Helping Difficult Sheep
Let’s face it: some people are difficult.
For a variety of reasons, life is hard for many Christians, and some of them seek to make life equally hard for their pastors. Even in a healthy church there will be some sheep who simply struggle in their relationships with each other. To quote one seasoned shepherd: “this kind of people-trouble is wearying indeed for the pastor. It’s easy to grow cold and sarcastic about those particularly difficult people whose afflictions are largely self-induced” (Jerry Wragg, Exemplary Spiritual Leadership, 130).
Not helping those who are problematic can lead to what another pastor calls, “pastoral anxiety.” He says that it is the “weight borne by criticism, gossip, opposition, division, strife, misunderstanding, bitterness, and negativism in those who should know better.” Furthermore, he notes, it “can be enormous. This is by far the greatest strain laid on pastors” (Erroll Hulse, “The Preacher and Piety,” in The Preacher and Preaching, 71).
Some responses to difficult sheep should be dismissed outright. Doing nothing is not an option. Therefore, a pastor giving the “silent treatment” or simply avoiding difficult persons betrays the pastoral calling of shepherding all the flock. Additionally, dictating everything through intimidation, manipulation, and harsh actions should never characterize a pastor’s response to difficult sheep (1 Pet 5:3; cf. Ezek 34:4).
Thankfully, God knows that we can all be given to sinful impulses and entanglements that sometimes create great strain on our relationships. To this end, pastors should carefully identify what our sheep are like. Not all church members are the same. Some sheep are spiritually healthy while others bend under the strain of difficult circumstances and straying affections. The leadership of the church should carefully identify our sheep, not to mark some as “untouchable” but to help them grow in the grace of Christ Jesus.
Once the leadership begins to identify areas of struggle and concern, they can start to carefully apply God’s Word with great patience and thoughtful skill. Here are four ways we can begin to help difficult church members in their walk with Christ:
1) Listen with Care
It is important that we listen carefully not only to how things are being stated but also what is being said. Sometimes our tendency as pastors is not to listen; rather, it is to be offended, hurt, or to offer correction in the moment something is being said.
Even if believers are struggling to communicate their thoughts with love and precision, pastors must go the extra mile to listen to their grievances or struggles. Wisdom should lead us to gather all available facts (Prov 18:13; Jam 1:19) and be sharpened by the edge of another’s words (Prov 27:17). After this, we can carefully measure our response rather than being quick or harsh with the hurting or disgruntled (Prov 15:28).
2) Admonish with Love
There are times when a believer’s words and actions are simply out of step with God’s design for their life. While all Christians have a responsibility to help restore one another (Gal 6:1ff), pastors must carefully lead the way when necessary. We must “admonish the unruly” (1 Thess 5:14). The “unruly” are brothers and sisters seeking their own way, and we must help turn them back to fellowship in Christ (Jude 22–23).
The Apostolic Father Ignatius once counseled Polycarp saying, “If you love good disciples, it is no credit to you; rather with gentleness bring the more troublesome ones into submission” (Letter to Polycarp, 2.1). The unruly are a challenge to our ministries but it is an essential aspect of the rescuing nature of good shepherding ministry.
3) Encourage with Perseverance
All of God’s people will face times of discouragement; such is common to man. In these moments, pastors have unique opportunities to provide care and comfort to those who are discouraged by life, sin, or the unknown.
The apostle Paul said to “encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thess 5:14). Such can take place through writing them, visiting in their homes, or counseling them over lunch. Our encouragement must continually bring the troubled in heart back to the promises of God in His Word, holding out the refreshment of the grace of Christ. Intentionally seek out ways to encourage the fainthearted sheep in your flock.
4) Strengthen with Patience
“Be patient with everyone” (1 Thess 5:14). Patience is not a generic virtue for which we need to pray. Rather, biblical patience is a command to persevere alongside those enduring trying circumstances. Patient shepherds are not sprinters but marathoners. Taking a long-view approach to helping people will save us from many of the facile quick fixes of our evangelical culture. More importantly, it will model the kind of grace that God shows all of us (2 Pet 3:9).
Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor, offers the following encouragement: “We must carry on our work with patience. We must bear with many abuses and injuries from those to whom we seek to do good” (The Reformed Pastor, 119).
Doing this, I believe, will encourage our sheep with a Christ-centered optimism that leads them to desire Him more than their own hurts and anguish.
One more thing . . .
There are many beneficial lessons that the Lord uses to strengthen His under-shepherds. Difficult people should drive us to prayer, deepen our study of the Scriptures, refine our communication, and examine our own hearts as we seek to faithfully lead God’s flock. Saving difficult sinners is the chief business of our Lord, and for this we labor and strive (Isa 53:6).
Paul Lamey is one of our ten TES campus pastors, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.