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Dealing With Difficult People

 It felt like I was hit in the stomach with a sledge hammer.  A trusted Church Member walked into my office and said:  "Jim I need to talk to you, your preaching has been going downhill lately . . ."  It was not unusual for Bruce to give me feedback on my performance, he was just that kind of guy.  Never had his comments affected me like this.  He reached into his pocket and deliberately pulled out a list of complaints.  I knew we were in for a long session.

 Difficult Situations

 Bruce was a retired Captain from the Military who came to our Church when he discovered he had terminal cancer.  Every six months he would make an appointment to talk to me.  I often felt like a sergeant at a periodic review meeting.  In the beginning, I hated these meetings, but with time, I came to look forward to our "talks" knowing Bruce would say something that would help me improve.

 After listening to Bruce I understood his complaint.  He loved my evangelistic preaching, I was preaching a discipleship series.  His imminent death made heaven seem a day away.  He wanted others to hear the gospel and respond.  Christian growth sermons seemed far less important to him than salvation of the lost.  I showed him my sermon calendar and explained where this series fit in with the year's scheme.  He understood my concern.

 The last time I saw Bruce we spoke seriously about his death.  We made all the final arrangements for his funeral.  He picked out the songs we would sing, and told me what he wanted me to say.

 At his request, I preached an evangelistic sermon from Romans 10:9.  It was the kind of sermon he enjoyed while alive, I hope it honored him in his death.

 The best way I can deal with a difficult situation is to not get defensive, but to listen.  It is difficult for a professional speaker to listen.  Every Sunday people gather to hear what I have to say.  Sometimes I forget that in counseling meetings people want to be heard, not hear a sermon.  Listening is more than a pause from speaking.  It is not an opportunity to "reload my mind so I can shoot off at my mouth."  It is a chance to understand the message the speaker is conveying.  I need to listen with Empathy. 

 Empathy is not sympathy.  Sympathetic listening involves feeling the emotions and understanding the logic of the speaker.  Empathetic listening feels the pain and gets involved in finding a solution to the problem of the speaker.  It is active, not passive. 

 Bruce and I addressed the issue behind the problem.  I listened to him, he listened to me.   As a compromise we agreed that I needed to continue to preach Christian growth sermons, but end them with an evangelistic invitation.  His suggestions made my sermons better.

 Difficult People

 Helen was a new member of the Church who seemed a bit pushy.  Within a month of joining our church, she came into my office with a list of demands for changes in the nursery.  Her suggestions seemed reasonable and I was appreciative of her bringing the deficiencies to my attention.  We made the changes and I thought that was the end of the matter.  What I did not know at the time is that she boasted to the nursery workers about how fast she was able to get things done.  They resented the implication that she was able to do what they could not do for themselves.  Her gloating caused major discontentment among the nursery employees.  As a result of the conflict, one resigned.

 The next week, my secretary walks into my office on a "do not disturb day."  She says, "I just got off the phone with Helen, she is very upset about a decision the Church Council made last night, she says we don't care about missions because we are not promoting the Easter Offering.  She wants to talk to you."  A flash of anger seized me, I thought "who does she think she is to question the council.  She has no right!"   I was beginning to understand that she wanted our church to fit the mold of her Church back east. 

 When I returned Helen's call concerning the council meeting.  I could not hear a word she was saying.  I immediately became defensive and outraged at her suggestion that the Church Council is not sensitive to missions.  I perceived that she would be at my office door with a new challenge each week.  She drew a line in the sand, I crossed it. 

 My meeting with Bruce ended with a handshake and a smile.  My conversation with Helen ended with her yelling at me and then slamming her phone down on the receiver.  What made the difference?  With Bruce there were plenty of difficult situations, but he was not a difficult person.  There is a difference.  Difficult situations can be resolved, difficult people can never be satisfied.

 Every day is not Pastor Appreciation Day in the local Church.  Both these ministry contacts made me feel unappreciated and vulnerable.  I felt weak and out of control.  I Simultaneously thought "I am the Pastor here, no one is qualified to tell me how to shepherd this flock!" and "Who am I kidding, I don't deserve to be Pastor here."

 The conflict with Helen escalated in the coming months.  She was vocal about her discontent with me and the Church.  She launched a "phone campaign," complaining to whoever would listen.  She whispered in the halls, and yelled in business meetings.  She attacked every authority figure she could, and she drew blood.

 She consumed my schedule.  If I wasn't listening to her complain about the church, I was listening to church leaders complain about her.  I met with her husband on a couple of occasions to see if we could resolve the problems.  He decided we all needed to sit down together, we scheduled a meeting. 

 The meeting was emotional.  We confronted the issues and wept.  Nothing was resolved.  She stressed that we needed to change for her to stay.  I wished them Godspeed as I showed her the door.  They left the church for good. 

 In thinking about my conflict with Helen, I have made some promises to myself about how I will deal with antagonists in the future.

 I won't be paralyzed by negative feelings.  The conflict with Helen seemed never ending.  For weeks I had problems sleeping.  The unpleasant conversations whirled through my head night and day.  Finally I had to confront the demons within.  I could not let this event hold me hostage.  What will I say to her next time I see her?  Will her husband be upset with me for speaking so frankly with her?  Will they leave the Church and go somewhere else?  After a time of struggling I decided that I had beat myself up enough, I needed to get on with my life and enjoy the positive things around me.

 I will stay in control of my time.  There are some people in the Church that I will never want to spend a lot of time with.  I need to keep a balance between avoiding and courting those people.  I can never decide not to minister to a person, but I can decide not to spend free time with them.  I can keep conversations professional, but brief.  My schedule is a major consideration.  I can control my time by scheduling meetings at my convenience, for set lengths of time, and at a reasonable frequency. 

 I will like myself regardless of other's opinion of me.  In the past, I tried to curry favor with the problem person.  I thought, if they only knew me, they would like me and will stop causing problems.  It never works.  Troublesome people are not an irritant because they don't like me.  They are troublesome because they don't like themselves.  I will focus on my supporters not my enemies.  For every person who opposes me there are many more that support me. 

 I will act, not react.  For six months, Helen called the shots.  She acted, I reacted.  Next time I won't wait for the sore to fester, I will confront it quickly and decisively.  Confrontation is less painful than being attacked.  My passive approach hurt others who were caught in the crossfire.

 Now that Helen is gone all is not peaceful.  There will always be difficult ministry situations and difficult people in the Church.  I pray to always have the wisdom to know the difference between the two, and the character strength to minister in the midst of difficulty. 

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