Beware the Trickster

Every congregation has known a trickster at one time or another. Tricksters are dangerous figures who look like charismatic leaders, but are incapable of living well in community.

Tricksters promote confusion and chaos by sowing discord. The trickster is masterful at pitting people against one another. People confuse the energy of the trickster with leadership direction. The trickster cannot trust or be trusted.  They are incapable of giving and sharing or participating well in a democratic process. Their behaviors are almost always self-serving and they lack deep commitments to the welfare of the organization.

What are the conditions that give rise to tricksters in congregations? What can we do to minimize their impact and restore right relationship in the wake of their destruction?

Case in Point

First Community Church was in the midst of pastoral transition. A new senior pastor had just begun when Michael was called as one of three associate pastors.  The chaos began almost immediately upon Michael’s arrival. Michael proclaimed himself a change agent; he had come to fix the congregation. He told others that he had been hired as the number two clergy leader, even though the organizational chart clearly showed him on equal footing with the two other associates.

Michael began pitting staff members against one another. He isolated every member of the team by telling each that he was their only ally. Michael shared “secret” insights with team members, telling them that they were not valued by the new senior minister. He was masterful at intuiting the deepest fears of staff team members and fueling those fears. He created triangulated communication patterns so that staff members stopped interacting directly. They closed their doors and began vetting their frustrations with like-minded friends instead of talking directly with one another.

After nine months of this behavior, a previously healthy team had degenerated into a mess of strained and broken relationships. Trust among team members was gone. Some began questioning the leadership capabilities of the new senior minister.  

Fortunately, the senior minister worked in conjunction with the personnel committee to address Michael’s dysfunction. Once new systems of accountability were put into place Michael voluntarily chose to leave. He claimed that the dysfunction in the system made his role impossible.  In reality, Michael was losing his ability to manipulate others and he knew it.

In the wake of Michael’s departure, the team is trying to recover and figure out how they were led so far astray.  Leaders are seeking to heal the damage done.   

Tricksters Thrive on Liminality

The role of the trickster was first identified by cultural anthropologist Victor Turner in his research on liminality.

We encounter tricksters most often during periods of change and transition, liminal seasons during which something is ending and a new thing is not fully begun. Tricksters are attracted to the chaos in seasons marked by pastoral transition, major renovation, governance restructuring, mergers, planning and innovation. They may show up on the staff team, on our governing boards and in our committees.

In transitional situations people have difficulty with rational thinking. The structures grounding objective reality are weakened or gone. Instability produces a naturally stressful, emotive and reactive environment. People look around for someone to imitate, for someone who can establish normality. Enter the trickster.

Tricksters are great imitators of normalcy.  In organizations they are capable of mimicking core managerial and leadership behaviors that people value, enough to initially convince others they are trustworthy. However, the trickster is not at all interested in resolving liminality or stabilizing disorientation, because the trickster thrives on it.

Important Next Steps

There are four helpful things that leaders can do to minimize the impact of a trickster, and to right a system in recovery.

• Fuel the functional, not the dysfunctional:  The natural reaction of most leaders is to focus on the bad behavior of the trickster. It doesn’t work because the trickster isn’t self-aware, willing, or able to behave with healthy boundaries.  The more energy you focus on controlling the trickster, the more you fuel the trickster’s energy.

 Although it is important to create accountability structures for the one behaving badly, it is even  more important to focus time and energy on the healthy players. Identify the healthy bystanders, people with clear boundaries who have disengaged because they don’t know what to do with the trickster. Work with the bystanders to establish policies and practices that reinforce health. Reward healthy leadership behavior. Model non-reactive behaviors and invite the healthy players to remain non-anxious in the presence of the trickster.

• Push reset. Define the new normal: Trickster’s thrive in liminality. You can’t create an artificial end to a liminal season. However, you can work to establish a new normal, along with temporary systems that guide life while in the midst of a transition. You can clarify healthy leadership in a liminal season, so that people will know who to follow and how to behave in the midst of their disorientation.

• Clarify and verify assumptions: Tricksters thrive by introducing lies, half-truths and fear. Once those ideas enter the congregation they take on a life of their own, even if the trickster has long since moved on.  Help people articulate the attributions and assumptions driving their behavior, so that they can rediscover the truth.

For example, a member of the team who has been feeling excluded from decision making might be encouraged to say, “When you made the decisions about the new capital campaign without my input, I assumed that you were intentionally excluding me. I felt devalued and dismissed.  Can you help me understand why my ideas weren’t considered?” This conversational pattern helps to surface problem assumptions and invites reconciliation.

• Tend the leadership narrative: Congregations under the influence of a trickster will develop problem saturated story lines. “We are dysfunctional.  Our leaders don’t know how to lead.  We can’t get along with one another.”  Recovery requires examining these story lines and giving the congregation truthful but more empowering ways to frame the experience. “We’ve been going through a significant change. What we have been experiencing is predictable for a congregation in the midst of pastoral transition. Our new leader is helping us to discover a way through. We will be stronger on the other side of this experience.”

No congregation can fully insulate itself from the arrival of a trickster. Tricksters enter our congregations when we are most vulnerable by mimicking normal behavior. We can minimize their negative impact by recognizing the predictable and disruptive patterns of communication. We can embrace healthy leadership responses that restore equilibrium and invite reconciliation.