Anyone who has been involved in pastoral ministry for any length of time will know the frustration of having to deal with ‘difficult’ people.  In fact, for some pastors, their long-term survival in pastoral ministry depends on whether they can learn to cope with the emotional drain caused by difficult people in their congregation. 

People in society come with many different personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies and rough edges, and the church demographic certainly reflects this. The world tends to be hard on many of these people.  Perhaps for this reason, churches can actually attract difficult people.  We tend to be more accepting and tolerant, and rightly so. Every church has its share of these people, and many of them are ostensibly believers.  For all Christians, and especially for pastors, the old adage is very true: ‘You can choose your friends but not your relatives’!

Some Types of Difficult People

Psychologists may have different ways of categorising ‘difficult’ people, but within the fellowship of the church certain relational challenges tend to dominate:

Prickly people 
These people, usually because of their insensitive, blunt, black-and-white, or self-righteous ways, have a knack of upsetting others in the church, creating dramas for the pastor to sort out.  They lack normal social filters.

These people expect regular time with the pastor, often creating or manipulating situations as a way of getting his attention.  Included here might be some with personality disorders who are lonely, insecure, depressive, hypochondriacal or paranoid.

These people are annoyed, often by trivial things, about the church (people, programmes, property etc.), and like to point these out to the pastor, expecting his prompt attention to solving them.  They can be pushy and demanding and may undermine the pastor and church leaders.

These people love rules, procedures, the church’s history and traditions, and the church Constitution.

Theological ‘experts’ 
These people love to discuss-debate-disagree with the pastor, and sometimes hold him to ransom for his teaching.  It’s worse when they involve others and become divisive.

Conspiracy theorists
These people feed on pseudo-spiritual ideas and love to discuss them with pastors and anyone else who will listen to their passionately held convictions.

People with mental illness
Some of these people expect the pastor to play the role of a medical professional in their times of depression, anxiety, despair etc., which can push him uncomfortably beyond his area of pastoral competence.

Let’s be Honest

Scanning the above list, most pastors will immediately identify folk from their congregation who fit more or less into some of these categories.  They may also feel a certain pang of guilt as they confess to bad attitudes associated with these relationships.  As pastors, we know that we should love our people—all of them.  People are our core business.  And Paul sets the standard for us in 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8:

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

But let’s be honest.  Some people press our buttons.  Some people are really hard work!

Practical Advice

Some of these approaches may help in pastoring difficult people:

1.  Try to accept everyone at face value as a caring friend
We should avoid pre-judging people.  While some red flags might appear early, err on the side of generosity in dealing with them.  Listen well, show patience, be humble.  Like Jesus, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3b). 

This is always a good starting point in building pastoral relationships.  The ease with which Jesus was able to relate to people of all different personalities, backgrounds and lifestyles is a wonderful encouragement to all of us on the frontlines of pastoral work.  Start with the goal of building bridges and being a peacemaker.  Always act with love and integrity, and don’t dishonour the gospel.

2.  Identify the real issue behind difficult people
As difficulties emerge, focus on the problem rather than the person.  Is there a deeper issue here?  In this way it is often possible to feel sorry for the difficult person.  Usually they are the one who needs help.

3.  Learn to manage people without irritation and frustration
In the busyness of pastoral ministry, time spent with difficult people can test our priorities, our emotional intelligence, our time management skills and our godliness.  Is this person merely wasting my time?  How genuine is the need?  How much time can I afford to spend? 

There is no blanket answer to these questions, but it is important that the pastor does not lose control of himself or the relationship.  People quickly work out whether we genuinely care about them.  The advice of Romans 12:18 is worth noting: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all”.

4.  Set reasonable boundaries
Once a relationship has been established, exercise wisdom in how it will work moving forward.  Let them know your time is limited.  Set limits on your availability.  Avoid frequent or lengthy phone calls or Facebook sessions.  Don’t agree with them just to keep the peace.  Express disagreement graciously but firmly.  Take the initiative in ending conversations e.g. “I’ve got to go, but let’s pray first …”.

5.  Be alert to troublemakers
Often these people have a recurring history of causing problems in other churches and it is the pastor’s lot to deal with them.  After giving them the benefit of the doubt, it may be necessary to take a firm stand for the protection of the church family.  Think of Jesus and his encounters with the Pharisees, and Paul with false teachers!

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. (2 Timothy 2:23-25)

6.  When appropriate, involve others
Especially in long-term scenarios, it may be appropriate to involve others in caring for difficult people.  Perhaps an elder or a member of the pastoral care team.  This can be helpful in reducing the pressure on the pastor, and will often work out best for everyone concerned.  Choose mature people who can understand the issues and care spiritually.  The goal is to avoid dependence on any one person, but to help them grow in Christ and become better integrated into the life of the church family.

7.  Try to look for a spiritual angle
Ask yourself questions such as:

  • Why has God led this person to me at this moment?
  • How would Jesus deal with him/her?
  • What would he say or do?
  • Is there a passage of scripture that I can read or apply?
  • How can I point this person to God or the gospel?
  • How can I pray with and for him/her?
  • Do I believe God can transform this person’s life?

8.  Don’t be afraid to refer people with major problems
Realise when you are out of your depth.  People with significant personality disorders, mental health diagnoses, complex psychological problems, a family history of trauma or abuse, major marriage difficulties etc. may need professional help.  While pastors may be able to provide a level of ongoing encouragement and spiritual support, they should be realistic at this point.

The Blessing of Difficult People

It is sometimes said that pastoral ministry is more an art than a craft.  It involves subtlety and nuance and humble self-examination.  Difficult people test this dimension of ministry.  Pastors who seem to be constantly embroiled in fractious relationships have some serious questions to consider.  But good pastors learn the art of handling difficult people, perhaps over many years.  It takes time and patience and a willingness to persevere with people who are not easy to love.  Yet, like the proverbial ‘pebble in the shoe’, God often uses these people in our churches to slow us down and teach us valuable lessons that can enrich our ministry. 

We discover that:

  • People come in many different packages, and they all matter to God.
  • Shepherding God’s sheep is often ‘messy’, and that’s pretty normal!
  • Learning to ‘read’ and handle people graciously is essential to sustaining fruitful long-term ministry.
  • Our sinful biases and attitudes towards others often lurk just below the surface.
  • We can be ‘difficult’ people ourselves when we become stubborn, grumpy, blunt and judgemental toward others.
  • God often uses difficult people to help in our spiritual growth as we learn to ‘bear with each other’ in love e.g. patience, kindness, gentleness, tolerance.
  • We should not be too quick to give up or write people off—thankfully God doesn’t!