Dealing with Difficult People – Part 6

Over the past several weeks we have been looking at some of the challenging personalities pastors must learn to manage effectively. These are the people that can bring difficulty to even the most seasoned leader, and if they are handled poorly, can spread that difficulty to the entire church.

So we’ve talked about the “Volcano” and the “Garbage Collector.” We’ve discussed the “Thumb-sucker and the “Sherman Tank.” Last week, we looked at how to deal with the “Wet Blanket” personalities that one finds in the church.

Today, let’s consider the “User.”

Now, that’s not a very kind-sounding title, but the idea of “user” is the clearest explanation of a personality that demands a great deal of time and attention from others while bringing very little effort to the table themselves. The “User” often uses guilt to get others to act on his needs and seldom takes responsibility for himself or anything that needs to get done.

A local church is an ideal nest for the “User” because caring for needs is a major part of ministry work. We want to help people, contribute to their needs, and show them how to find a better life. But while the “User” seems to want these things too, he is seldom willing to give any of his own effort to achieve such goals.

Pastors and busy church folks have to be very careful with these personalities. The unrealistic and unhealthy demands of the “User” can sneak up on you. One minute you’re doing what you can to help, and before you know it you are burned out, frustrated, and even angry at the apparent requirements to keep this person connected.

Before we discuss how to deal with these folks, a couple of realities need to be understood.

  1. They may have learned this behavior at church.

Because of our willingness to help, we can sometimes step beyond what is healthy for people and create some level of unhealthy dependency. If someone always runs to pastor when they need something, before long they have built a habit. So pastors and other well-meaning church workers can inadvertently be encouraging the “User” to keep using us—believing that we’re helping when our actions may be actually be creating something else.

  1. The only legitimate motive for ministry is love for Jesus

Burnout comes when we lose the passion for ministry, and that occurs most often when we become frustrated with those we minister to. If you’re doing ministry because you like the people you’re helping, you can be sure that some days you won’t. When Jesus instructed Peter to “feed my sheep,” that directive was on the heels of His question, “Peter, do you love Me?” Serving and caring for others out of your love for Christ is a motive that can endure, even if you occasionally are mistreated.

So what do you do with the “User”?

  1. Set limits.

Establish your own boundaries for providing assistance, whether that assistance comes in the form of financial help, food provision, or ministry time. Establish a few policies about “how much we can do for someone” and let those boundaries be known to those needing assistance. For example, you can say to someone’s financial need, “I am able to help up to $100, but beyond that I will need to get approval.” If it’s ministry time, let people understand what your availability is limited to and stick to it.

You may want to involve some others in setting limits for the “User.” Let your deacons or other leaders speak into how much time and help you can generally provide to those in need. Let them help you when you’re stretching those boundaries too. Sometimes, these friends can see healthy limits better than you can because they’re not confronting the demands directly.

  1. Require responsibility.

When you assist someone with a need, help them find ways to contribute to their own need too. Give them the dignity of being a part of their solution. If they are in constant need of your time to discuss their problems, give them assignments before your next meeting, so they are working on their issues as well. If you seem willing to do all the work to meet their need, the “User” will let you.

  1. Control your definition of an “emergency.”

Pastors do face emergencies. There are sudden and dire medical crises, eviction notices and threats to turn off someone’s utilities, and a few other need-to-act now moments we face in the work of helping people. But every moment of need is not an emergency. Don’t let the “User” decide your emergencies. The “Pastor, I have to meet with you right now!” situations sound critically urgent, but you have to decide who gets such instant access to your schedule. Personally, I’d reserve that right for your wife, your kids, and your own judgment of what an emergency really looks like.

To let a “User” go unchecked in the congregation almost guarantees exhaustion and ministry frustration for a lot of people. Teach these folks healthy patterns and personal responsibility, and you will open the door for them to find a better life—one that’s not dependent on the energy of everyone else.

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