Pastoral ministry is people work and people can be difficult. Some folks seem to have the spiritual gift of pointing out everything you and the church could do better. Others have impossibly high expectations that despite your good intentions you never seem to meet. Still others are just plain ornery: cantankerous old (or young) cusses that fit the profile of grumpy goats, better than cuddly sheep. And speaking of sheep, well, you’ve probably read enough about them to know it’s not a flattering metaphor. In short, churches are full of individuals with flawed personalities, irksome quirks, psychological disorders, and good old-fashioned sins. Sometimes, after discussing some difficult situation, my wife and I look knowingly at one other and say (tongue in cheek), “Everybody’s weird except us.”
So, how do you deal with difficult people?
1. Remember they are people.
That they’re people is more important than that they’re difficult. Sometimes we can get so focused on the problems people bring to us, the inconvenience those problems pose to our schedules, and the anxiety and frustration it makes us feel, that we forget they’re people. People created imago Dei – in the image of God. People with stories to tell, feelings to understand, and hurts to heal. They are people to be loved, not problems to be fixed. And the truth is, we’ll never help them if we forget this. Don’t depersonalize difficult people.
2. Pray and listen.
We should never presume that we help people if we will not pray for them and listen to them. Pray for them. Pray for yourself. Pray for wisdom. Pray for the ability to hear and understand. Pray James 3:13-18 into your life and theirs.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:13-18)
Then sit down and talk with them, seeking first to understand, rather than be understood. This doesn’t mean every problem will be solved or every conflict avoided. But a prayerful dependence on the Lord, with a willingness to genuinely listen, and a sincere desire to understand, will always put you in a better position to love.
3. Sharpen your pastoral skills by learning from the great spiritual masters of the past.
This starts, of course, with regular reading and meditation on Scripture, but also includes the great pastors and spiritual directors of centuries gone by. There is biblical warrant for this: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).
It’s tempting for pastors to only read books that are hot off the press, written by successful leaders of large churches and organizations, that focus largely on strategic thinking, innovative programs, and managerial technique. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. There’s much to learn from these kinds of books. But not the skills for soul care. For this, turn to Baxter’s Reformed Pastor and Christian Directory, or Bridges’The Christian Ministry, or Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure, or the excellent pastoral series by Eugene Peterson.
As an example of the kind of insight these older books can provide, consider these words from St. Gregory the Great’s classic sixth-century primer, The Book of Pastoral Rule. In Part III, Gregory warns that, “one and the same exhortation is not suited for everyone because not everyone shares the same quality of character.”
For example, what often helps some people will cause harm in others, just as herbs that are nutritious to some animals will kill others…Likewise, the medicine that cures one disease will spur another, and the bread that fortifies a grown man can kill a young child.
Gregory then goes on to list over seventy different “traits” or conditions that the wise pastor should consider and differentiate between, including:
- men and women;
- young and old;
- poor and rich;
- joyful and sad;…
- the bold and the modest;…
- the impatient and the patient;
- the healthy and the sick;…
- the lazy and the hasty;…
- the obstinate and the fickle;…
- those who live in discord and those who are peaceful;…
- those who deplore sins of action and those who deplore sins of thought;
- those who bewail their sins but do not cease in committing them,
- and those who cease but do not bewail past sins… and many more! 
I know. That’s an overwhelming list. But the ancient pastors knew that disorders of the soul are as complex and varied as maladies of the body. No one would respect a physician who prescribes aspirin for every patient. Panaceas are an illusion. There is no medicine suited to cure all conditions. The same is true in the spiritual life.
And this means that the pastor must always…
4. Be patient and kind, remembering that God alone is the one who changes hearts.
Hear the advice of an aged apostle to a young pastor:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
I can’t change people. Only God can. What I can do, by God’s grace, is cultivate a kind and gentle heart, that is ready to listen, able to teach, quick to forgive, and prepared to point difficult people to the Savior.
5. Finally, remember that you, too, are a difficult person to someone!
C. S. Lewis wrote an incisive essay called “The Trouble with X,” in which he describes the struggles we all have with certain people who have a “fatal flaw” in their character that causes us difficulty and frustration. But by the end of the essay, Lewis turns the tables on you, with the reminder that, “you also are just that sort of person. You also have a fatal flaw in your character.”
All the hopes and plans of others have again and again shipwrecked on your character just as your hopes and plans have shipwrecked on theirs…It is important to realize that there is some really fatal flaw in you: something which gives others the same feeling of despair which their flaws give you.
The day that sinks in is sobering and humbling. But unless we are growing in this kind of self-awareness, we will always tend to point out splinters in the eyes of difficult church members, while ignoring the Redwood trees in our own.
This post was originally written for ChurchPastor.com.
 There are four volumes in this series, all published by Eerdmans: Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (1989); Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (1992); The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (1993); and Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (1994).
 St Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule, George E. Demacopoulos, transl. (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007) p. 87.
 Ibid., pp. 88-89.
 C. S. Lewis, “The Trouble with X…” in God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972) p. 153.
thank you; believe too the Lord speaks (more?) about ‘difficult’ shepherds for each of His lambs He gathers in His arms and carries close to His heart
Jesus said do you love Me more than these?”..“Tend My lambs.” “Shepherd My sheep.” “Tend My sheep”. John 21:15-17
This is an excellent post, full of sagacious counsel.
I've been reflecting a lot this spring on a statement I heard from a sociologist on a radio interview. They observed that "war speech" has two components in characterizing the 'enemy': (1) the enemy is imminently dangerous; and (2) the enemy is sub-human.
The classic example of this is the Nazi propaganda machine: (1) the Jews are to blame for all of Germany's financial woes and want to plunder us more (imminently dangerous); and (2) Jews are an inferior race/breed/dogs (sub-human). [This is on my mind all the more as I'm reading a biography of Bonhoeffer.
But, I see these same elements of "war speech" playing out in company politics, relationships or family cold wars, etc.
"Don’t depersonalize difficult people."
Professional critics, impossibly high expectations, and cantankerous??? Guilty of all charges.
In fact, as I reflect on point #5, I often feel surrounded by difficult people, but maybe I'm the common denominator...
Thanks for the post.
Thank you for your enlightening post. I find the most humbling reminder is that I may be someone else's difficult person. This moves me from my self-righteous "rightness" into an accepting attitude, acknowledging that we are all unique, with the capacity to be loving and lovable.
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