By Rick Grover
I met with an African-American pastor in our community who told me his church has signs throughout its building that convey one of his church’s values. The signs read: Be Nice or Leave!
He indicated his church in the past had a significant challenge with a certain group of longtime members who would run off new people. The established group felt threatened by anybody with new or different ideas. Sound familiar? Rather than dealing with those differences in a healthy, biblical way, members of the group would say critical things and act mean-spirited until those with whom they disagreed would leave.
After dealing with these problems for a number of years, the pastor had enough influence and biblical teaching to guide some in the established group to gain a fresh perspective, and they adopted a new core value that even a child in preschool could understand: you’d better be nice, or you need to go somewhere else.
Some within the critical group changed their outlook, and others chose to leave. From that point forward, however, the church experienced phenomenal growth along with a much deeper sense of Christian community, love, discipleship, and service.
I’ve thought about my conversation with that pastor for about a year now, and I’m beginning to wonder when I can put up a few signs. Which leads me to this question: How do we deal with negative, critical, mean-spirited people in the body of Christ? Every elder, minister, youth worker, children’s worker, Sunday school teacher, and volunteer has had to work with people who make ministry unbearable at times, leaving us to dream about starting a new church in Tahiti—without any people!
First Things First
After having encountered quite a few folks in the “special-needs-for-the-critically-inclined group” over the years, I’ve found the best place for me to face these challenges is by first facing myself. I’m a type A personality who likes to set vision and a strategic plan, and then work to get things done. For some odd reason, though, not everybody is always as enthusiastic about my vision and goals as I am!
Some folks are just mean. Others—and this includes the majority who are in this “special-needs” group—aren’t always mean, but they’re situationally mean. Their dander gets up depending on the situation. And this usually includes situations I’ve created.
When I became senior pastor of the church I now serve, the chairman of the elders told me the one thing he does not like is to be surprised in elders’ meetings. (Hint: If an elder tells you something he does not like, pay attention.) The only times we’ve gotten crossways were when I broke this agreement, and I incurred the wrath caused by my own doing. Lesson learned.
Before I pigeonhole people as mean-spirited, negative, critical individuals, I need to first do a heart check on myself. Am I upset with someone because I think they are blocking what I think is best? Have I done anything to create a situation that has fostered a negative reaction? Am I part of the problem? If so, I need to own up to it, repent, and even go to the other person and apologize for creating situations that have led to negative responses.
Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
A second step I’ve been working on is to identify, if possible, what’s going on in a critical person’s life. When I discover that a mean-spirited man lost his wife a year ago, and he’s living all alone with no relatives in the area, and his best friend (who happens to be his dog) just died, I begin to understand why he may be demonstrating such negative, critical behavior.
It’s important to point out we don’t have to approve of someone’s negative behavior or attitude, but we can try to understand it and deal with it appropriately. As the old saying goes, “To understand a man, you’ve got to walk a mile in his shoes, whether they fit or not.”
My heart has softened many a time when I’ve taken into consideration what the other person has gone through in life.
Thick Skin, Soft Heart
There are times, however, when I earnestly try to understand another’s perspective and the possibility for misunderstanding, I still must come to an unfortunate conclusion. Some people—even Christians—can be mean, critical, and downright nasty.
I used to think I could change people if I just talked to them differently, smiled at them more, and explained why I believe we need to move in a certain direction. I thought my wise, kind words could win them over.
Sometimes my approach helps. But sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t help, and an individual is still mean-spirited and obstinate, then I have to reach the point I can let it go. That’s right—let it go. I leave them in the hands of Jesus, and I pray God will move in their heart. I do my best not to have an attitude of self-righteousness (which is easy to fall into), and I have to choose to walk away.
Sometimes I think Christians can be too nice. That might seem like it contradicts everything I’ve been writing up to this point, but it doesn’t. When people are mean and hateful, this doesn’t say we should become mean and hateful back. But we don’t need to cower in fear, lose sleep over someone’s response to a sermon or a board meeting, and allow criticism to fester bitterness in our own hearts.
Sometimes, for the good of the body of Christ, we need to be bold enough to say, “Be nice or leave!” As a community of faith, we choose not to tolerate certain immoral behaviors, but when it comes to church members manifesting mean-spirited, hateful attitudes and words, we become way too tolerant.
A staff member said recently, “We’ve lost people because of bad things leaders have done here, but now we’re worried because people might get upset and leave when we believe we’re doing the right thing? What’s wrong with that picture?”
The Bible calls us to be “humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2, 3). We are also called to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19). But in my experience there are times when, after biblical guidelines to confront (Matthew 18:15-20) have failed, I need to say lovingly and firmly, “Be nice or leave!”
When I have done so, some folks have repented and rejoined the community of faith with a more loving spirit. And, yes, at other times people have moved on to another church. I don’t like it when people leave, but I’ve found it sometimes needs to happen for the church to move forward in fulfilling her mission.
I’ve had a hard time with this aspect of ministry. I’ve been far too concerned about what people think of me. I’ve been far too worried about offending people. I’ve lost many nights of sleep over these issues, and even to this day, I become discouraged when I receive a critical e-mail or hateful letter.
If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for anyone. God is helping me develop a thick skin while maintaining a soft heart. I pray for boldness and wisdom for all of us in ministry and leadership. We can’t please everyone, and we shouldn’t even try. We should do everything possible, though, to please the One who really matters, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s make sure we’re not the ones who need to be told, “Be nice or leave!”
Rick Grover is lead pastor at Owensboro (Kentucky) Christian Church.