A reader writes:
I work as administrator at a church and we have a delicate situation.
One of our members, James, frequently attends our young professionals events, despite having aged out of the 20s and 30s demographic.
What makes this difficult is he is a very uncomfortable person to interact with. He talks exclusively about himself and his general importance in the world, doesn’t read any social cues that the listener wants to escape, and will ask visiting teachers “questions” that are more often long winded anecdotes about himself.
This is all uncomfortable enough to experience, but what’s pushing it farther is his fixation on women. He’s not married and will glom onto any single woman who walks in. He’s draped his arm across the back of a woman’s chair, follows one woman around the room as she greets people, and somehow how managed to turn a discussion of capital punishment with me into a strange monologue about dating. Adding this to his tendency to corner people, many women are uncomfortable. His actions aren’t violent or gasp-worthy offensive but deeply uncomfortable. At this point, women who know him immediate try to maneuver away and women who are new are friendly until they can’t take it anymore.
The woman in charge of these events, Melissa, confronted him about this and he snapped back that his membership supports the church and he can attend anything he wants. He then complained to the pastor, but the pastor knows James’s reputation is hurting our events and is trying to gently steer him away from attending.
Now Melissa is leaving the church for a new job and her duties are falling to me. I’m worried that James will see that Evil Melissa Who So Offended Him is gone and will cheerfully ignore everything that she said. How can I go forward as the person in charge of these events?
He is a dues-paying member and these are public events. He may have some sort of psychological disorder that causes his behavior but his behavior is still problematic and when someone called him on it, his response wasn’t “Oh wow! I had no idea. I definitely don’t want to creep people out so I’ll work on that.” It was “Screw you, my membership entitles me to do what I want.” Any guidance?
Tell him that in fact his membership does not entitle him to do what he wants.
You’re getting hung up on the fact that these are public events that anyone is allowed to attend, and that he’s a member of the church … but neither of those things mean that people can behave however they want and still get to attend. If you had a dues-paying member who showed up to every event naked from the waist down, even after being talked to, you’d probably find a way to say, “Hey, we can’t let you attend these anymore,” right? Or someone who yodeled at the top of their lungs through every speaker and refused to stop?
You’re allowed to set standards of behavior, and it’s really, really normal for groups of this sort to tell disruptive members that they can’t continue to attend unless they can follow some minimal rules of engagement and not ruin the experience for others.
It’s completely reasonable for you to say, “We’ve had complaints about your behavior at these events and cannot allow you to attend anymore.” Of course, as a church, you probably have a particular interest in being as kind as possible, so you could give him a final warning before barring him completely — “If you want to continue coming to these events in the future, we need you to stop these behaviors; otherwise, we won’t be able to allow you to attend.” Frankly, I’m skeptical that he’ll be able to turn it around, but it might be more palatable to be able to say that you did warn him and the problems continued.
Now, to be clear, some of James’s behavior sounds like the sort of thing that’s annoying but not worth banning him over. His enormous interest in himself and his own importance? Obnoxious, but not ban-worthy. (It might be if this were, say, a private book club — but for church events, probably not.) But you can certainly require that he not dominate visiting teachers’ presentations with lengthy speeches about himself, and that he not hassle women.
It’s also reasonable to tell him that the young professional events are for people early in their careers and that you’re limiting the group to people under 35 or whatever cut-off you choose.
If he protests that he’s a dues-paying member, offer to refund his dues.
Of course, to make this work, you’ll need to first make sure that your pastor has your back and isn’t going to reverse your decision.
Also, I think you nailed the most telling element here when you wrote this: “When someone called him on it, his response wasn’t ‘Oh wow! I had no idea. I definitely don’t want to creep people out so I’ll work on that.’ It was ‘Screw you, my membership entitles me to do what I want.’” That’s really, really key in how you proceed. If he’d said something more in the first category, it would be compassionate to give him some benefit of the doubt — that he means well, has poor social skills, but genuinely cares about not offending or creeping people out. The response you’ve gotten, though, says that’s not the case.