By David Roadcup
How we react to difficult people and their behavior is a test of how well we’ve implemented Scripture’s relational principles. The Word tells us how to respond when difficult situations present themselves.
Effective leaders follow the teachings of patience, forbearance, self-control, careful thought, and action. When called upon to deal with a difficult person, our patience and forbearance will be strengthened as we do the right thing in dealing with those who need help.
Dealing with difficult people is always a stretching experience. As James 1:2-4 instructs us, difficult situations, especially those prompted by difficult people, prompt us to grow.
I want to clarify that I’m not talking about supportive members of the congregation who might ask tough questions. Supportive members have the right to ask about issues, policies, and financial matters in the life of the church. People should not be written off as “difficult” by leaders simply because they ask questions—even pointed questions—to seek clarification. As church leaders, we should not be put off by such inquiries. There needs to be a balance in which the elders, staff, and congregation hold each other accountable. Such give-and-take indicates a healthy congregational life.
But difficult people are in an entirely different category.
Difficult people are, almost by default, unhappy, frustrated individuals. They desire to have control and enjoy being on top. They may suffer from depression. They may be fearful. They may have severe emotional insecurity issues. They do not lack for opinions on numerous topics. Some have the tendency to beef, bite, and bellyache about any number of issues and decisions in church life. Some gossip. Many maintain a critical, negative, divisive spirit.
Difficult people might not know they are out of step with the rest of the congregation. Some are angry and communicate that fact. They may feel entitled. They may be envious. They can be combative, even abusive. Inflexibility is often part of their makeup. Difficult people, in most cases, are spiritually blind. They may have medical or psychiatric issues. They might even be affected by the demonic.
Keeping all this in mind, be on the lookout for these warning signs (or “opportunities to grow,” if you prefer that viewpoint):
- a change or cooling in a relationship
- “concerns” expressed in a cloaked veneer of caring
- criticism or “stirring of the pot”
- an interruption in their giving
- collecting supporters
- clandestine meetings
- attacks or hurtful or negative opinions expressed in public meetings
Difficult people exhibit behaviors that express their struggles and needs. The following word pictures describe different behaviors that difficult people may exhibit:
- The Critic constantly complains and dispenses unwanted advice.
- The Martyr plays the victim and is wracked with self-pity.
- The Wet Blanket is pessimistic and invariably negative.
- The Steamroller absolutely must have his or her own way.
- The Gossip spreads rumors and leaks secrets.
- The Control Freak is simply unable to “let go and let be.”
- The Sniper “shoots” from cover and refuses to confront or address directly.
- The Tank bullies others.
- The Volcano verbally explodes to destabilize the situation or conversation to gain control.
- The Sponge is constantly in need but never returns anything.
- The Betrayer feigns loyalty but undermines others.
Don’t get caught up by these or other behaviors. Character lies beneath behavior, and guiding our people into godly, mature character is always the foremost concern of an elder. When Jesus said, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48*), the Greek word for perfect carries the idea of maturity and completeness. That’s what “making disciples” is all about—helping each other take on the character of Jesus. When we see these behaviors, look deeper to character.
Troubled situations almost always get worse when they are not confronted and carefully handled prayerfully, directly, and urgently. And yet, some try to ignore the behavior of difficult people and the problems that ungodly behaviors create, waiting and hoping that the people and problems will go away. But ignoring trouble is the worst thing the leadership team can do. (The second-worst approach is calling a public meeting.)
As shepherds of our congregations, we need to actively watch over our flocks, and when some of the sheep are biting, harassing, and otherwise causing conflict among the flock, we must prayerfully make deliberate, conscientious, even step-by-step plans as an eldership to deal diligently with the impasse. Whatever our plan, it must stand equally well on all four of these “legs”:
1. In all things, we want to bring glory to God and work hard for his will ultimately to be done.
“Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
2. We want to protect the church and the ministry God has established and to whom we are accountable.
“Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; not for sordid gain, but with eagerness” (1 Peter 5:2).
“Upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18).
3. We should carry out all actions and steps regarding this sensitive situation carefully and in an orderly fashion.
“But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
4. As we seek to bring peace, we should minister to those who are offensive and work toward reconciliation.
“Being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
“[Brothers,] even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:1-3).
We lead our flock by stepping into the fray, perhaps even receiving a few “cheap shots” in the process, to help in every way we possibly can to bring reconciliation, restoration, peace, and wholeness to those under our watchful care. God has made us ambassadors of his Son, sharing this message of reconciliation (see 2 Corinthians 5:19, 20). Leadership in the church always means serving. “The one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant” (Luke 22:26).
Let’s lead well.
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*All Scripture verses are from the New American Standard Bible.
David Roadcup is cofounder and outreach director for E2: Effective Elders. He also serves as professor of discipleship and global outreach representative with TCM International Institute. He is also on the board of directors of Christian Arabic Services.