"Pastor Ken, I was here before you came, and I'll be here after you're gone." A long-time member of my first church said this over 40 years ago when she and I had a disagreement on the mission of the church. It was a friendly discussion, but the lines were clearly drawn in intractable ways. Although she did not hold office, she was the "E.F. Hutton" of the church: when she spoke, everyone listened.
It was not exactly the way I had envisioned the beginning of my pastoral ministry, but it became an opportunity for the congregation to work through theological differences. The church, located in a picturesque and quaint sea-coast community where lots of tourists spent summers, was a merger of several churches through the years. As a result it represented both conservative evangelical and theologically liberal perspectives on faith and ministry.
In our disagreement on the church's mission, my concern was for the church to maintain a gracious and biblical witness in the community as well as worship the one true God in a way that upheld biblical truth. The woman was concerned for the church to be nothing more than a polite social club. She also wanted the church to protect a women's group associated with the church which was comprised mostly of people from the community who were not Christians or members of the church. This group was known for hosting the best Christmas and summer fairs in the area, but it had nothing to do with God. The issue was complicated by the fact that this group had raised the money to redecorate the 150 year-old parsonage just before my family moved in.
Although evangelicals in the church were a strong majority, we were sensitive to the history of the church with its diverse theological perspectives. Also, we were the only church in a distinct sub-section of the town. So we moved slowly and deliberately. It took almost four years for the church to work through the tensions. Ultimately, the congregation voted to align itself exclusively with evangelical convictions of biblical truth, and the community group was asked to disassociate itself from the church, which they did, but not without tears and unhappiness.
Other churches I have served as pastor and interim pastor through the years have been a delight to serve and have had capable and effective leaders who loved the Lord and were keen to follow biblical teaching. From my first church and the subsequent ones, I have learned some principles about dealing with difficult people. Here are eight:
- Pray. This does not go without saying, for in prayer we commit the matter to God and the work of the Holy Spirit to do what God wills. Prayer is not asking for my way to be done but for God's way. It is asking for wisdom, discernment, courage, grace, and patience, which we especially need in working with difficult leaders.
- Work with those you can. Seek those who love the Lord and his truth and are committed to the church's well-being. Disciple them and encourage their involvement in leadership.
- Preach the Bible graciously and redemptively. Careful, thoughtful, and judicious preaching has great potential for helping difficult people mature in their faith and grow in godliness. It also builds up those who have a deep commitment to God's truth so that they can come alongside you and work with difficult people in the church.
- Be honest but discreet. Don't gossip about difficult people, but be willing to humbly yet directly confront them—or "care-front" as David Augsberger likes to say— in the hope that they might change or leave. Sometimes it is best to do this with a trusted leader at your side. That keeps talk of the event from becoming your word against the other person's should the matter ever go beyond the private conversation.
- Take the long view. God is patient, and how he weaves things together is often different from our timetable. Realize that we are only part of his plan for the church. One person plants, another waters, but it is God who gives the increase.
- Remember the people belong to God. We refer to the people as "my church," but we know they belong to God, not us. Therefore, we can commit them to God—sometimes with tears and frustration—knowing that God works all things together according to his good purpose.
- Trust in God. Someone has said, "God is the cure-giver; I am only the care-giver." This perspective enables us to trust that God will act as he desires for their good and the greater good of the church.
- Learn from experience. A wise Christian leader once said to a group I was part of, "Personal experience is the only kind I've ever had." So don't apologize for experience, including mistakes, but learn from it, knowing that God uses our personal experience as training ground for future encounters. Like most pastors, I would rather be a peace-keeper than a peace-maker, but I've also learned that painful past experiences like my first church help me to handle later difficulties with confidence and humility (and those two qualities can go together).
All ministry, including working with difficult people, is God's work. For this we can be profoundly thankful, even if it is painful and we do not always understand what's happening. After all, it's not about us, it's about God.
Ken Swetland is the Senior Professor of Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts.
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