The Common Good
January 1994

Square Pegs, Strong Love

by Joe Nangle | January 1994

When community is disrupted

INEVITABLY, all communities must deal with the disruptive personality. In most cases the problems that the difficult member presents to the collective remain fairly minor. Indeed it is usually the individual him or herself who feels most uncomfortable.

Live-in communities often have, for example, the unusually careless person who causes little uproars over lost eyeglasses, address books, or car keys in the midst of the group's daily comings and goings. Or for communities that function weekly or bimonthly, there is the rigid type who annoys the rest by insisting on absolute punctuality, unvarying meeting format, and all sorts of strictures regarding discussion processes.

We once had a community member who wanted a certain measuring cup brought back to the kitchen, insisting that the new glass one did not suit her. The trouble was that the old plastic cup now graced the washing machine and had absorbed detergent soap, rendering itself quite unfit for further kitchen duty.

Often these "square pegs" withdraw themselves from the more intense aspects of community life such as living with the group or assuming responsibility or leadership for the collective. If they participate at all in community it is usually more on the fringes. Their minor disruptiveness serves to remind them and the group that not everyone has a vocation to community.

OF GREATER concern - and far more serious consequences - are the truly obstructive types who join communities. Their personal needs go beyond what help the community can offer. They dominate every conversation and take over every meeting. Their never-ending, self-centered personal agenda becomes that of the collective; they form cliques, continually criticize the "others," and keep everyone in a state of increasing agitation.

Unfortunately, but understandably, communities tend to attract more than their share of such people, who, if not checked, can wear down or even cripple even the best group. They may see community as the answer to all their problems, or as a place to hide from a hostile world. It never works - rather their problems tend to be heightened in community to the detriment of the group and the obstructive individual.

If ever the principle of "tough love" needed application, it is in dealing with seriously disruptive community members. Before all else the problem must be named and faced by the group. Postponement of this priority only leads to further deterioration of the community's general well-being.

Once the group has agreed that it has a serious problem, advice from the gospel on how to proceed serves well. First, the community member with the best interpersonal leadership qualities approaches the person in question, states clearly the problem, and proposes a solution. This can range from immediate counseling to leaving the community - depending on the gravity of the problem and its impact on the group. Often the person in question will dismiss the first overture, in which case the gospel advises us to go back with "two or three" carrying the same message.

Should this fail, as so often happens, then the gospel mandate is to take the matter to the whole church, in this case the entire community. This must be the final forum and the collective has to make its decision stick. Otherwise further division and deterioration inevitably seep into the situation and the very life of the community hangs in the balance.

Obviously, none of this is easy. These lines come from several very painful experiences in community. To practice "tough love" involves perhaps the most difficult of human tasks - as every good parent knows well. Such love does not mean harshness, much less vindictiveness or revenge. It means love - love strong enough for the hurting individual and love strong enough for the community to do the curative surgery required.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)