How Do You Handle Difficult People?

29 Sep How Do You Handle Difficult People?

How do you handle difficult people? Difficult people are a fact of life. There is no escaping the reality that some people pose ongoing challenges for us, and those challenges can come in a variety of forms. There are the constant complainers or whiners; the malignant narcissists; the criticizers who know how everyone else should live their lives; those who are dishonest; the gossip who talks behind your back; those with hidden agendas and motives; the naysayer; the bully. Most families have at least one member who is difficult, and all churches have them. As Jesus said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do….I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mathew 9:12-13)

That is the church in a nutshell—a collection of the well and the sick, of saints and sinners. That does not mean that some people are saints and some are sinners but that each of us is simultaneously both saint and sinner. Still, not all illnesses are the same and not all saints/sinners are the same, either. Some recognize the ways in which they fall short and endeavor to live in God’s mercy and forgiveness. They desire to be followers of Jesus, and they are growing in spiritual maturity. To these folks, mistakes and failings become opportunities for learning and growing.   I seldom experience any of these saints/sinners as “difficult.”

The challenging group is made up of those people who aren’t interested in learning or growing. They simply want to criticize, to complain, to take advantage, to stir up trouble—and they inevitably want things to be “the way they used to be.”   One of the local leaders of my denomination recently reminded us that while we are all sinners in need of grace, accommodating a bully (in any setting) is not gracious or healthy. Confrontation is sometimes necessary, though it should always be done in a spirit of love, with the goal of preserving relationship and moving towards health. That is often easier said than done, of course.

I’ve heard leadership described as a very lonely endeavor, and there is a lot of truth to that. Leadership asks a lot of us and that is never more true than when I am having to deal with difficult people, as a crisis in my family is currently forcing me to do. Still, these are exactly the time when I have the opportunity to learn many valuable lessons—though I must confess that the learning process is painful. I am being invited to learn how to weather criticism without becoming defensive or angry. I am being reminded (again) of the call to all disciples to forgive people who hurt us. I am learning how to navigate that fine line between holding people accountable and pursuing justice while at the same time not becoming vindictive in either attitude or action.   I am also learning a lesson that the church often struggles to learn: that satisfying people and transforming them can be different. When I encounter difficult people in my ministry setting, my call as a pastor is to lead people to become transformed citizens of God’s kingdom, not to make them happy. That comes as a real shock to some folks.

Still, my encounters with difficult people are actually a gift. They expose what I am learning and how well (or not) I am incorporating those lessons into my life. Recently I wrote of “receiving the day.” Perhaps the greatest gift of difficult people is the reminder to receive the lessons I’m learning, to embrace the work of transformation that God is doing in me. It forces me to rely on God for wisdom and grace, strength and compassion. Why do I think that’s not an accident?

Yours for the Kingdom, 


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