The Care of Difficult People

© Rev. Barbara F. Meyers 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
February 5, 2006

As most of you know, I am a community minister endorsed by this congregation. Being a community minister means that my ministry is focused on the community outside of the congregation. The focus of my ministry is mental health. Many times when I explain that I am working to make our congregations more welcoming to people with mental health problems and their families, some people react by expressing a concern that this might lead to having disruptive people in the congregation. By this they mean people who are disorderly and difficult to deal with by virtue of their mental disorder.

I must admit that this sometimes takes me aback because of my experience in talking to congregations about mental health issues. Maybe you remember when I did that here. After I tell some of my own personal struggle with depression, I ask people to stand if they or a loved one is living with a mental disorder. Every time I have done this, over 80% of the people stand. I’m no longer surprised when it happens.

So, you see, I know that their congregations are already full of people with mental disorders or their family members, most of whom are suffering in silence. And I know that you don’t have to have a mental disorder to behave in a disorderly, disruptive, obnoxious manner. I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this. While it is true that some people may need professional mental health care to change behavior, many times it is the ‘sane’ people who make difficulty for those of us who have mental disorders.

Be that as it may, since I am promoting a mental health initiative, I know that it is still my responsibility to address the question of how congregations can care for difficult people, because not addressing this issue will undermine the acceptance of my mental health ideas. And further, even without a mental health initiative it is good for congregations to know how to care for those among us who are difficult to deal with in various situations that occur in congregational life.

Last November, I gave a 1-day workshop at Pacific Central District Leadership Day on the subject of ‘The Care of Difficult People,’ and this sermon will give a condensed version of some of the ideas that were discussed in that workshop. Of course I am available for any questions or further discussions of this material.

The first thing I want to stress is that the subject of this sermon is the care of the difficult person, rather than the manipulation of or isolation of that person. With this approach, we are also concerned about the care of the caregivers and the care of the church as an institution. This is a shared responsibility. By that we mean no one is to blame but everybody is responsible to fix the problem. The person is not to be treated as a scapegoat – we don’t ‘play God’ in others’ lives. We must remember the respect for the individual that is the first principle of our faith.

Before I go any further, I need to emphasize that I am not discussing behavior that is intentionally illegal, malicious, or destructive. Nor am I talking about sexual misconduct. And, my remarks certainly aren’t comprehensive of all kinds of difficult people.

Another point worth mentioning here is that even though I’m using examples from a church situation, that these suggestions would apply as well at work or other group situations.

When I gave the workshop on this subject at the PCD leadership day, there was a woman who introduced herself by stating that she had ideas that she thought were visionary in nature, but that in her promoting them, others felt that she was a difficult person. And, she wanted to know how she could make her contributions to the church in the most effective way. There may be those of you today who feel the same way. If so, I invite you to embrace her open attitude.

During that workshop, one of the most valuable exchanges was a lively discussion about the discernment that one needs to distinguish between behavior that is ‘different’ in some way from that which is disruptive and detrimental to the congregation’s functioning. We explored some aspects to this question that were fascinating to me and which I want to share.

Discernment is required when walking the line…

Between, on the one hand … And, on the other hand …
Our Unitarian Universalist principle of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of each individual as a precious human being. Allowing individual behavior that is disruptive to the workings of the congregation as a whole.
Our Unitarian Universalist principle of the use of the democratic process within the church institution. Rule by a majority which doesn’t understand the culture of a minority and doesn’t address its rights, needs or dignity. Minorities include:

  • Racial or cultural minorities
  • People with physical or mental disabilities
  • People of different sexual orientation
  • Someone who is odd or eccentric
  • Someone of a different economic class
People who are drawn to a religion like Unitarian Universalism which comes from a heretical stance and encourages work for change in society. People whose actions toward creating societal change are abrasive, ineffective, and counter-productive.
Speaking the truth to power. Wanting to co-opt power for one’s own narrow personal ends.
A visionary who sees a direction that the community should be moving in, dealing with people who are resistant to change. Ex:

  • Women in Religion
  • Welcoming Congregation
Someone who is disruptive in a non-productive and destructive way, not leading to change for the common good.
People of a religion which encourages its believers to search for their own truth and meaning, as do our Unitarian Universalist principles. People who have no sense of what activities are ethical or non-ethical and no inner or outer guide to determine one from another, leading to arbitrary, inconsistent decisions.
People in opposition to a culture which often teaches that people are either ‘good’ or ‘evil’ based on narrow religious principles. People who don’t think any delineation of actions as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in society should be made. Thus, anything goes.

