I remember meeting The Drama Queen at the first church where my husband served as the senior pastor. I was only 27 years old, pregnant with my first child, and a little intimidated to be the pastor’s wife in a church where every person was older than me.
One of the women in the congregation introduced herself to me by excusing her obnoxious behavior: “I’m Darla [not her real name, of course]. You’ll get to know me real soon. I’m the one who always says what I think.”
Hmmm. I decided right then and there to keep a safe distance from Darla.
It didn’t help, though. I still knew exactly what Darla thought of me. Not because she told me directly. She told other people what she believed was wrong with me, or with my husband, or with my newborn daughter.
As a young pastor’s wife, her criticism crushed my heart and at times made me feel physically sick. I wish Darla had mentioned a few of the things I was doing right, or even just told me directly what she felt I was doing wrong. I could’ve grown through that situation in learning how to handle confrontation. And she and I possibly could’ve become friends given the opportunity for us to resolve our differences with one another. Yet, after lovingly confronting her with how her behavior was hurting me, she denied any wrongdoing, told me to “toughen up” because she’s “just that way” and she continued to smile at me to my face and sneer at me behind my back.
Darla is just one example of a toxic person — someone who infects people with the poison of her cynicism or inflicts wounds on others with her behavior. And because the church is filled with sinners (most of whom are prayerfully saved by grace,) it has its share of toxic people who don’t see their dysfunction and continue to be drama to others, inflicting wounds and stirring up strife.
We all know people who can be gossips, cynics or drama queens now and then. Scripture tells us “Bad company ruins good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NASB). Bad company also leads to drama and the possibility of you and I being infected with others’ toxic behavior if we get pulled into their web of gossip or join in with their cynicism.
Here are some ways you can steer clear or lovingly confront the toxic people you come in contact with at church:
1. Choose your friends carefully.
Christian women often get the idea that they must be friends with everyone. Yet the Bible tells us, “the righteous choose their friends carefully” (Proverbs 12:26, NIV). If you and I want to dial down the drama in our lives, and avoid spending time around toxic people, it would be wise to take inventory of our friendships. Sometimes you and I don’t actually choose our friends – they just find us and before we know it, we’re hanging out with someone who is either helpful or a hindrance. Make sure you have friends who are sharpening you (Proverbs 27:17) and building you up, not tearing you down or draining you emotionally and spiritually.
2. Limit your time with the toxics.
Avoidance isn’t necessarily the answer. But erecting boundaries around your time, limiting your social activities with certain people, and sometimes just keeping a safe distance will help you avoid being contaminated by the toxic people in your church and imitating – or being intimidated by – their ways. These are the people you want to limit your time with:
- The Gossip. Proverbs 20:19 tells us, “A gossip betrays a confidence so avoid anyone who talks too much.” If you are around a woman who is gossiping about another woman, the chances are pretty good she will gossip about you as well. Also, it’s difficult to avoid joining in when you are around someone who gossips. So limit your time around women who talk about others.
- The Exploder. Have you ever been around a hot-tempered person, one who is known to explode or vent easily? If so, you have probably learned to tread lightly. And yet, must we constantly walk on eggshells around people who are emotionally volatile? The Bible is full of warnings to stay away from hot-tempered people. Proverbs 29:22 tells us, “An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins.” We are exhorted in Scripture to be around people who “hold their tongues” (Proverbs 11:12; 13:3), not those who explode all over us and others. Proverbs 21:23 warns, “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.” When we stay away from the person who doesn’t know how to guard his or her mouth, we spare ourselves much drama.
- The Stuffer. This person quite possibly never learned to express her feelings or emotions, or was taught to stuff them inside. The problem is, after stuffing for too long, she is bound to implode. Or explode. On you. Some people in your church may be stuffers who just feel more comfortable not talking about what bothers them. But that leads to misunderstandings, emotional tension and eventually unnecessary drama. Communication is vital to healthy relationships. Passive-aggressive people tend to stuff it all in, but that never ends well. If you work with someone at church who is a stuffer, encourage her or him to talk about how they feel and affirm to them that what they express is safe with you.
- The Cynic. We all know one. Or two. Or several. At times, we can be one of them too. Especially if we hang out with them. The cynics are those who see the glass as half-empty instead of half-full. They are the ones who let you know the downside of every situation, and the 10 reasons why your great idea is a bad one. They are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, or they are the ones who are actually throwing it on the floor! These people will be the first to tell you why you can’t run that ministry, achieve that dream, get that job, or trust God to come through. Proverbs 22:10 says, “Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended.” If you live with, work with, or must be around the cynic, heap on the gratitude, praise, and positive comments about a situation to be a sharp contrast to the misery in her life. Praise not only changes your perspective, it might change hers too.
- The Needy Woman. She starts out sincerely wanting a friend, but then she needs so much of you that you find you can’t give anymore. While believers are to sincerely help those in need when prompted by the Holy Spirit, we need discernment about befriending and hanging out with women who need so much from us. The person your needy friend really needs is Jesus, and by always being there for her and always trying to meet her need, you deprive her of an encounter with God that may transform her life and make her dependent on Him alone. Don’t let the needy woman drain you and bring drama to your life. Instead, point her to Jesus – the Only One who can meet her emotional needs. (If you have a needy friend, you may want to gift her with my book, Letting God Meet Your Emotional Needs, which will help her depend more on God, and less on you.)
3. Don’t be an enabler.
Enabling someone’s toxic behavior is not loving. Enabling is not synonymous with patience and other fruits of the Spirit. Enabling is ignoring the issue and allowing people to continue with their unhealthy behavior. Jesus never enabled others to continue in their sinful, toxic behavior. He empowered them to change. Some people want help when it comes to the issues in their lives, but others don’t. So don’t chase the toxic person down to try to help him or her. Some people want to vent, but you don’t always need to be the one to hear it. Some people want to bring down others, don’t be the one they pull down. Others want a partner in crime or complaining. Don’t volunteer.
4. Take your heart to God first.
There’s only One who can purify our hearts and make us the kind of people who can refresh others rather than repel them. Sitting with God and seeking Him first on a matter will also give us wisdom to know how to handle a situation. Go to Him first and let Him calm your anxious heart. That way you can not only deal with a toxic person, but make sure you are not being one, yourself.
5. Find a mentor.
Do you have someone in your life whom you can count on to say the right thing when your church’s “Darla” is spouting off careless words that eventually find their way back to you? Every growing Christian woman needs to meet regularly with an older woman, spiritually, who can help her stay grounded spiritually, and cultivate a heart and life that is pleasing to the Lord (Titus 2:3-5). Meeting regularly with someone wise can help you step back from hurt, expectations, and drama, and align your heart and thoughts with God’s so you can not only know how to handle a toxic person, but to also make sure YOU are not being one, as well.
Cindi McMenamin is a national speaker who helps women strengthen their walk with God and their relationships. She is the author of 15 books, including the best-selling When Women Walk Alone (more than 125,000 copies sold), When a Woman Overcomes Life’s Hurts, and When God Sees Your Tears. Her newest book, Drama Free, (upon which this article is based) releases in April. For more on her speaking ministry, or free articles to strengthen your soul, marriage, or parenting, see her website www.StrengthForTheSoul.com.