Eight strategies to survive problematic parishioners

Eight strategies to survive problematic parishoners

Every pastor has them. What can you do about them?

Judi Bailey, MEd, is a freelance writer who lives in Lakewood, Ohio, United States.

It’s almost a cliché to say that church leaders are overloaded, overwhelmed, and overcommitted. You give and care so much that your proverbial pot becomes empty. You may be experiencing a spiritual sluggishness from the ongoing stresses and flurry of activity in your ministry.

“Not seeing a lot of fruit from your labor,” says John Kelly, minister of education at First Methodist Church in New Philadelphia, Ohio, “causes leaders to feel all used up.”1

Kelly adds, “Leaders and volunteers are prone to put too much responsibility on themselves.”2 It’s easy for many of us to become overly accountable to others, often blaming ourselves for our members’ attitudes, foul-ups, and inappropriate behavior.

Sometimes we become hooked on helping. It’s natural to think about someone who’s struggling and to add that person to our prayer list. But constantly worrying indicates that you’re trying to give yourself power that only God can supply.

Melody Beattie, an author and leader in the codependency field, describes a codependent as an individual who has allowed someone’s actions to affect them to the point of being consumed with that person.3

Our solution lies in changing the focus from helping too much to helping humbly. Make sure you take Jesus along the road with you—you know you’ll surely need Him. Here are some points to help you deal with the problem people on your staff—or in your congregation.

1. Remember the value of each person. Whether it’s a gossipy parishioner or the incessant complainer, stay aware of the value of the person underneath the undesirable behavior. Practice the unconditional love Jesus demonstrated.

2. Give others the right to be wrong. Even if you believe that the church community would be better off without this attitude or behavior, accepting others’ choices to be the way they are, frees up both of you to move into new solutions. Acceptance doesn’t mean you condone their behavior; you have a responsibility to lead and guide, but if you demand they come along, you create the perfect setting for rebellion.

3. Give others the right to be right. For example, your youth director confronts you about being too “heady” at the pulpit, but it’s hard to listen to the feedback when you’re being called on the carpet. Don’t ignore the comments of others; they just might be right.

4. Listen to the message in your emotions. Learn from your reactions. You may be sensing something about yourself, or you might be receiving an indication about what the member is going through. When I ministered to adolescents in a chemical dependency unit, I experienced a great deal of anger, anxiety, and fear. A colleague helped me see that, although my feelings were real, I was likely experiencing the teens’ feelings—most of which were anger, anxiety, and fear. Whenever you have an emotional reaction to the people you are helping, your emotions just might be speaking to you. Begin listening to them.

5. Be responsible to others, not for others. The only person you can change is yourself, which is easy to believe from the head, but hard to accept from the heart. The first three times I read this in a book, I threw the book across the room. I was working with abused children and responded to this idea with the following: “What do you mean I can’t change others? I have to, it’s what I do!” It was a difficult and tedious job to learn how wrong—and egotistical—that belief was. Although it seems that our mission encompasses the carrying of others to Christ, all we can really do is lead them, guide them, and discuss His good news.

6. Listen to the unspoken messages. When you are faced with someone’s character flaws, try listening with your eyes, your ears, and especially your heart. Those with poor socialization skills or unceasing willfulness generally don’t want to do many of the things they do. Listen to the genuine message woven through their actions. Perhaps backbiting means abuse is or has been occurring somewhere in their present or past. Use attention-seeking behavior to stir yourself to provide positive ways to gain recognition. Or even invite a difficult parishioner to help you in some small way, or ask the person to assist another member struggling with the same troublesome trait.

7. Get yourself some backup. Grab on to others’ perspective of the situation. “Work as a team,” says Kelly. “Get other people’s input. Not just one, but a number of people’s opinions. You might learn that the parishioner is suffering from a medical condition or from personal problems like an impending divorce.”4 Accept help from your colleagues, volunteers, and staff members. Use the minds of your people.

8. Pray for the difficult individuals in your care. Through sermons and example, Jesus taught us to pray. Here are some suggestions Kelly uses, which may be helpful to tap into your own solutions: identify a situation that has been worrying you. Then meditate on a Bible story by visualizing yourself as one of the characters in the story.Afterwards ask yourself, “How do I feel now? Did the character I chose give me any insight into my problem? Does the story put things into a clearer perspective?”5

You were created by God to express His goodness and light, and to love all of His creatures. He knows that some of them are tough. Perhaps some of your spiritual growth will evolve from your experience with them. That will certainly fire your desire to help others awaken to the abundant life that Jesus so lovingly promised.

1 John Kelly (minister at First United Methodist Church, New Philadelphia, Ohio, United States), interviewed by the author on March 3, 2005.

2 Ibid.

3 Melody Beattie, Codependent No More (City Center,

MN: Hazelden Foundation, 1987), 31.

4 Kelly, interview.

5 Ibid.



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Judi Bailey, MEd, is a freelance writer who lives in Lakewood, Ohio, United States.

December 2008

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