Pastoring people ain’t easy.

In fact, it can be downright messy.

Everyone …

  • Is different
  • Has different communication styles
  • Has unique personality traits
  • Struggles with sin

Learning how to work with all kinds of people is essential to succeeding as a church leader.

Not just your everyday, average, normal church member.

I’m talking about working with difficult people.

For starters, a difficult person isn’t someone who disagrees with you on every point of theology or life in the church. Instead, a difficult person is someone who is toxic or divisive.

Frequently, you won’t learn how to handle difficult people in seminary. Rather, you’ll have to learn through the hard-knocks of life.

In this post, we’re going to cover working with difficult people in three different groups:

  1. Church staff
  2. Church leaders
  3. Church members

My goal is to save you heartache, shorten your learning curve, and help you lead difficult people well.

Here we go!

How to handle difficult church staff

When dealing with your staff, the last step you want to take is letting someone go.

At times, there may be an extreme situation that requires immediate termination, like theft from the church. For the most part, these moments will be the exception—not the rule.

To deal with a difficult staff member, here’s the 4-step process we suggest:

  1. Clarify
  2. Discuss
  3. Solve
  4. Follow up

Let’s take a look at these in detail.

#1 – Clarify

Challenges with your staff can take on many forms.

It doesn’t even matter if you’ve spent years building a healthy church culture.

You’re going to run into a problem at some point.

From sinful situations or underperformance to someone who’s creating division, you will eventually run into a challenge with your team—especially as your church grows and your staff expands.

How you handle these situations depends.

Before getting into the practical ideas, there’s one thing you need to do first:

Examine yourself to make sure you are not the problem.

Here’s why:

When it comes to performance, there’s one practical reason why someone may underperform.

Know what it is?

Times up.

It’s a lack of clarity and support.

After studying more than 80,000 managers, the authors of First, Break All the Rules identified what the best managers do differently. When determining the strength of any workplace (this holds true for church staff members too), here are the top two items great managers focus on:

  1. Clarifying expectations at work
  2. Providing the materials and equipment their team needs to succeed

Before addressing an underperforming staff member, these are the first two things you’ll need to clarify.

Does your staff know what is specifically expected of them?

Does your staff have the materials they need to do their job?

If your answer to either one of these questions is “no,” then put down the mirror and get to work by creating clarity and providing support.

After examining yourself, you’ll need to identify the problem.

During this time, be as specific as you can be. From underperformance to creating tension with your team, jot down specific instances you can discuss. This will enable all  of you to be on the same page.

#2 – Discuss

Do you have something you need to discuss?

For starters, avoid talking about anything in public or without a plan. The best thing to do is schedule a meeting for both of you to talk things through.

Before your meeting, write down the specific issues you want to discuss. Fight vagueness, and be prepared to talk through details.

The goal of this conversation isn’t to run someone’s face through the mud. Your goal is to take a level-headed approach, be self-controlled, and ready to talk.

During this time, provide whomever you’re talking with the opportunity to respond to what you shared. When it’s their turn to speak, fight to actively listen—instead of worrying about what you’re going to say next. This will make a big difference in working toward a solution.

#3 – Solve

Is the problem a lack of performance? Or is your staff member struggling with a character or sinful issue? In either case, prepare ahead of time specific solutions you want to work toward.

When creating goals, follow the SMART goal template:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Actionable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

For solutions, there’s one more thing to consider:

Does your staff member need training, a coach, or a mentor to help them work through the situation? Depending upon the case, consider providing whatever support you can to help your staff member succeed.

After you’re done discussing your goals, take the time to make sure whomever you’re talking with clearly understands what’s expected moving forward.

Finally, at the end of this meeting, agree to meet again to talk about the goals you developed. This way, there’s a specific timetable to work toward.

#4 – Follow up

After discussing the situation and working together on a solution, you now have to plan on following up.

Not only will you need to follow up in the end with your next scheduled meeting. But you also want to plan on following up in the interim. For this check-in, your goal is to see if your staff member has what they need to succeed and how they’re doing as a person.

Remember, as a church leader, your goal is to help your staff succeed. Checking in with people before your scheduled follow-up meeting will give you (and them) a good idea if they’re progressing, and what else they need to do to resolve the situation.

So, when it comes to your last follow-up meeting, there won’t be any surprises.

Working with difficult church leaders

There are many reasons why pastors will resign.

One common reason why this is the case is because of tension with their church’s leadership, which usually results in stalled progress.

Think about it.

If you (pastor) and your church’s leadership (elders, deacons, board) are not in alignment or having conflict, then your church will not be able to move forward. When the leadership is at a standstill in making decisions or possess significant disagreements about the vision and direction of the church, then your entire church community will be stalled like a car in a parking lot. It ain’t going anywhere.

Below, many of the tips revolving around dealing with church members are also applicable here. But there are a few unique things you’ll need to keep in mind when dealing with your church leadership.

#1 – Pray

This goes without saying, but commit to pray for your church’s leadership.

Not in the “my will be done” kind of way.

Instead, you should regularly pray for your church’s leadership—including yourself.

As a church leader, it can be easy to skip over the verses about praying for your church’s leadership and think they’re only for your church members. Don’t fall victim to this way of thinking.

The verses about praying for your leaders are also relevant for you.

When praying for your church’s leadership, here are some suggestions:

Pray for them to receive wisdom

Acts 6:3:

“Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.”

Colossians 1:28:

“He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”

Pray for them to be peaceable

1 Timothy 3:3:

“Not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.”

Pray for them to be gentle

2 Timothy 2:24–25:

“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”

#2 – Think long-term

Let me state the obvious:

Possessing a long-term view will help you to work through leadership conflicts.

