It happened almost every Sunday morning. His cell phone would ring loudly in the middle of the sermon, set to Oh When the Saints Go Marching In. Sometimes, he would let it finish the chorus. Other times, he would answer it and begin his conversation as he walked down the center aisle toward the sanctuary exit. Whichever way he chose to react, there always seemed to be a lack of urgency to stop the interruption and an absence of resolve to avert the situation the following week.
At that same church, a man in the choir crossed his arms and refused to sing any time the guitar was picked up. Many more did the same from the pews. I could go on and on with crazy and disappointing Sunday morning stories. I’m sure you have your own tales of people who have taken rude, goofy or disruptive actions during church service.
Unfortunately, these annoying actions don’t stop on Sundays at noon. People share offensive memes on Facebook and poorly portray the compassion of Christ through divisive conversations on social media. Others openly and loudly bash their pastor at the local restaurant. Even worse, some deliberately and calculatingly plot to destroy the ministry you’ve poured your life into.
Church ministry is often messy and heartbreaking and downright defeating. The common denominator of every difficult situation is people. Navigating these encounters can be tricky. Whether the thorn in your side is an annoying yet well-meaning personality or a controlling and dangerous deacon, there are several actions we can take to move our hearts toward compassion and love for these souls.
1. Get to know them better.
From a distance, the Sunday cell-phone man seemed incredibly rude, arrogant and nonchalant about the code of conduct for a worship service. As we got to know this man better, it became obvious he had a delay in mental and social development which made it difficult for him to rightly assess the situation as inappropriate and disrespectful to the pastor. Getting to know him made all the difference in understanding his actions and fueled a greater patience toward his quirkiness.
Though this might not be a common scenario, the lesson applies to every relationship. As we seek to understand their spiritual background (or lack thereof), their emotional and spiritual maturity and their life experiences, it will give us a better idea of where people are coming from and why they act the way they act. It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it should help us understand the “why” behind their attitudes and actions. This information ought to bring a greater patience toward this person so we know how to appropriately pray for them.
2. Lower your expectations.
Yes, people need to be challenged and called to a higher standard, but most people love to stay where they are. Though I don’t think we should stop calling people to a biblical standard of living and leadership, I do think we need to keep our assumptions in check of how people will and should respond to that call. If we can learn to manage our expectations better, many of our frustrations will be curbed. In an ideal world, our deacons would all walk with God, be true servants and care more about the glory of God than the color of the carpets. All members would make it a priority to be at church, give abundantly and serve sacrificially. However—especially for those of us who have inherited a church—that is often not the case for the majority of the congregation.
It’s all too easy to play the game of, “If only our deacons did …” and “If only our women’s ministry was …” Let’s not give in to the grass is greener mentality. There are big church problems, small church problems and church-plant problems—all of which involve messy, immature people.
And people will disappoint. Change takes time. Every soul is in progress.
The quicker we embrace these realities, the easier it will be to deal with them in a healthy way. And as we lower our expectations, we will naturally become more dependent on the Spirit of God to move and to change hearts that seem so hard.
3. Pray for eyes to see them as God sees them.
A friend of mine gave me this advice years ago, and it has stuck with me. Instead of trying to fix people, we ought to ask God for the perspective to see them as He sees them—loved, cherished and accepted. By the power of God and by following the example of Christ, we can love the unlovable. Let us not forget that we were once (and probably still are) very hard to love, but someone looked past our problem areas to see what God saw in us. Every soul—even the annoying one—has worth in the eyes of God and can be used for kingdom purposes.
4. Remember your own need for God’s patience and mercy.
As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we don’t have it all together. Yes, we may have mastered the skill of turning off our cell phones before church, but we still have a long way to go on our journey toward becoming more like Christ. Thankfully, this work of sanctification is one that is carried out by God. We are merely to be good dance partners and do the continual work of aligning our lives to keep in step with the Spirit.
Ministry is hard. People are messy. But God is working. Let’s remember to keep our eyes fixed on Him instead of the chaos and disappointment we’re surrounded by.
What tips do you have to give for dealing with the difficult people in your congregation?
Published October 27, 2016