Some Advice from Jesus

Upon learning that my ministry focuses on mental health issues, more than one minister has asked if I could come and talk to their congregation about how to deal with the difficult behavior of some people that they have encountered in the life of their church. In the Spring of 2005, I prepared and gave such a presentation at a nearby congregation. I am sharing here some of what I presented.

I begin by acknowledging that I am not talking here about intentionally illegal, malicious or destructive actions, or about sexual misconduct. Such situations would be handled in a more confrontational, legally appropriate manner than what is discussed here.

First, the subject is the “care of” rather than the manipulation or isolation of, the person with difficult behavior. Further, it is the behavior, and not the person, that is difficult. I say this acknowledging that some people have a well-established pattern of difficult behavior. But as our first UU principle says, we acknowledge that each person has inherent worth and dignity. This must be respected to really make a substantive difference.

Next, the general philosophy for dealing with a problematic situation in a congregation should be that everyone has shared responsibility for addressing it. That is, we should take the attitude that no one is to blame, but everyone is responsible to fix it. We should avoid treating a single person as a scapegoat for all of our problems.

For a way to address these situations, we turn to a three-step model spelled out by no one less than Jesus, as described here in the New Revised Standard Version translation of Matthew 18:15-17: “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. 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. 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.”

Restated, the three steps are:

1. Talk face-to-face with the offender in private. This may nip the problem in the bud. Give the person the benefit of the doubt: “I don’t know whether this is accurate or not, but is it true that you said or did this?”

2. If Step 1 didn’t work, ask one or two people to join you and meet with the offender. This will allow you to check your views with the wisdom of others.

3. If Step 2 didn’t work, ask the offender to come before the congregation (or sub-Committee). The minister should be involved, if they haven’t been.

After this third step, if the problem is harmful to the congregation, and the person refuses to change, ask the person to take a leave of absence, or otherwise remove him/her self from the congregation.

The goal is restoration; determine what steps need to be taken for this. When the person returns, restore him or her to the community in a spirit of gentleness. If restoration is not possible, learn when to let go. This model takes great care to treat the offender as special and precious, someone who you want to restore to the good graces of the community. In thinking of restoration, we need to remember that even though Jesus mentions Gentiles and tax collectors as undesirable classes of people, he did spend significant amounts of time with them, caring for them in his short ministry. In my opinion, this is a worthy model to emulate.

What do you think? I’d be interested in hearing your views about whether this model would or wouldn’t work in a situation in your life or at church. You can contact me at com_minister at

For those of you who want to read further, my primary sources beyond The Bible are The Care of Troublesome People by Wayne E. Oates, and Coping with Difficult People by Robert M. Bramson. – Barbara

For a handout with resources and example covenants and policies from different churches, see The Care of Difficult People Handout