7 Ways to Respond to Difficult People In the Church

If you are not active in the local church (which is a small part of my blog readership), please allow me to apologize in advance for this post. It’s really written to those inside the church – especially pastors. Please know it’s not at all representative of everyone in the church. In fact, it’s usually a very small minority of people. Thankfully.

That disclaimer out of the way, one of the more frustrating things about being a pastor is people who are difficult to deal with, usually because they are negative about everything. Thankfully, I deal with this less often the longer I am with the church.

When I was in church planting our complaints usually came from outside our church. Other churches didn’t like our methods or what they assumed we were doing. (They were usually not correct in many of their assumptions.) In the established church, difficulty in dealing with people comes from inside the church. Again, thankfully, often from a few people.

Either way, dealing with difficult people has been a huge part of my work. I talk with pastors every week who tell me they have large groups of people who are always negative about something they are doing. One guy told me recently his job has been threatened every week for the eight months he’s been pastor.

I have learned when change comes the complainers will rise – often among the most seemingly “religious” of people. And when these type people talk their negative energy spreads fast.

Of course, there are also people who are difficult even when nothing is changing.

How do we, as pastors, respond to difficult people in the church?

As Jesus taught His disciples how to build the church, a chief command was to love people no one else loved. Since they were to love even their enemies, this included loving people when they were not very lovely. Even people who are always difficult. (That’s a hard command sometimes, isn’t it?)

I have tried to lead a church with this philosophy. Along the way I have discovered what Jesus experienced in working with religious leaders in His day.

With this in mind, what do you do with constantly difficult people – some who even remain negative towards the mission God has called you to?

Here are 7 ways to respond to difficult people:

Filter negative talk. Ask yourself if what they are saying lines up with truth. Is it true? If not, dismiss it quickly, so it won’t begin to control you. When you own falsehood about yourself or the church you validate the person offering it. And, you fuel them for further negativity about you or the church. Ultimately, you are looking for truth, not one person’s opinion on truth.

Learn when necessary. We should not refuse to listen to criticism. There is an element of truth in most criticism, even among things you need to ultimately dismiss. Let’s not be arrogant. We should always be humble and teachable.

Surround yourself with some encouraging people. It’s true there are people who are difficult about everything. They would never encourage anyone. That’s the reality of working with people. But, there are also people who are positive about most things. They have great attitudes. They are supportive encouragers. I have found these people to be true Jesus-lovers. Every Christian leader needs to find a core of people who can encourage them in their walk with Christ, believes in their leadership ability, and who genuinely cares about their (and their family’s) best interest.

Remember difficult people are difficult to others too. It often helps me reconcile what a difficult person says about me when I realize they are always spreading their negativity somewhere. I’m not trying to be cruel, but it’s often more about who they are than who I am. If it were not me being criticized, it would be their next victim. Do not give as much weight to the voice of the consistently negative person. Sometimes we tend to give them the most attention.

The only way you will ever shut down the person who is always difficult is to refuse to give them an audience for their negativity. The more they are given a continued voice the more they bring other people into their negativity. If the same attention is placed on people who are a positive influence then they will bring people along into positivity.

Confront untruth. You do not have to go on a witch-hunt for untruth, nor should you, but you should try to stop the spread of falsities if you hear them being repeated or told to you. This is especially true if it is going to get in the way of doing what you know God has called you to do. Don’t be bashful about doing so. Don’t embarrass people or treat them harshly. Treat everyone with love. Be an example of how to handle disagreement Biblically. But, don’t ignore it either.

Be truthful and positive around others. Decide you will always be a positive influence. Don’t repeat untruths and avoid being a hypercritical person. Look for the good in situations. A positive attitude is equally contagious.

Love everyone I probably should have started with this one, because it’s most important, (and I kind of did in my opening remarks) but I wanted to save the hardest one for last. There is a long story in my personal journey about this one, but God has convicted me continually that my first calling is to love Him, so I can adequately love others. It’s the work of grace taught throughout the Scriptures.

(Let me pause here and recognize if you’ve read this far it’s likely you have some very difficult people you are dealing with currently. I know the pain. I’m voicing a prayer for you now.)

You don’t have to love everything about your church, it’s structure, or even the actions of everyone in your church. But, you have to love everyone. In fact, if you can’t love the people who are most difficult to love, I contend you’ll have a hard time pastoring the church effectively.

Find the most difficult person you know and let them be your standard. Are you loving them? Coudld you pray for them?

One thing to understand is most likely they are difficult for a reason. They are hurt, angry, broken, confused, or simply sinful in their attitude. Either way, we have to love them. That’s our calling as believers. We may have to challenge them at times, and that’s part of discipleship, but we have to love them first. Many times, I’ve found if we love them we can actually begin to temper their negativity – at least lessen their volume.

There are always difficult people. That’s part of ministry, but it’s also part of life. Learning to deal with difficult people effectively will make you a better leader and your church will have the opportunity to be a healthier church.

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Andy says:

    Many times we, in the church, feel we cannot confront those cause the uncomfortable, or down-right sinful, issues because it is not the “proper” thing to do. Some well meaning lay-leaders, while not siding with the problem causer, would rather not address the issue than cause possible frustrations in the body. I don’t know how many time I was told, and several pastor colleagues have been told, that it is my job to take criticism. Truth be told, no one has that job nor would want it. Our culture has lost the respect for those in leadership that are called, not hired, to a church or ministry. As it was noted, if they are negative to you, they are probably negative to others. Instead of constantly putting out fires, maybe it is time we need to find the little boy with the box of matches.

  • jimpemberton says:

    Posts like these are a good opportunity for Christians who are not pastors to learn how to support their pastors morally.

    * It provides direction to pray for a specific aspect of pastoring that many people aren't aware of.
    * It provides direction on how to be a better member of their pastor's flock.
    * It can be used to help people deal with fellow church members who are negative. For example, if I hear someone trashing a pastor (or anyone else for that matter) behind his back, I find it's always wise to shut down that conversation and explain why I don't (or no longer) engage in gossip. It sends a signal that gossip isn't welcome in the fellowship.

    One additional thing – if there is something that is actually true that is negative, there is a right way to handle it that builds up the church and countless wrong ways to handle it that are destructive to the church. It helps to have an idea of the right way to handle things already in mind so that when we notice someone handling knowledge of a bad situation in a harmful way, we can immediately redirect into action which is appropriate and helpful to the church.

  • Joseph chiseka {am from Africa, Malawi} says:

    “There is an element of truth in some criticism” thus my qoute in this article. It is fine & good to listen to criticism carefully because there is something which God wants to rebuke through the criticism. Thanks my mentor, I’ve learnt alot. MAY THE GOOD LORD GIVE YOU WISDOM TO CONTINUE THIS WONDERFU JOB. Amen

  • Julie says:

    Confrontation is often viewed as a negative thing. However, in most cases, when handled properly, it stops a bad situation from becoming worse. Some people carry the burden and shame of lie/rumor with the belief that "God will handle it." This is true but He also gives us power and strength to address things like this when they occur. Awesome post!

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  • Thanks for the interesting post about the church. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.
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