“Saboteurs” is the word that Steve Bagi gives to the people who intentionally or unintentionally jeopardize both the church’s health and yours. Bagi writes:
In our attempt to be fair and democratic we have sometimes allowed people to take the floor who shouldn’t have even been allowed into the meeting. There is cost to confrontation, but sadly there is a greater cost to chickening out…i
Calling someone a “saboteur” is pretty dramatic. However, sometimes the pastoral thing to do is to find a kind but firm way to say to someone, “You’re out of line.” When dealing with difficult people, the following truths have been helpful to me:
1. Labeling people is dangerous.
In my library, I have two very different books on this subject. One is Paul Meier’s book Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You; the other is Arthur Boer’s book Never Call Them Jerks! I deeply appreciate Meier’s warning not to let unhealthy people rob us of our joy. However, Boer makes a great point; if we label people and call them names, we make it easy on ourselves to dismiss them. Once I label someone a knucklehead or knothead, blockhead, or bonehead, I’ve dehumanized him or her. Instead of seeing them as flesh-and-blood individuals, as moms and dads, as people with hurts, fears, dreams, and goals, they become objects—objects that don’t deserve our energy, our understanding, or our love.
If someone has forfeited the right to your energy by repeated misbehavior, so be it; just don’t go there too quickly.
2. Problems almost never “work themselves out.” But sometimes they do. Although they usually don’t.
Hoping sticky situations will blow over, and kicking the proverbial can down the road, is often the cowardly way of dealing with things. But sometimes letting things play out is wise.
Sometimes…sometimes…letting things work themselves out actually works. One of the roles of leadership is to do our best to determine which situations might actually resolve themselves and which ones will require our intervention.
3. Some church folks have great attendance records but are emotionally immature.
In the list of the fruit of the Spirit, regular attendance at church functions is not included. And emotional maturity is not always in direct proportion to the number of times someone has sat through small group sessions or Sunday school classes. So don’t assume that those who are always present are those who need to drive the discussion.
4. Playing the role of victim is just not helpful.
You are not the victims of the deacons or the elders or the Women’s Circle or anybody else. They might have treated you badly, but that doesn’t make you a victim. Victims have little recourse other than to yell for help. That is not you.
Besides, with the role of victim come several disadvantages: (1) our “victimizers” get in our heads; (2) we miss the opportunities to grow and change that owning our own problems brings; and (3) we aren’t much fun for healthy people to be around.
5. If you are a pastor, remember: Your church has a sinner for its pastor.
It is important to stand firmly against the manipulation and mutiny of difficult people. It is equally important that we not always assume the difficult person is someone else. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”ii
6. Saboteurs do have to be confronted.
When the health and mission of the congregation hang in the balance (as well as the lives and eternal destinies of individuals), the overseer has a responsibility to protect the flock from divisive people.
Confrontation is more difficult for some of us, and meeting problems head-on is often not a strength of the “minister type.” Nonetheless, leadership sometimes demands unpleasant confrontation. We must be discerning enough to know when to confront, courageous enough to do it when the situation demands it, and wise enough to know how.
If confrontation is your weakness, one thing you can do is to read some good books. Two I recommend are Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, and How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding, by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Learn all you can, then muster your courage and have that hard talk.
CHC Coordinator Virginia
–adapted from Travis’ upcoming book, For Ministers About to Start…Or About to Give Up, The Columbia Partnership
Travis Collins wears two major hats, as Director of Mission Advancement and Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US and as a consultant with The Center for Healthy Churches. Travis served for twenty-five years as a senior pastor, the last nineteen years in two large congregations. His experience also includes missionary service in Venezuela and Nigeria. He is a graduate of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of Directionally Challenged (2007) and Tough Calls (2008). His third book, based on Acts 20:28, will be released in the fall of 2014 (Chalice Press). Travis and his wife, Keri, have three adult children.