Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Antagonists in the Church: How To Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C Haugk.
This manual on management of “antagonists” in church settings was listed in a bibliography of leadership resources for my own religious body. I saw it objected to as “fascist” by other clergy, and a claim was circulated that its influence was to blame for the decline of a kindred sect. Naturally, I had to read it to make up my own mind. It was a fast read, with clear writing and straightforward structure.
By “antagonists,” the author means oppositional personalities who engage in disintegrative attacks within a group, usually aimed at the leadership. Anyone who has been involved with religious or social organizing for a decade or two is sure to have seen this phenomenon. At the same time, the nature of such work lends itself to an idealistic outlook where such hazards tend to be downplayed or ignored. Leaders often assume a commonality of motive among their membership, which is belied by the behavior of individuals who gratify themselves by vilifying their own associates, staging confrontations, and initiating whispering campaigns.
Nearly half of the book is dedicated to diagnosis, the identification of genuine antagonists within environments where constructive conflict is presumably welcomed. Author Haugk details twenty symptoms or “red flags,” none of which are conclusive in themselves, but which in combination can help to highlight individuals who warrant cautious interaction. The risk in this approach is to motivate paranoia and witch-hunts, but the text is leavened with caveats, and the innate tendencies of sincere leaders will be to under-diagnose this problem, not the reverse. Although I was not so keen on the use of psychiatric nosology in the section “Personality Characteristics of Antagonists,” the practical aspects of this part of the book were sound.
Likewise, I was impressed with the pragmatic details of the sections on “Preventing Antagonism” and “Dealing with Antagonism.” Contrary to the rumors I had heard about this book, none of the tactics recommended here seemed in any way coercive to individuals or likely to undermine the coherence of a group. They are explicitly tailored to the antagonistic setting, and wouldn’t be optimal for routine interactions with membership or fellow leaders. But the likelihood of abusive behavior arising from these procedures seems to me rather minimal.
The book is written by a Christian for fellow Christians, and it occasionally has recourse to theological justifications. As a non-Christian myself, I found it easy to elide the Jesus talk and to substitute my own religious symbols and ideology without in any way disrupting the practical advice of the book. In fact, Haugk has to struggle at several points to interpret and mitigate the Christian ideological imperatives of “forgiveness” and “turning the other cheek,” but these are moot in my own religious circumstance.
There is no discussion of digital forums or online behavior in this book, as it was written before religious groups had taken to the Internet in the way that they now do. Unfortunately, “social media” are in some ways optimized for the expressions and activity of antagonists. If a comparable text were written today, it would certainly give some attention to that dimension of the problem.
In sum, I found this book to be more helpful than not. In addition to the value of its practical advice, it supplies encouragement to organizers and group members who are faced with antagonism, to address it rather than avoid it. Such workers and their organizations should benefit from that approach.