In a recent and widely-shared article, a pastor provides a series of profiles of church members who “drive him crazy” and make pastoral ministry “less than fun.” Though he tells of his love for the local church and his commitment to it, he also says that every church he knows has “members and attenders that get under the skin of a leader.” His article is meant to provide a brief description of each, perhaps to allow other pastors to commiserate or perhaps to provide a kind of warning to Christians, as if to say “don’t be like these people.”
Like almost every other church leader, I have encountered some members who have been abnormally difficult for various reasons (though, to be fair, I expect most church members have also encountered some pastors who have been abnormally difficult). These are a microscopic minority of the people who have called our church home over the years, but by their very nature, they tend to punch above their weight. Setting aside those who are living in unrepentant sin or attempting to destroy the church through divisive behavior (and who, therefore, ought to be under the discipline of the church), I’ve had to ask: how am I, as a pastor, to relate to particularly difficult people?
I understand why a pastor is prone to think about how these people drive him crazy. I’ve done that myself. But it was crucial to my spiritual health and to my success in ministry that I make a change in my thinking. Rather than seeing them as people who drive me crazy, I have preferred to see them as people I’m particularly called to love—people who stretch and grow my ability to love. I begin with the thought of how my own behavior must often be “less than fun” in the eyes of God and how I do so much that could “get under his skin.” Yet he does not grumble about me, though he certainly could. He does not get annoyed or ashamed, though I certainly give him every reason to. He does not see me as a problem child, though I certainly am. Rather, he continues to care for me with patience, kindness, and perseverance. He continues to seek my good. He continues to love me.
In that vein, here are those same 10 people—10 people that preset a special challenge to love in a special way. (The words in quotes and/or italics are drawn from the original article.)
- The “doom and gloom” member: This person is prone to grumbling about what goes on in the life of the church. This person needs extra reassurance and needs to have me gently explain to him the distinction between matters that are major and minor, between matters that demand strict obedience to God’s Word and matters that can vary based on conscience. Much of what he considers a sign of imminent doom may actually be a lack of understanding between issues that mark a standing and falling church and issues that are simply not matching his preferences.
- The “on the edge of leaving” member: He often suggests he is going to need to leave over one issue or another. In my worst moments I may be tempted to wish he would. But then I remember that the Good Shepherd knows that at times he must leave the 99 to pursue the one. While we may think of that one as a helpless, naive wanderer, what’s to say he’s not a bitter or disobedient sheep whose wandering has been deliberate? So I take my cue from the ultimate Shepherd and do what I can to seek him out and bring him back.
- The “amateur theologian” member: This member either has an extensive grasp of theology or merely thinks he does. He then often uses that knowledge to debate the pastors and even to promote his own stance on issues. Acknowledging that many people are smarter, wiser, and better-trained than I am, I commend his knowledge and love of knowledge, and see where I can use it to serve the church. Of course I may also attempt to help him better understand which theological issues are matters of dispute or conscience, perhaps by leading him through a text like Romans 14.
- The “Did you know?” member: He wants to be “in the know” about everything in the church. In fact, he’s involved in almost all of the church’s gossip and gets angry when he’s out of the loop. He needs to be told, in a loving way, and then perhaps through the process of church discipline, that gossip is sinful. It is forbidden by Scripture and opposed to our membership covenant. I express love to him and to my church by reminding him there is much he doesn’t know, shouldn’t know, and mustn’t pass on.
- The “recommitment” member: She shows up about every six months, recommits her life to Jesus, and then disappears for the next six months. This member must be treated with such gentleness and compassion, because in all likelihood the pull of the world continues to lure her. She is caught between two worlds, two masters! She needs to hear the good news of the gospel, she needs to be told she has a church that loves her, and she needs to be pursued by those who are called to shepherd her. Far be it from me to be annoyed by a member like this! She is especially vulnerable to Satan’s attacks and is certainly among the “all the flock” I’m charged to keep watch over (Acts 20:28).
- The “constitutional lawyer” member: Nobody knows the church constitution like this member does, and he brings out the documents any time he doesn’t like something. This member may be the perfect candidate to serve as parliamentarian in the meetings of the church—to be the one who knows the constitution and Robert’s Rules of Order so he can ensure the formal meetings proceed according to best practices. He may thrive when given that responsibility. Either way, why should I fear or be annoyed by the person who holds me to the church’s constitution when I may otherwise deliberately or inadvertently violate it?
- The “internet sermon troll” member: He listens to everybody else’s sermons online, and then critiques my sermons in light of others. Here is a member who is eager to learn the truths of the Christian faith, but who lacks the maturity to know what to do with such knowledge. Acknowledging there are many pastors who preach far better than I ever can or will, I appreciate his fervor and choose to overlook the offense of him critiquing my sermons. I know before whom I stand or fall. I know this member is not the one qualified to determine whether I’ve been obedient to God and done the best I can with the few talents God has assigned to me.
- The “nostalgia freak” member: She knows everything about the church’s history, and she sees her role as protecting the past by fighting against anything new. This seems to be a particular struggle for those who are elderly, and perhaps especially those who have given so many hours and so much money to get the church to where it is today. She needs to be commended for her service to the church and her love for it; she needs to be commended for trying to build a bridge between the church’s past and future. Maybe God is using her to slow me down where I would otherwise move too hastily. And perhaps as I speak to her in a loving, gentle way, she will grow to trust me as I begin to lead the church in directions that may contradict her desires.
- The “unforgiving saint” member: He got angry over something years ago, and he refuses to let it go. When confronted about it, he can spiritualize his reasons with the best of them. My first response to this member is to consider if I have genuinely sinned against him and if there is something for which I need to ask his forgiveness. If there is not, or if I have already repented of any sin before him, then the most loving way to pastor him is to speak to him about his lack of forgiveness and to show him what the Bible says about the necessity of forgiving those who have repented. Love toward this member may even involve church discipline which seeks his restoration for unrepentant sin.
- The “on sabbatical” member: No matter what you do, this member refuses to serve in the church. “I’ve done my duty in the past,” he says. Some members do not understand that God calls all of us, and not just the pastors or staff, to do the work of the ministry. Some members thrive when given a challenge or when asked to serve in a ministry suited to their gifts and talents. Then, some members do far more than their fair share, or are asked to do too much by their pastors, and sometimes burn out. Many pastors claim a well-earned sabbatical—why should we not extend the same to those who have served our churches so long or so well?
The author of the original article says, “To be honest, folks like these can make pastoral ministry less than fun some days.” But an under-shepherd knows he doesn’t tend sheep because tending sheep is fun; rather, he tends sheep because his master, the True Shepherd, has called him to. He knows he has not been called to a life of ease, but a life of service, even to those who sometimes make that service a trial. He knows he is not responsible to tend only the sheep who make his life easy, but even the ones who make it more difficult, the ones who wander, the ones who are easily disgruntled. He knows that the sheep—even these sheep—are his ministry. The author says, “take time to pray specifically for these members in your church. Maybe God will change a few so they don’t drive you crazy anymore.” Or maybe he won’t. But if you pray earnestly, he may at least change you so you can be a fitting, faithful shepherd to his sheep.