Difficult People

I used to think it was just me.  In every church I have served I have encountered difficult people: unreasonable, manipulative, power-grabbing, ornery, intimidating and dysfunctional people.  One of my favorite stories is about two young mothers with limited relational skills who were feuding with each other.  When their hatred spilled over to their young daughters, who began fighting each other in the church nursery, I decided it was time to intervene.  I asked both women to meet in my office so we could talk it out together.  However, one of the mothers was so offended that that I was “coercing” her to communicate face to face that she threatened to call her attorney.

Why do we have difficult people in the church? 

  • Many people who come to our churches are hurting.  They have their own heartache, disappointment, and broken dreams.  At times, that pain is transferred to the pastor or church leadership in the form of reactionary behavior.
  • At times, people who feel powerless in their personal lives attempt to exercise power in the church because no one will challenge them.  Since Christians think they need to be welcoming to all, in the name of grace, they tolerate behavior which would be unacceptable anywhere else.
  • Churches are like families.  We don’t get to pick and choose who our fellow parishioners are.  According to Parker Palmer in The Promise of Paradox (1980), “We might define true community as that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
  • Disruptive behavior is often a sign of disease in the system.  If good communication skills and healthy behavior are not modeled and taught from the pastor, staff and lay leaders, church members feel free to act out in destructive ways.  When the disease goes unchecked for years, bad behavior becomes entrenched and even normal in some churches.

We all want to love, serve and be part of a church that behaves and communicates in mature fashion.  It would be so refreshing if our church members actually talked directly to the person with whom they are having difficulties.  We hope that parishioners do not become defensive when gently confronted but will seek to grow in grace and move on to perfection.  How can we move from dysfunctional behavior to healthy behavior?   

Change yourself first!!!

  • You set the tone for change in congregational behavior by how you behave as a self-differentiated leader.  Take charge of yourself, not others.
  • Beware of using the church to meet your own needs. 
  • Be careful about taking sides and/or becoming triangulated.  Don’t let others push your buttons. 
  • Don’t get sucked into others’ disputes.  Do not overreact or over-function.     
  • Do not underreact.  Do not let people hold the entire congregational system hostage by ignoring or downplaying bad behavior or being passive.  People look to the pastor for leadership in crisis situations.
  • Remain calm, no matter what the dispute.  When we are calm, we think more clearly, reasonable and carefully.
  • When we react in non-anxious ways, rather than defensively or with anger, others will take their cue from us.  The word “anxious” comes from the Latin angustia, which means “narrowness.”  Anxiety constricts us and narrows our perceptions.

Once you change yourself, how can you create a healthy climate in your church?

  • Understanding that conflict is normal, focus on fostering responsible behavior. 
  • Do not label people but show respect and kindness to all.
  • Remind your congregation that engaging conflict is not a game of win and lose.  Rather, the goal is to focus on the mission and health of the church. 
  • Create an atmosphere of openness where constructive feedback is welcomed and growth is celebrated.  Publish minutes of meetings (except SPRC).  Hold periodic “town hall” meetings to encourage healthy communication.  Know when to bring conflicted parties to the table. 
  • Squelch the rumor mills by ensuring that people know the difference between secrecy and confidentiality. 
  • Encourage people to truly listen to one another.  People who act out often simply need someone to listen to them.
  • Develop established procedures through the Staff Parish Relations Committee for how church members express concerns and communicate with each other.  We have to change the system as well as people.
  • Be careful about electing difficult people to leadership in the church.  They may not have the emotional intelligence to seek the good of the whole.
  • Be patient and remember that God is with us.

Sometimes pastors wonder if they should ask difficult people to leave the church.  It’s important to realize that our best non-reactive behavior may bring out even worse behavior in others, as they realize they aren’t getting their way.  In other words, it may get worse before it gets better.  At times, people choose to leave the church when they realize they can’t get away with dysfunctional behavior.  My preference, however, is for loving and training people back to healthy behavior rather than asking them to leave. 

I’ve seen stunning changes in congregations when pastors, staff and lay people learn how to relate in healthy ways.  The atmosphere of the church becomes completely different.  Visitors are more apt to return when they do not sense the tension of dysfunctional behavior.  Plus, there’s lots more time and energy to be about the mission of the church! 

If you want to learn more, please come to the SPRC workshops on January 21 and 24 at Rockford UMC and Central UMC, Muskegon (6:45 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.).  I also highly recommend a workshop sponsored by the Grand Rapids District and led by Naomi Garcia.  It’s called “Conflict Transformation Skills for Congregations” and will be held on Saturday, March 15, at First UMC in Grand Rapids from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  The registration form is attached to this email.  I hope to see you there! 

Blessings, Laurie


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.