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Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Ministering to Problem People in Your Church" (Marshall Shelly)

TITLE: Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do With Well-Intentioned Dragons
AUTHOR: Marshall Shelley
PUBLISHER: Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013, (208 pages).

Previously published under the title, "Well-Intentioned Dragons," this book has substituted the rather controversial word "dragons" with a slightly more palatable phrase "problem people." Such people have the best intentions but often leave behind the most negative impressions of people, Church life, and even faith. According the the author, Editor of Leadership Journal publication for church leaders, such "dragons" are way too common. He base his observations on research by Christianity Today about 80% of pastors needing help with difficult people in their congregations. Containing stories of leaders who have both succeeded as well as failed, Shelley writes this book to help pastors and leaders to deal with such difficult people and situations.

Beginning with several stories of people in churches, he shows readers that conflicts by themselves can be very complex. From selling DVDs in Church to responding to sermons preached each week, anything can be a spark to a complicated debate. This is particular so when the matter boils over among leaders in the church. Shelley helps to highlight some of these "problem people."

  • "The Bird Dog" are people who seems to have made all the judgment already, fully expecting the pastor to execute their conclusions.
  • "The Wet Blanket" are those who basically neutralizes any enthusiasm for any initiative;
  • "The Entrepreneur" always wants to use Church connections to further his business interests;
  • "The Drill Instructor" orders people around as if he is commander in chief;
  • "The Anonymous Blogger" tries to air dirty laundry in public without disclosing who he or she is;
  • "The Financial Fickler" uses financial resources to dictate Church direction;
  • .. and several others.

With feedback from pastors, Shelley also provides a list of six features of how dragons develop. Some tend to compare the current pastor with the previous. Others begin initially as the pastor's biggest supporter only to switch sides later on. Two things are evident: First, dragons are those with strong emotions and passions about something. Second, they cannot overcome their human nature. Once the descend begins, personal attacks come fast and furious. Shelley offers a crisp advice: "When attacked by a dragon, do not become one." This single piece of wisdom is worth the price of the book.

With the advancement of technology, comes new ways to launch attacks and builds up conflicts. From emails to online forums, social media to websites, zealous people wanting to proclaim the Kingdom of God have to grapple with naysayers that often deal more with the negatives than the positives. Shelley gives eight tips on how to respond to an email criticism.  He covers a rarely discussed matter of mental illnesses in the church. He moves to deal with the common theme of power plays in the Church. He supplies several principles to help pastors improve Church health. They are worth mentioning here:
  1. Cultivate the building of a positive atmosphere;
  2. Maximize serving opportunities for members, to reduce armchair critics;
  3. Reinforce productive members;
  4. Know the Congregational Values;
  5. Share outside interests;
  6. Undersell rather than oversell Ideas
  7. Build a healthy Board.
  8. Cultivate trust.

Sometimes, there are criticisms that are valid. The chapter about "When the Dragons May be Right" teaches us what it means to humbly learn from them. At the same time, when they are wrong, we also need to learn how to confront them in the love of Christ. This calls for learning what confrontation entails. It is not suppression of opinion but helping to appreciate a different point of view.  It is not silencing complaints but clarifying the concerns. It is not surrendering but serving. Finally, when there is an impasse, Shelley explains that we need to be open to the possibility that they may not even be a resolution at all. He suggests giving it time. He urges us to keep a healthy perspective of things. Forgiveness is golden. Shelley concludes with the stories of Pachomius and Simeon Stylites, saying that it is far easier to live as a hermit and avoid any confrontation, than to live with people and face torrents of challenges.

So What?

I find that despite the change of titles, Shelley continues to use the word "dragons" instead of "problem people." This makes the change of titles rather questionable. Perhaps, for consistency, adopt one and stick to it. That said, the book is an important reminder to all in the ministry that service in Christ also means carrying the cross of Christ in humility to learn, and to live together. The many stories told in the book can trigger a painful memory among those of us who have been hurt before. Those who have yet to encounter the pains described will benefit through learning to avoid potholes of ministry. As long as there are people, there will be conflicts and disagreements of various kinds. There are three benefits in reading this book.

First, the stories are real and are bathed in actual ministry. Many people come with the best of intentions only to leave behind the worst frustrations. It is one thing to read about life in Church. It is yet another to live it out. Shelley gives many real life examples of how people have been hurt really bad. It reminds us that ministry is not for the faint-hearted. Those who are easily discouraged need not apply for ministry positions. Knowing the stories beforehand can help us recognize warning signs when we see them.

Second, it is a reminder that we are all sinners needing grace. Do not be too hard on yourself. People do change. The staunchest supporters initially can become our greatest opponents over time. This is something that we just need to accept in stride. Remember how Jesus gets betrayed by Judas Iscariot? If Jesus had a bad day, so will we, as followers of Christ. Knowing how easy it is for us to turn from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde is a wake up call that we too can be the very "dragons" we despise.

Third, we discover the profound beauty of what grace means. Think of how much God must have loved us, that in spite of sins against one another, God still offers us a way back to Him. Is there any wonder why we are being reminded to ask for God's forgiveness, even as we seek forgiveness for one another? Once we receive something that we do not deserve, we are stunned into silence, wondering why we are given such amazing grace.

Let me close with these powerful words:

"True love isn’t even learned among friends we have chosen. God’s kind of love is best learned where we can’t be selective about our associates. Perhaps this is why the two institutions established by God—the family and the church—are not joined by invitation only. We have no choice about who our parents or brothers or sisters will be; yet we are expected to love them. Neither can we choose who will or will not be in the family of God; any who confess Jesus as their Lord must be welcomed. We learn agape love most effectively in our involuntary associations, away from the temptation of choosing to love only the attractive."

If you are in some form of ministry, this book may very well save you from the brink of quitting. Maybe, like the character of Eustice in the Narnia Chronicles, whose body was covered with dragon scales, it takes God's grace to remove us and tear the scales out of us. For all we know, this book can also be a mirror to reflect back to us our "dragon" inclinations as well, that we can save others from being a victim of our "good" intentions.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Bethany House Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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