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Dealing with Difficult Church Members

By Todd Outcalt
Every pastor has encountered difficult personalities: the opinionated business-professional who wants to enforce his own agenda; the older lady who loves to spread rumors about church staff; the helicopter parents who deride the youth pastor; and there are others.

Regardless of the size of the congregation or church polity, pastors eventually come into contact with people who seem to have a personal mission of consternation. These are the folks who don't seem happy unless they are making others miserable.

Years ago, one of my pastoral mentors told me, "You likely will serve many congregations in your ministry. The names and faces will change, but some of the personalities will stay the same. You will encounter difficult people everywhere you go."

How true.

However, this realization doesn't make the life of a pastor any easier. Sometimes one difficult person can shade the entire congregation and create an atmosphere that many pastors find intolerable. Even in a congregation of hundreds (or thousands), it doesn't take many critical voices to overshadow the overwhelming voices of support. Even a strong pastor can succumb to the difficult personalities or fall prey to those people who want to destroy a ministry.

A few reflections and tips may help, however; and when a pastor is encountering resistance or stress, even small steps can have a huge impact.

Consider, for example, the realities pastors always have faced in their leadership. The apostle Paul's letters in the New Testament are filled with examples of a leader who at various times had to defend his apostleship; had to support himself; had to speak the truth in love as he encountered lazy, sloppy, mean-spirited congregations. It is often helpful to remember that as pastoral leaders, we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. The church is still the church, and people are still sinful and flawed.

Some years ago, I recall reading a statistic indicating that psychologically and emotionally, 10 positive comments are required to offset one negative comment. Perhaps that is why we tend to give a greater amount of weight to the one difficult person rather than the 10 supportive people. The one negative voice sounds so much louder, and we have difficulty accepting the masses of support.

Every pastor needs to be reminded the congregation is filled with loving and supportive people. No doubt we all have received cards, letters and gifts of affirmation and thanksgiving through the years. These small gifts of word and gratitude never should be thrown away. Keep these in an Affirmation File; whenever you are provoked or begin to believe your ministry is not appreciated or desired, look through your file and feel the life-giving power of the Spirit.

Another point to remember is this: Some difficult people are not actually angry with the leader. They can be, in fact, angry at a host of other issues or conflicts found elsewhere in their lives. Many times, a parent who is angry at the youth leader actually may be angry with a son or daughter, have marital problems or may be encountering difficulties at work. Regardless, the manifestation of the anger may have little to do with the expressed problem. Sometimes, counseling and a good listening ear can resolve these conflicts and direct a difficult person to the help he or she really needs.

As the maxim states: Sometimes the problem is not the problem.

Likewise, there are other difficult people who fancy themselves as having far more power and authority than they really do. Some years ago, there was a young woman in the congregation who seemed to delight in spreading false rumors and accusations about church staff. For weeks our staff meetings were consumed by discussing ways to counter this woman's rumors; but the tide turned one afternoon when a long-standing member of the congregation advised us to ignore her. "No one takes her seriously," she told us, "and few people know who she is. This woman is simply trying to elevate herself by bringing others down."

Indeed, the advice of this older woman was sage; and as we began to ignore the rumors (instead of countering or feeding into them) they simply evaporated.

Finally, some difficult situations are best navigated by a head-on approach. When large personalities ensue, it is often helpful to bring people together face to face. Large congregational issues with difficult people cannot be addressed via email, through Facebook or Twitter or through secondhand conversations. The principles involved must come together to talk and seek healing, understanding and resolution in a Christian manner. No other approach will work no matter how painful the face-to-face discussion may be.

Pastoral leaders always do well to remember they always will have difficult people in the congregation. No one is perfect; that includes pastors, too.

In the end, we all need prayer, love and respect if we are to solve difficult problems. We all also know we have plenty of those to go around, no matter where we are serving.

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