These are all weighty matters, and differing opinions on them have been enough to lead to religious schisms. So, discernment is important and not trivial.

Here are some guidelines that I humbly suggest:

  • We recognize that by its nature, this discernment is subjective
  • I suggest we aspire to use your power wisely, not arbitrarily, or in a prideful way, dealing with others in a spirit of gentleness and humility
  • I suggest we aim to confront individual behavior that is disruptive to the workings of the congregation as a whole
  • I suggest we try to understand the motivation of the disruptive behavior, treating each person with respect
  • I suggest we be sensitive to the needs of the minorities
  • That we be open to hearing the visionary voice
  • That we seek productive efforts towards societal change
  • That we work towards developing ethical positions on important issues
  • That we ask for help from the minister or others if needed
  • That we recognize that different people will see the situation in different ways, and come to different conclusions on discernment.
  • And finally, I suggest that mistakes in discernment will be made. We need to learn to apologize and forgive ourselves.

If you have other ideas, I would love to hear them. This is such a rich topic that I think a treatise could be written on it.

Let us say that you have practiced discernment and you decide to take some action. What now? I have some advice from one of the best sources: Jesus of Nazareth. Here is a 3-step model from Jesus, as described in Matthew 18: 15-17 (NRSV)

15: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
16: But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
17: If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.


  • In Judaism, to ‘sin’ often means to ‘miss the mark,’ or ‘trespass against’
  • Jesus loved Gentiles and tax collectors, too.

Let’s think about how to use this model in our churches, after discerning that the behavior is disruptive and not productive:

The Three Steps

  1. The first step would be to talk face-to-face with the offender. This may nip the problem in the bud. Give the person the benefit of the doubt: Say something like:’This is what I feel when you … Is this what you intended?’ Or ‘I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?’
  2. If this doesn’t work, the second step would be to ask one or two people to join you and meet with the offender. This allows you to check your views with the wisdom of others, and get the offender to ‘pay attention.’
  3. If the second step doesn’t work, the third step would be to ask the offender to come before the congregation (or sub-committee). The minister should be involved, if this hasn’t been done already. If problem is harmful to the congregation, and the person refuses to change, ask person to take a leave of absence, or otherwise remove him/her self from the congregation. Cordiality outside of church is still appropriate. The goal is restoration; determine what steps need to be taken for this. One might recommend therapy, if appropriate. The goal is to restore person to community in a spirit of gentleness. If the breach is not reparable, learn when to let go if restoration is not possible.

Now, let’s look at some examples of some kinds of difficult people and effective ways of handling them. My source here is an Alban Institute publication: The Care of Troublesome People, by Wayne Oates. Oates gives a number of different examples of difficult people, and I’m going to present three of them.

One kind of difficult person is someone who is a ‘Back-Biting Person.’ This is someone who doesn’t deal face-to-face with someone with whom they have a grievance; rather they spread stories behind that person’s back, starting rumors and gossip. Email can greatly facilitate this. The most effective way to handle this kind of situation is to deal face-to-face with the originator of the story, encountering them in a spirit of gentleness and humility, not with anger. If the back-biter is telling the truth, understand the situation and take action to address it. If this is serious, alert the minister. Try to understand person’s motivation, fears, etc that led to action; it may be linked to a larger set of difficulties that need to be addressed, maybe using therapy.

Another kind of difficult person is the ‘Competitive Divider of the Congregation.’ This person divides congregation into competitive camps. Examples of such camps are: social class, cliques, contending families, staff conflicts. Oates believes that this is caused by inappropriate use of model of competitive conflict from business world. The most effective way to handle this is to set limits beyond which a competitor may not go in terms of divisive behaviors. This might involve, for example, job descriptions, or a covenant of right relationships. If church members start demeaning each other, this should be nipped in the bud, by pointing it out and restore harmony in a spirit of gentleness and self-examination. One needs to be sensitive to people who are disappointed about some action, affirming their gifts.

