How to relate to difficult people at church

Every pastor has a few of those people: The ones you avoid at coffee hour. The ones you think about in the middle of the night. The ones who cling to you or come after you. The people you try to keep off the board. They may be extra intense. They may have a strong point of view that completely differs from yours. They may have mental health issues. They may have many emotional and physical needs.

What do you do about them?

Here’s what we usually do:

Avoid them.

Complain to others (often our spouse) about them.

Spend more time with them than we want.

Spend time solving their problems.

Ruminate on what to do about them.

Here are some other options to consider.

  1. Instead of avoiding, lean in to your own anxiety and approach them. When you notice the tendency to avoid, resist it. If they call you and your heart sinks, call or text them back quickly. If you see them and want to go the other way, go talk to them. You can take just a few minutes, but it’s a way of not lettng your anxiety about them govern you.
  2. Instead of complaining about them, talk to them. You may need to make requests to them about their behavior (easier said than done, I know). At least try to stop complaining about them–it won’t solve the problem. And complaining to your spouse won’t help your marriage (or your spouse’s relationship with that individual).
  3. Instead of spending more time with them, spend less time. This may seem to contradict number one, but you can do both at different times. For the people who monopolize your time, remember that you don’t have to spend as much time with them as they want. You can say, I have to go now. I have another appointment. I’ll talk to you Sunday. Some people will talk to you for two hours if you let them, and you don’t have to spend that much time.
  4. Instead of spending time solving their problems, push the responsibility back to them. “I’m all out of ideas. What ideas do you have?” “What resources do you have that will help you figure this out:”  “How is your faith a help for you at this difficult time?”
  5. Instead of spending time ruminating on a problem person and getting nowhere, reflect on your own ministry goals.

Here are two additional ideas to go deeper:

  1. Think about your own response to this person. They may have issues, but so do you–we all do. Something in you gets hooked by them. Reflect on your own family of origin, and what the family patterns might make you vulnerable here.
  2. Pray for them. Use this challenging relationships as a spiritual growth opportunity. At the very least, you can simply mention their name to God.

What do you do to manage a difficult relationship at church in a healthier way?

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