Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 21

Dealing With Your Alligators

By Author unknown.

In your ministry you will almost certainly meet an alligator. You will be lucky if you meet only one. Alligators must be dealt with, and for this to happen, they must be recognised.

An alligator is not just a person who disagrees with the minister. Most church people disagree with the minister some of the time; some disagree with the minister most of the time. If there were no difference of opinion, the chances of live growth are minimal. Difference can be managed, and should be fruitful. When difference of opinion is well grounded, and constructively expressed, minister and people can move closer together and become more effective in their service of God.

Differences which arise out of a desire to be noticed, or to be made to feel a part of the inner circle, or from some kind of personal antipathy are more difficult to deal with, but the person is still not an alligator.

Alligators cannot be managed, even if the pastor has good conflict management skills and knows all the principles and techniques. Indeed, skills in conflict management seem to arouse the worst instinct in an alligator. All attempts at reconciliation will fail, because the primary purpose of the alligator is to bring down the 'authority', and anything - understanding, private meetings, analysis of the root differences, conciliation, mediation - which hinders that purpose will be resisted and resented.

Reasoning with an alligator fails: giving them time gives them more time to be obstructive and wasteful. Admitting mistakes does not lower the level of conflict: proof of past wrong is an additional motive to pursue the overthrow of the mistaken authority. Inviting a third party to intercede is evidence that the minister dare not face the truth of the accuser.

The minister may not be the alligator's only target, or the only one to suffer from the sharp wrenching bite. But while lay leaders may eventually be forced out of the pond by the alligator, the minister has nowhere else to go except by forsaking his/her calling.

The Problem with Authority

Alligators do have an authority problem, but so do most people - including ministers. Not everyone is an alligator. Alligators have not just a hunger for control and power, but a drive to express this in bringing down the existing authority or authorities.

Some alligators may be mentally ill. All show distorted thinking. In some, paranoid tendencies are evident. The concentration of attention and energy on finding fulfilment, meaning and satisfaction in bringing down structures and authority designed for 'good ends' indicates that there is some character flaw.

Alligators frequently have a history of destructive activity in their congregation (or it can be traced in previous congregations from which they have migrated, whether by choice or as a result of effective counter measures). They may indeed have a family history of 'alligator-ship'.

They rarely spring fully-formed in confrontation with the present minister, although their form of attack may change as the minister changes. One favourite tactic is to greet a new minister with special warmth, and to explain why this new ministry is, for them, a particular blessing because the minister's predecessor was so personally dreadful and non-understanding and unsympathetic and unwilling to accept the support of the alligator. This relief means that the alligator is especially looking forward to working closely with the new minister, supporting all that s/he hopes to do.

This ensures that the alligator is close enough to bite with maximum damage.

Some ministers are more susceptible than others, not because they are foolish but because they try too hard to please and forget that there is a higher authority for them than the bland approval of a congregation or some of its members. A need to prove what a good minister one is provides just the opening an alligator needs. S/he can move in immediately to show that such proof is impossible; conviction will not be admitted.

Alligators are not outside the grace of God; they may not be evil people. Their activities are evil, and not just because they resist authority and are a nuisance.

Intimidation and Seduction

Some alligators intimidate. Some alligators seduce. The consequence of either approach is that people spend time and effort trying to pacify and satisfy them, in the hope that they will not be bitten. Boundaries will not be drawn, and the alligator is free to roam at large within the congregation (and beyond).

Alligators have to be neutralised, not fed. Rudeness from the congregation's leaders is inappropriate, but nothing more than civility is required. Being Christian does not include 'selling out' niceness, or 'other cheek' capitulation. Indiscriminate refusal to recognise and name destructive opposition has no parallel in the life of Christ; it simply feeds the monster.

It is not necessary to meet with suspicious defensiveness every occasion when people may show disagreement. But when reasonable and charitable attempts to respond to criticism serve only to produce escalating harshness and impossible demands, the near universality of alligators in congregations suggests there is wisdom in looking for the teeth.

A minister cannot get out of the alligator's pond; this is where vocation has taken the minister, and the call may have been to deal with this danger for the sake of the people and the gospel. Quietly feeding the alligator will not produce peace; the minister will suffer spells of increasing anxiety until his/her health starts to deteriorate. Other leaders will withdraw from the roles and activities to which they are committed. Individuals and families will not know what is happening but will know there is a malaise; some will decide to move elsewhere - or to sever their links with church altogether.

Even if the minister decides that the only path open is a move to another church, this is victory and confirmation for the alligator; in due course the ex-minister will hear stories of accelerated conflict as the alligator tears into the next victim (for the dishonest act of hiding the situation will not be countered by anyone else, and the hurt will persist).


Alligators must be prevented from inflicting damage. This can be done if the leaders in the congregation act together by reducing the size and depth of the pool in which they can hunt.

  • When a person introduces a complaint by claiming to speak on behalf of a significant number of people who are dissatisfied, ask who these 'others' are. If names cannot be given, there probably are none. This may be a sign of an alligator sighting a victim.
  • A minister needs the understanding and support of (significant leaders in) the congregation. It is unlikely that people do not recognise the alligator; there may well be an air of waiting for him/her to strike at the present minister as at previous ones. Honesty about the difficulty (in confidence) should produce the care and reinforcement the minister needs to face the alligator; teamwork protects the individual.
  • Do not try to deal with the specific complaints; they are not real, but simply provide occasions for attack.
  • Do not suggest to the alligator that if they do not like the situation, they should go elsewhere; this gives them the ammunition of being badly treated and forced out, and as the underdog they may gain sympathetic support.
  • Give no support to the alligator's contentions and make no effort to recognise their presence beyond the basic civilities. Give pastoral care if they are in trouble or ill, but do not give them public prominence.
  • Make no attempt to justify yourself or to deal with specific accusations; this only feeds the fire. If others know the situation, it is more effective when they speak.
  • Stay in proper control: manage the relationship at pastoral levels, allocate a proper amount of time to this one person, set and control the agenda for meetings. Keep the focus on matters of health for yourself and the congregation, not on the issues which have become occasions of pain and fear.
  • Do not be timid; this invites further ruthless attacks. Do what you can to keep the alligator out of elective or appointed office in the congregation.
  • Feel sorrow over the situation, but not guilt. It is the choice of the alligator to refuse to make any progress in good relationships. But most of all …
  • … Pray for the alligator; as s/he withdraws from conflict into remission, pray that it may be the start of a change of heart, and that their energies may be channelled into gospel purposes.

This article is adapted from a publication of similar title from HUMM Christian Educators, whose contact address we have been unable to discover. If any readers can assist with this information, we will be glad to publish it in a future edition of Ministry Today.

Ministry Today

You are reading Dealing With Your Alligators by Author unknown, part of Issue 21 of Ministry Today, published in February 2001.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2021