted. That doesn't mean she doesn't feel that way, though.

All right, I'll take some deep breaths this week and talk to her about the rehearsal thing, and try some gentle boundary-setting with the social stuff.
posted by altopower at 4:17 PM on September 19, 2011

I don't mean to imply that anyone is excluding her, or that the community is rejecting her. They're probably lovely--and are probably doing their best to accept her in spite of her social awkwardness and rude behavior.

What I mean is, someone who acts like that probably isn't forming deep friendships, so as much as the community might be willing to accept her, and might be trying to accept her, if she's not emotionally mature enough or psychologically well enough or even just socially adept enough to form relationships with members of the community, she won't truly feel accepted. If she doesn't feel like she has deep roots there, she'll probably try to spread the shallow roots a little further--more church activities, more butting in.
posted by Meg_Murry at 5:23 PM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: I had a conversation with the minister today, and she reaffirmed her support for my dealing with the situation(s) in however way I see fit. I'll be speaking to the young woman on Sunday about the rehearsal situation and encouraging her to "take some time off" from the choir until she's able to attend rehearsals again. Then I'll tackle the boundary issues as they occur. The minister is thinking about how she can help her more as well.

Thanks for your thoughts, everyone!
posted by altopower at 7:08 PM on September 20, 2011

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