Dealing with Difficult People – Part 3

As we continue our discussion of the difficult people we often encounter in ministry, let’s look at the “Garbage Collector.”

The “Garbage Collector” in a church is typically that individual who surrounds himself with negative people and/or accumulates the negative attitudes and opinions of other people. You’ll recognize him as the fella who starts a lot of sentences with, “Pastor, everybody’s upset about…” This guy believes he has his finger on the pulse of the congregation and is ready with his diagnoses of all that needs to be done differently, ‘cause, well…everyone is saying it.

I once had a deacon who could be this guy. At the end of deacon meetings, when I would ask that fateful question, “Anything else?” he would start with, “Pastor, we have a problem.” What followed was the latest version of whatever his group of everybodies were currently upset about. After ending three consecutive meetings with such reports, I began to realize that I had a “Garbage Collector” on my team.

Now, please don’t take this blog as license to ignore any negative reports that come your way ot begin to think badly of those who bring them. Stuff happens, everything we do isn’t brilliant, and you and I will always need occasional correction. But when there’s a pattern developing and the same individual is bringing you the same type of input again and again, ou may have a “Garbage Collector” too.

How do you clean up their act?

  1. Check with others

At that third deacon meeting, when my suspected “Garbage Collector” had dumped his aromatic bag in my lap, I turned to the other men at the table and asked, “Are you guys hearing people say these things, too?” No one nodded, but every other head shook from side to side, indicating that “everybody” wasn’t saying such things. So my friend amended his statement to “Well, a lot of people are feel this way.”

  1. Ask for names

Now be careful with this step. Don’t let your suspicious attitude show as you genuinely express a desire to know who is upset. Ask kindly, with a heart that says, “Well, I really want to help.” Usually, your “Garbage Collector” won’t want to “out” his sources, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

So, if the issue seems important enough to deal with, ask your “Garbage Collector” to set up a meeting with those who have complained so we can resolve their concerns.

Now be careful here. Don’t take the “If-people-don’t-like-something -they-need-to-come-directly-to-me” approach. Be careful what you ask for. If your church is going to grow, you need your deacons and other leaders knowing how to solve some problems without your involvement. But if there’s a group of people concerned over the same issue, show your willingness to listen to them and your ability to resolve conflicts.

  1. Narrow their statements

“Garbage Collectors” tend to exaggerate the breadth or degree of concern. Ask them for specific statements, and how many people had spoken to them (if you weren’t given names). You need to know the size of the damage before you can build a good plan to repair it.

  1. Require accountability.

If you still can’t get names (and you probably won’t), help your “Garbage Collector” understand that you can’t resolve anonymous complaints and that these friends are putting him in an awkward place.

When I asked my “Garbage Collector” why he thought people were coming to him and not bringing those same concerns to the other deacons, he look as though he had never considered such a thought. Gently, I answered, “They come to you because they know that you’re willing to listen. Why do you think that might be?”

Next, I helped him understand how to deal with complaining people. I encouraged him to offer to bring them to me so we could address their issues together, and that if they were unwilling, to explain that he wouldn’t carry complaints to me alone. I assured him that if he took this healthier approach, people would soon stop weighing him down with their complaints. (That conversation ultimately revealed that the “everybody” behind most of his accumulated complaints was limited to he and his wife. In that moment, we were able to discuss his own negative feelings and we resolved some of them.)

If you’re going to have healthy leaders, you have to teach healthy leadership, and once you have done so, you can, then, expect that healthy behavior. I have found that teaching on these things once a year to my leaders helps establish a clear understanding of the necessary expectations and gives me a reference point for requiring accountability when it’s needed.

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