Pastors and Problem People

No pastor likes to have problem people in the church. They can irritate, often become time-consuming, block progress and, among other things, stir up trouble with others. How should he relate to them? That’s always the question that a shepherd faces while tending his recalcitrant sheep. Sheep wander and get lost; they may be stubborn and obstinate. They do foolish things, and are vulnerable to animals of prey. Good shepherds feed their sheep, leading them to lush pastures. They use their staffs to pull them away from dangerous precipices, and their rods to beat off the wolf that would snatch them from the fold. Clearly, when you think of how Moses and Aaron complained again and again about the people of Israel as “obstinate” and “stiff-necked” it is easy to understand that the difficulty you experience is in no way new or unique. So, that’s the first thing: you must reckon on having problem people in your church just as a shepherd reckons with his flock. That is the nature of the ministry. It goes with the turf.

There are some ministers of the Word who lose patience with such people—they want to “get them out of the way.” The back door in their churches is always unlocked—sometimes standing wide open! They are always ready to show problem people where it is. Other pastors become discouraged; they wonder if there is something wrong with their ministry, and whether they ought rather to be selling insurance. Still others give up on their churches, anxious to move on to some place where they will find the people more “spiritual”—or, at the least, more convivial. Only to discover, of course, that such churches rarely exist. I suppose there are a dozen or more other reactions that might be mentioned, but surely these are sufficient to set the scene for what I am about to say.

And that is—difficulties with problem people is what ministry is all about! You aren’t really ministering unless you are helping such people to change. “HA!” you say. “I’d like you to see my bunch. Maybe you’d change your mind about that if you did. Change them? That’s nearly impossible.”

Well, perhaps it is. But probably it isn’t. Naturally, there are times to give up on a particular group of people. God finally did when He sent His people off into exile. But, of course, even then He worked with them for 70 years and at length brought them back to Palestine. Finally, there came a time when the cup of His patience was filled to overflowing, and there was a final end (Matthew 23:32; Luke 21:22). But that was only after God showed amazing patience and longsuffering. Very few pastors ever need come to that place with their congregations—and even if they might, how would they know when such a time has arrived. It is the place of a faithful steward of the grace of God to continue patiently working with problem people. Let the One Who holds the churches in His hand determine when to remove a lampstand. God has shown us great patience in His dealings with His people (indeed, and in his dealing with each of us as well!).

Paul has a clear word on the subject in I Thessalonians 5:11, 14:

Therefore encourage one another and continue to build each other up, as indeed you have been doing . . . We urge you, brothers, counsel the idle, encourage the timid, support the weak, be patient with everyone.

That, of course, isn’t the only passage that might be quoted. When you think of the amazing patience that Paul exhibited with the Corinthian church, you can see what patient forbearing means. But, for now, simply think about this passage alone. You will note, when Paul wrote these words to the church at Thessalonica, he wasn’t even writing to pastors in particular, but to all the members of the congregation (his words make that clear: “one another . . . brothers”). What were they (and certainly their pastors as well) to do about problem people? The answer? “Build them up.” “Counsel them.” “Encourage them.” “Support them” and “be patient with everyone.”

Now, of course, we are not speaking of schismatic persons—those who would split your church. Paul wants you to discipline them immediately before it’s too late (see Titus 3:10). After confronting them once or twice, if there is no change in their attitude and behavior, they must be subject to church discipline.

But we are talking about the run-of-the-mill problem person. The reason why God put you there is to minister to such people. There would be no work for an undertaker if no one ever died. Similarly, there would be no place for your ministry if there were no problem people for you to help. Indeed, helping such persons solve problems and grow in their faith is a major part of your work. “If you can’t stand the heat,” they say, “then get out of the kitchen.” You may have to. But better still, why not learn how to take it. Someone must do the cooking. And when you resolve to do so—to minister as fully as possible to problem people-you will soon discover that the changes that do take place are worth the effort. Soon you’ll learn to stand the heat like every good cook!

God’s servants have never had a good time of it (Read again Hebrews 11). But they served—in all sorts of situations, most of which were probably far worse than yours. And God blessed them. Sometimes it was only a few, but never as Elijah thought, none, who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Often, a minister of the word was himself ejected from his place of ministry (John to Patmos, Paul to Jail). But even there God used them to continue to minister in different ways. Come on now, discouraged, disheartened pastor: the church is a hospital for the spiritually sick, and you are a physician of the soul. What good would a physician be in a hospital of well people? It is the sick and needy that Jesus helped. It is the sinner and the troublemaker that you are called to minister to. Remember what the word “minister” means—“servant.” You are called to serve God by serving His people. Ask God to forgive you for your discouragement, pick up your Bible once again, and go to work with patience and zeal!

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