Dealing with Unreasonable People

By Bob Bickford

Replant Revitalization Reality: There are some individuals in churches who cannot be reasoned with. They will reject every logical and reasonable, sensible and even biblical plan suggested to bring about the possible renewal of their church.

In working with declining churches, I’ve noticed three general groups of people. First, there are those who know the church is in decline and desperately want to see that decline reverse and the church return to health and vitality.  Second, there are those who recognize the decline and are grieved by it, but they don’t know how to address the decline and are also hesitant to pursue new strategies – because new actions and approaches involve change, and they understand intuitively and experientially that change causes conflict. Third, there are some, typically a minority, who know the church is in decline and prefer it to stay that way, because they realize any actions engaged to lead the church toward vitality and a positive future would require a set of changes that would impact them personally and they prefer decline and even eventual death over change.

The first group responds favorably to data and information about the church and a solid plan or vision that charts a path toward a positive future. The second group equally will give affirmation to a plan based upon data and a clear vision, but they will need to be encouraged, pastored and guided to realize that conflict is part of life and isn’t the end but rather often the beginning of God’s work in bringing health and vitality back to a struggling church. The third group – informed by their fears, preferences or prejudices – will reject relevant data, clear and compelling vision and biblical and pastoral appeals. Why? Because they only care about protecting whatever is most important to them, even if it means the death of their congregation sometime in the future.

In the Diffusion of Innovation, a leadership theory,[1] this group is often classified as the Laggards. They are described as “people bound by tradition and very conservative … very skeptical of change and are the hardest group to bring on board.”

According to this model, they can be won over, but it will take time, patience, persistence and will come at a great cost. While I love the hopefulness in this model, my field experience in consulting churches shows there is another group we must name and identify: the Never Adopters.

Never Adopters can be defined as “those who continually and consistently reject pastoral and biblical appeals for change which are informed by accurate church data, grounded in scripture, and affirmed by the majority of the congregation.”

In short, the Never Adopters will never accept anything that suggests or advocates for positive, healthy change within the local body of believers.

They often occupy positions of influence within the body to which they belong. They can be pastors, pastors emeritus, worship leaders, secretaries, treasurers or trustees. They can be the spouses of any of the aforementioned. At times they are a collection of church members who comprise Sunday school classes, deacons or church council members.  They can be descendants of the church founders, who gave the property or donated great sums for the church to be built.

How do you deal with congregants like this who stand in the way of much needed change?

Pray – God can move mountains, hold back waters and transfer us from the kingdom of darkness by rescuing us from our sins. He has the power to soften and break even the most resistant of hearts. Pray for the Never Adopters by name, often and with great passion.

Pastor – As a pastor seeking to lead your church through renewal, give time to those struggling to accept change, explain with great patience the vision and the suggested course of action and reasons behind the forward movement. Invite them to come along with the rest of the church, while clearly explaining that going with the church means accepting things they may not prefer.

Proceed – You’ll never have full 100% support for every church initiative. Some will go with your church into the future, some will not. If the majority of the church leadership and church body are in agreement about strategy, vision and action, go forward.

Prepare to say goodbye – Some of the most difficult conversations I’ve had were with church members who loved Jesus and our church but were not able to walk with our church into the future. In the best of circumstances, they personally arrived at this conclusion through prayer and deliberation. In the most challenging conversations, I found myself explaining that they might be able to participate more fully and freely in another congregation, rather than resisting where God was leading our church to go.

If you’ve found yourself surprised that some in your congregation can’t be reasoned with, pastored or even prayed into full acceptance and participation with the majority of your congregation, know that you are not alone.

Published June 2, 2023

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Bob Bickford

Bob Bickford is a Replant Pastor in suburban St. Louis, serves as the Associate Director of Replant for the North American Mission Board and is the co-author of Am I a Replanter,  Pathways to Partnership and the Associational Replanting Guide. Follow Bob on twitter @bobick