In some congregations it’s just one person: one controlling Diotrephes (III John 12), one harmful Alexander (II Timothy 4:14), one willful, rude, thoughtless bully, somebody who wants to be a big fish in a small pond.
In other churches, it’s one family which thinks that First Church is their own personal piece of property, like the English Lord of the Manor and his family, for whom the trembling vicar will delay the start of the Sunday service.
In still other congregations, the whole church body is ill. The church family is at odds. The atmosphere is stifling. The climate is ominous. The culture is toxic. You can feel it when you walk in the door.
In any of the above situations, revitalization, a season of new life, new joy, new evangelism, new believers and new growth, will remain elusive indefinitely.
If your congregation sounds like any of the above, this play from the revitalization playbook – addressing your people problems – will be one of the most important things you can do.
So let’s get right into it. In no particular order, here are 10 valuable strategies for addressing your people problems:
(1) Set your relationship standards high.
Chapters such as Romans twelve, Ephesians four and I Thessalonians four, set a humanly-impossible standard for how the people of God – members of one body and one family – should treat each other. Tenderness, forgiveness, understanding, compassion and respect are just a few of the words we can use to describe this standard.
But some churches behave as if everybody missed school on the day this lesson was taught.
Realistically, in all likelihood, either the former pastor didn’t preach and teach this important material or else the pastor and board didn’t take it seriously enough to lovingly confront those who treated their brothers and sisters rudely. If a church’s leaders don’t enforce the congregation’s Biblical, “relationship rules,” it doesn’t take long before the rules and the leaders are despised and ignored.
(2) Cast a vision for Biblical unity.
Romans 14:1-15:7, I Corinthians 12, Philippians 1:27-2:4 and other passages paint beautiful pictures of the kind of united effort which should be the hallmark of any Christian congregation: contending as one man, loving each other as parts of the same body, being like-minded, one in spirit and purpose, glorifying God with one heart and mouth.
This isn’t some “pie in the sky” idealistic dream; all this is possible through the blessed control and empowering influence of the one Holy Spirit who indwells us all (Galatians 5:22,23, Ephesians 5:18).
(3) Be tenaciously cheerful and kind.
Some of the most effective pastors I know are able – with God’s help – to face critics and cynics with incredible patience and kindness. In II Timothy 2, the Apostle Paul talks about being kind to everyone and gently instructing the most difficult people. By God’s grace (and only by God’s grace) we can actually do this.
A great leadership proverb says that “The dogs bark, but the caravan journeys on.” A strategy of our enemy, having failed to halt our progress, is to allow us to journey on, but in bitterness, resentment and cynicism. But we defeat him decisively when we not only journey on, but we journey on joyfully and cheerfully.
(4) Reject “nice” passivity.
Only God knows how many churches have been rendered almost useless for His Kingdom program, His holy war, by the “niceness,” (passivity, actually) of their leaders. Church leaders have been charged by God with protecting God’s people and God’s work (see Acts 20:28-32, for instance) from self-willed, heretical, or just plain “nasty” biting, sheep.
I’ll say it categorically and simply: it isn’t “nice” to allow this to happen. David downloaded God’s power and fought off a lion, a bear and a giant, for God’s glory. Certainly the shepherds of God’s churches are expected to do the same.
(5) Reject fear and favoritism.
Fear keeps many pastors and church boards from doing what they need to do (as above). “People will complain; people will leave; people will revolt.” II Timothy – the whole letter – can be seen as a repudiation of pastoral fear.
I Timothy 5:21, on the other hand, is a warning about favoritism and partiality. I’ve written before about how this keeps us from replacing elders, pastors or other church leaders who have long since dropped below God’s standards for Christian character.
(6) Use covenants for teaching, not correcting.
I’m a big believer in the use of church membership and leadership covenants to clarify the responsibilities and privileges of God’s people. They make great teaching tools, especially if we refer back to them often, like re-reading them in connection with Communion celebrations and new member inductions.
But don’t do what I did when I was young and foolish: using a hastily written covenant as a reaction to and corrective for one or two individual’s bad behaviors.
(7) Seek help from key leaders.
In my opinion, very few church people problems should be addressed by a pastor acting alone. Talk to and pray with your board/consistory/session/team/staff or whatever group of people you do leadership with, before you confront that difficult, disruptive individual.
(8) Make careful distinctions.
Not all problem people are created equal. There are people who are consistently difficult simply because of their personality quirks. Other persons are difficult or disruptive, but only temporarily, because of a stressor in their lives; they’re having a difficult time and trying to draw others into it.
Still others have mental illness issues and require extra-careful handling. Some church members are simply not regenerated and have no spiritual resources to behave like Christians. Others – very few fortunately – are honest to goodness antagonists, bullies, consistently troubled and trouble-making individuals. Look at the wise words of the Apostle Jude in this regard:
“Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.” Jude 22,23
The only way I know of to make these distinctions accurately is by bathing the situation in prayer and discussing it carefully, honestly and respectfully, as a leadership team. Don’t try this alone.
(9) Confront bad behavior selectively.
A western proverb says, “Never kick a skunk.” Adjacent proverbs from the Biblical book by that name agree:
“Whoever rebukes a mocker invites insult; whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse. Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you.” Proverbs 9:7,8
Now look at the following, seemingly contradictory sayings:
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Proverbs 26:4,5
What are we to make of this? Simply that there are times to rebuke bad behavior and there are other times when it is best to overlook it. Again, you need a godly team to help you to do this well.
(10) Return to godly discipline.
This entire post could be said to be dealing with church discipline. While the term is repulsive to many, church discipline – seen in its Biblical context – is nothing more than godly, loving leaders loving God’s people and God’s churches enough to gently confront destructive or self-destructive behaviors. The secular mental health world calls it an “intervention.”
Congregations which never intervene, which never confront the destructive or self-destructive behaviors of their members, aren’t being led by love, but are being controlled by sentimentality and fear.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
- Has our church, historically or recently, practiced church discipline (as defined above)? Was it done well or badly? How did it turn out?
- Go through each of the ten points in the post and talk about how your church is doing or has done with practicing each of them.
- What steps can be taken, immediately or longer term, to handle your church’s people problems well?