Dealing with Difficult People
Every month, my wife and I host a lunch for new people at our church. It is a time to connect with new people and make sure they see me not just as a pastor on a platform but as a person who is approachable and personable. One of my favorite portions of the gathering is a question and answer time that usually lasts about an hour. I open that time by letting everyone know they can ask anything from questions about theology and doctrine to questions about church structure or even my family. A couple of months ago, as we were hosting one of these events, a woman asked a question that was more thoughtful than most questions that get asked. I get the typical “What’s your favorite food?” or “Why is it so cold in the sanctuary?” questions, but this one was different. In a very thoughtful way, she asked, “What is your favorite and least favorite part of pastoral ministry?” What a question!
I pondered for a bit, my mind filling up with everything I love and the things I could do without. As I thought through these things, each one of them surrounded the same thing. Before I knew it, I blurted out, People! The answer to both questions is people. People are the greatest part of ministry, but they can also be the most challenging part. To be clear, it’s not just those of us in the vocational ministry that have issues with people; it is true for all of us. People are our greatest joy as well as the thing that can be the most frustrating part of our day. It has been said that ministry would be great if it weren’t for the people. While this is somewhat true, it doesn’t consider that if there weren’t people, there would be no ministry!
Some of you may be thinking, Dan, tell me something I don’t know. I already know this, so what can I do about it? How do we, as disciples of Jesus, do a better job at dealing with difficult people and difficult situations?
Before diving into the solutions, I want to make sure we have a baseline understanding that will help us all in our conflict resolution with difficult people.
People are Difficult
God has created us with so many great attributes, but with nearly 8 billion people on this earth, some of them are bound to rub you the wrong way. In fact, sometimes the people that bug us the most are the people that God calls us to love the most: Hint, you will see them during the holidays. Knowing that people are difficult isn’t a surprise to any of you reading this, but it is what I am using to prime the pump for my next point…
You are Difficult Too
Ouch. I get it, that one stings a little bit, but the truth needed to be shared. If you are reading this, you have been in the past or are currently a difficult person to someone. I know that I can be difficult too. When we talk about conflict and difficult people, we all have someone that comes to mind. Maybe it’s a ministry leader that continues to stand in the way of my/God’s great idea. Or perhaps it’s that committee member that seems to be against us at every turn. However, before we get into the solutions, I want you to recognize that the difficulty you may be having with someone could have originated in you. Whether it be a miscommunication, an unrealized expectation, a harsh word that you thought you gave in love but they didn’t receive in love, or maybe even a text message or email that didn’t have the proper number or right kind of emojis to communicate effectively, you may have more to do with the difficult person or situation that you think.
So the question we are left with is how do we deal with these situations?
How do we deal with difficult people?
One major factor in dealing with problem people and difficult situations is prayer. I know that you have logically thought out the whole thing, and you are in the right, and they are in the wrong, but for the sake of argument, let’s just say there is something you may have missed. Knowing that we are not perfect people should make us desperate to reach out to a God who knows all and sees all. Prayer is the way we do this. By asking God to see the situation as he does or giving you supernatural love for them, God can intervene in any and every situation we bring to Him. Our God is able!
Prayer involves humility. In order to come before the God of all creation and ask him for his help, there is a humbling posture that must take place. It is the recognition that he is God, and we are not. It is the recognition that he can fix the problem, and we cannot. It is also coming to him with our hands open and asking God some introspective questions:
- Where am I wrong in this situation?
- Where have I misjudged?
- Where have I been difficult?
- Where have I not believed the best in them(1 Corinthians 13)?
When you come to God with a posture of humility, it will be easier to see the speck in your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:5).
Let’s be honest, we need to communicate better. Sometimes when one of my kids is frustrated, I need to say, “Use your words.” I am telling them that angry faces, huffing, and passive-aggressive sighs don’t fix situations. Prayer and intentional communication do. Over the years, I have found that most of the conflicts I have had in my life stem from a miscommunication somewhere.
We all know that texting and emails are very poor ways to communicate feelings and emotions. There aren’t enough emojis to express all that we want to say. These methods gravitate towards miscommunication. The only way to solve our miscommunication problem is better communication. Let me give you a practical tip I use all the time. I have gotten accustomed to saying, “What do you mean by that?” It works in every situation! From a staff member trying to ask me a question that I am not understanding to my wife trying to compliment me, however, it is coming out as anything but a compliment. Those simple words added to your daily word count can help solve many problems before they start.
There is an inconvenient truth to point out here. If we don’t grow in dealing with difficult people and situations, we are part of the problem. There is a phrase that the Lord gave me a while back while I was long-suffering through an ongoing conflict. “At what point does long-suffering become complicit?” For those of you who are “non-confrontational,” you know what I mean. The situation has become desperate, and the only thing that you can do is run away. May I posit that running away from the problem will only prolong the suffering and heartache of the situation? We need to become more comfortable in having difficult conversations. We need to get better at apologizing and forgiving one another. We have to do a better job of being obedient to God’s word when he tells us to go to someone directly who has hurt us. Don’t brush it under the rug, Have a conversation and see what God will do!
5. Make Disciples of Difficult People
Some of you probably think this last point doesn’t jive with the others. How does dealing with difficult people and overcoming conflict lead to discipleship? How is discipleship even part of the equation? Isn’t it just about limiting the damage? Isn’t it just about being able to shake hands and walk away from one another? The answer is no. Marshall Shelley says in his book, Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do With Well-Intentioned Dragons,
“The goal in handling dragons (difficult people) is not to destroy them, not merely to disassociate from them, but to make them disciples. Even when that seems an unlikely prospect.”
Just think if Jesus had given up on us when he formed us. Let me be honest, I would have given up on myself, but Jesus didn’t. Jesus saw not what I am but what he created me to be. The role of any disciple of Jesus is not to see people as they are but to see them as they could be. To be able to see them as Jesus sees them. When we begin to do this, we will have the heart and mindset of Jesus to make disciples out of the most difficult people.
This post originally appeared at: Dealing with Difficult People — The Bonhoeffer Project