A book that has helped me survive in ministry is Well-Intentioned Dragons: Ministering to Problem People in the Church, by Marshall Shelley. It was written over 20 years ago, but it’s a timeless read–especially if you’re in the early stages of your ministry.
Well-intentioned dragons are often “pillars of the community—talented, strong personalities, deservingly respected—but for some reason, they undermine the ministry of the church.”1 All the dragons have one thing in common: power—power to destroy enthusiasm, shift responsibility away from themselves, and make you (the pastor) crazy. Some wield their power subtly, through flattery, gifts, promises, and sob stories. Other dragons are more openly hostile, critical, and divisive. Regardless, you must confront them. This is part of your job “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). You cannot ignore the situation and just hope things will get better. You must let God use you to help these people change. Not to do so may spare you a painful conversation but will hurt your congregation and make life more difficult for you in the long run.
Here are seven steps I recommend you take before you confront someone who is causing problems:
1. Pray both for yourself and the person who needs confronting. Ask God to give you a love for that individual and a genuine desire for his or her welfare.
2. Repent of your own sin. Take the log out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck of sawdust out of the other person’s eye. Identify ways you are like that person. Confess your uncharitable thoughts of him or her.
3. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” Even your worst critic is telling you something that is true. How might he or she, with a little help, actually benefit you and the church?
4. Write out what you should say. Begin by asking for permission to speak honestly and openly. Consider opening with “May I speak from the heart about something that’s been bothering me?” or “Do you agree that one of my roles as a pastor is to bring things to people’s attention—sometimes hard things?” Also think of how you can begin on a positive note instead of immediately telling the person where he or she is wrong.
5. Identify and write out the specific changes you expect the person to make. What will repentance look like?
6. Plan out next steps. What will happen if the person refuses to repent? What consequences should he or she expect? What will you do next to assist the person in his or her growth?
7. Call the person and set up a meeting. The sooner the better. Do not put it off or make excuses. The Holy Spirit is prompting you; he will help you. Don’t keep him waiting.
What other tips for confronting dragons have you picked up over the years?
1 Marshall Shelley, “Identifying a Dragon,” in Leading Your Church through Conflict and Reconciliation. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1997, p. 60.