Now, let me make sure this sinks in:

When I say long-term view, what I mean is that you need to know that the church will go on with or without you. I don’t mean to be harsh. I just want to emphasize that the church you serve is God’s church and his timetable doesn’t always match up with ours.

In your church, someone plants.

Someone else waters.

But in either case, God brings the increase (1 Cor 3:7–9).

What is more, here’s another point to keep in mind:

According to one survey, the average pastoral tenure is six years.

Again, I don’t mean to be negative or imply that you have to let everything slide because you have one foot out of the door. If the church you serve doesn’t plan on closing its doors anytime soon, there’s a good chance God will continue to sustain it for many years after you transition off staff.

With this in mind, when you have a conflict with your church’s leadership, you’ll have to think through if the conflict revolves around short- or long-term implications. For example, if you are serving an established church, and you want to make cultural shifting changes, know that these will take time  (some people may never accept them), and determine if the trouble is worth the fight.

As a church leader, patience is one of the best virtues you can exercise in working through conflict.

Know what else?

A long-term view is what you need to have when equipping leaders, which leads us to the next point.

#3 – Train leaders

Your job doesn’t require you to do everything.

One of your primary roles is to equip your church to do the work of the ministry (Eph 4:11–16).

From providing coaching (LINK) and serving as a mentor (LINK), there are two additional ways you can train future leaders:

  1. Teach biblical leadership
  2. Provide leadership resources

To lead your church, you need to develop men and women who are ready to lead (1 Tim 3). As you know, teaching biblical leadership toward life-transformation is a long-term process. Remember, be patient as you teach biblical leadership to your current and potential future leaders.

What is more, it’s a good idea to provide leadership resources. From working through material together or joining a program like Church Fuel, providing leadership resources is another way you can equip your leaders.

#4 – Find a partner

Is God leading your church to take a new direction?

Is there a consensus among some of your church leaders to make a big decision?

When you have a conflict with one of your church’s leaders, and you need to make a decision, you may have to find a partner within your church’s leadership to influence the decision-making process.

Here’s why:

For whatever reason, there will be a time when you’ll be at an impasse with another leader. When this occurs, you may not be able to work directly with someone one-on-one. So, in this scenario, identify a partner among your other church leaders who you can help work out a resolution.

How to handle difficult church members

No church is filled with perfect people.

Even if someone has placed their faith in Christ, they will still struggle with the presence of sin. What is more, sin exists in the world, and Satan ain’t taking a nap.

What’s the point?

It’s best if you expect to deal with difficult people in your church.

When you expect to run into a difficult person, you can be better prepared to work with him or her.

At the end of the day, people in your church have been hurt in some shape, way, fashion, or form.

Know what hurt people do?

They hurt other people—not (necessarily) on purpose.

But when you understand and expect that people in your church are hurting and in need of grace and mercy in Christ, then you’ll be prepared to lead them to Jesus to receive grace and mercy.   

Don’t be caught off guard.

Expect people to act like people who need grace and mercy.

To help you navigate these situations, here are some tips.

#1 – Pick your battles

Is a church member in sin?

Is someone causing division?

Or does someone just annoy you?

When dealing with difficult people, make sure you pick your battles.

Is it something sinful or damaging you need to address? Or do you feel agitated? There’s a big difference between the two, and you need to know the difference before moving forward.

#2 – Get clarity

Why is someone difficult?

Often, you’ll discover that whatever is causing someone to be upset may not be the real problem. There are many times when there’s a problem beneath the problem.

Is there a specific issue they’re passionate about? Or is their glass always half-empty?

Whenever you’re dealing with a difficult person, take the time to discover the problem beneath the problem. There’s no need to put a bandaid on a situation if it calls for surgery.

So, when you can, be like a child who consistently asks “why” to figure out the root of the problem. Whenever you discover the root of the problem, you’ll be able to chop it down in a loving manner.

#3 – Private

There’s one key to healthy conflict resolution:

Graciously confronting a difficult person in private.

This isn’t pop science, either. This is straight out of Matthew 18:15–17.

Talking about a difficult person isn’t the same as dealing with someone.

As a church leader, it’s essential to discuss difficult people with your leadership in a way that’s helpful, like, you need to be aware of this situation, which is different than gossiping.

If possible, avoid difficult conversations in public. If someone approaches you, and he or she is angry or visually frustrated, then focus on diffusing the situation and schedule a time to meet with him or her one-on-one.

#4. Focus on solutions

When your kitchen is a mess, you or someone else needs to clean it up.

Similarly, when you’re dealing with a difficult person, you have to deal with him or her or someone else will have to. Don’t pass the buck. Take responsibility and work toward a solution.

Regarding a solution, this doesn’t mean that you and the person you’re dealing with will agree, and that’s okay. This will be the case from time to time and to be expected.

At first, focus on a positive solution. Figure out what they’d like to see done differently, clarify what they want, and see if there’s some way you can find common ground.

Here’s the deal:

Your goal is not to have someone agree with you 100%.

That’s not the point or biblical.

Depending upon the situation, if it’s a non-essential issue, then you may agree to disagree. However, for more serious issues, such as a person is in sin and unwilling to repent, then you may have to consider church discipline. If the latter situation is the case, don’t walk alone. Be sure to work with your church’s leadership to work toward a healthy solution (Matt 18:15–17).

Over to you

Working with people isn’t easy.

What we shared here is a process to use or tips to try.

If there’s one thing I can leave you with, let it be this:

Be prepared.

After you become aware of a difficult person, start preparing yourself to be ready to handle conflict.

Be in prayer, and be ready to graciously confront whoever is being difficult.

Don’t pass the buck.

Don’t plant your face in the sand.

By the grace of God, plan on shepherding well everyone in your church—even difficult people.