The last kind of difficult person I’ll talk about this morning is the ‘Authoritarian, Power-Ridden Person.’ This person relies on intimidation to get his or her way, and probably needs an audience to make power moves. He or she may have a ‘palace guard’ who depend upon him / her for leadership. And all signs of weakness are held with contempt. Oates’ advice on encountering people like this is that a one-on-one encounter is the best way to start: there no audience, no embarrassment. Your objective is to have him/her hear you out. If there has been a legitimate mistake on your part, admit it. Look for opportunities for reconciliation while ‘saving face for authoritarian.

Now, instead of talking more about bad behavior, Holly and I are going to act out some examples for you. First, we will demonstrate an ineffective way to handle the situation. Then, we will repeat the role-play showing a more effective way.

The situation is this: A woman frequently disrupts a church committee meeting and keeps work from getting done. Holly will be the chair of the committee, and I will be the difficult person. Jane is another unseen person on the committee who we will mention.

Ineffective Dialog:

Holly: Good evening. Thank you all for coming to the worship committee meeting. We have a lot to do tonight. We’ll start with check-in. Barbara, you’re first.

Barbara: Oh, everything is terrible with me. First my car wouldn’t start. Then my dinner burned on the stove. Then, my washing machine broke down. Then, …

Holly: We need to move on.

Barbara: I’m not done. Then, my husband came home in a bad mood. Then, our neighbor yelled at us because our dog was barking. And besides, I don’t know why we’re even having this meeting. There are so many problems with this church. First it’s falling apart, and then they only give jobs to their favorites. Then they ignore the people who really do the work. Then, I don’t like the way …

Holly: Be quiet.

Barbara: Don’t tell me to be quiet. I am a member here and these are serious problems that you’re covering up.

Holly: Jane. I’d like to hear your check in.

Barbara: What! You’re ignoring me! Is this how you treat people in this church?

Now, we’ll give you an example of a more effective dialog.

Effective Dialog:

Holly: Good evening. Thank you all for coming to the worship committee meeting. We have a lot to do tonight. We’ll start with check-in. Barbara, you’re first.

Barbara: Oh, everything is terrible with me. First my car wouldn’t start. Then my dinner burned on the stove. Then, my washing machine broke down. Then, …

Holly: Barbara, it sounds like a lot of things are weighing heavily on you tonight. We do need to move on, but it sounds like you still need to talk. Would you like to go into another room and talk with Jane for a while now, or wait until the meeting is over and I’ll be glad to talk to you or find someone else who can listen more completely to your situation?

Barbara: Why can’t I tell everyone now? I have some real concerns about this church.

Holly: Because the committee has work that we all came here to do tonight. I can see you have important concerns and want you to be heard when we have time and opportunity to respond to them with the time and respect they deserve.

Barbara: Well OK. I’ll talk to you after the meeting.

Holly: Jane it is your turn to check in.

I hope you could tell which of these situations we were recommending! Of course it is possible Barbara had some legitimate complaints about the committee or problems in her personal life. If the committee rules aren’t being followed, it would be more effective if Barbara talked with Holly before the meeting. If Barbara has a personal emergency, the minister or pastoral care person might get involved.

The common thread is to understand the motivation of the disruptive behavior and then work on the root causes of the behavior.

A congregation needs to have some basic policies and systems in place to limit the effect of disruptive, non-productive behavior. One of these is a Covenant of Right Relations. If you were at the retreat yesterday, you know that this is a statement of how we treat each other in the congregation: a promise of how to behave towards other members.

In addition, many congregations find it helpful to have a Policy for Disruptive Behavior, spelling out what constitutes disruptive behavior and the steps that will be taken when it occurs. Disruptive behaviors that are typically are spelled out are threats to the safety to any adult or child or disruption of church activities. The policy would tell who would handle the situation and spell out the process of informing the individual.

Other things that congregations find helpful are:

  • Lay pastoral care staff
  • Training of church staff and lay leaders
  • Referral list of therapists, support groups, and community programs
  • Possibly people identified on Sunday morning as available to sit privately with someone who can’t remain in the service

Some of these we have in place at Mission Peak. Others we are working on. If you are interested in learning more or in contributing to this effort, please let me know.

What I want to leave you with is a sense that the care of people in our congregations is a sacred task that we do as part of our life together. It is a direct application of our first principle: the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person. Caring for difficult people is a subset of this task: perhaps the most challenging. But it can also be the most rewarding, allowing the difficult person, the person dealing with them as well as the church all to grow in the process. I ask: Is this not part of God’s work in the world?

Is this not part of God’s work in the world?