If you are not active in the local church (which is a small part of my blog readership), please allow me to apologize in advance for this post about responding to difficult people. It’s really written to those inside the church—especially pastors. Please know it’s not at all representative of everyone in the church. In fact, it’s usually a very small minority of people. Thankfully.
That disclaimer out of the way, one of the more frustrating things about being a pastor is people who are difficult to deal with, usually because they are negative about everything. Thankfully, I deal with this less often the longer I am with the church.
When I was in church planting our complaints usually came from outside our church. Other churches didn’t like our methods or what they assumed we were doing. (They were usually not correct in many of their assumptions.) In the established church, difficulty in dealing with people comes from inside the church. Again, thankfully, often from a few people.
Either way, dealing with difficult people has been a huge part of my work. I talk with pastors every week who tell me they have large groups of people who are always negative about something they are doing. One guy told me recently his job has been threatened every week for the eight months he’s been pastor.
I have learned when change comes the complainers will rise—often among the most seemingly “religious” of people. And when these type people talk their negative energy spreads fast.
Of course, there are also people who are difficult even when nothing is changing.
How do we, as pastors, respond to difficult people in the church?
As Jesus taught His disciples how to build the church, a chief command was to love people no one else loved. Since they were to love even their enemies, this included loving people when they were not very lovely. Even people who are always difficult. (That’s a hard command sometimes, isn’t it?)
I have tried to lead a church with this philosophy. Along the way I have discovered what Jesus experienced in working with religious leaders in His day.
With this in mind, what do you do with constantly difficult people—some who even remain negative toward the mission God has called you to?
Here are seven ways to respond to difficult people:
Filter negative talk. Ask yourself if what they are saying lines up with truth. Is it true? If not, dismiss it quickly, so it won’t begin to control you. When you own falsehood about yourself or the church, you validate the person offering it. And, you fuel them for further negativity about you or the church. Ultimately, you are looking for truth, not one person’s opinion on truth.
Learn when necessary. We should not refuse to listen to criticism. There is an element of truth in most criticism, even among things you need to ultimately dismiss. Let’s not be arrogant. We should always be humble and teachable.
Surround yourself with some encouraging people. It’s true there are people who are difficult about everything. They would never encourage anyone. That’s the reality of working with people. But, there are also people who are positive about most things. They have great attitudes. They are supportive encouragers. I have found these people to be true Jesus-lovers. Every Christian leader needs to find a core of people who can encourage them in their walk with Christ, believes in their leadership ability, and who genuinely cares about their (and their family’s) best interest.
Remember difficult people are difficult to others too. It often helps me reconcile what a difficult person says about me when I realize they are always spreading their negativity somewhere. I’m not trying to be cruel, but it’s often more about who they are than who I am. If it were not me being criticized, it would be their next victim. Do not give as much weight to the voice of the consistently negative person. Sometimes we tend to give them the most attention.
The only way you will ever shut down the person who is always difficult is to refuse to give them an audience for their negativity. The more they are given a continued voice the more they bring other people into their negativity. If the same attention is placed on people who are a positive influence then they will bring people along into positivity.