Guarding the church from emotionally unhealthy people

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock…. Therefore be alert….” (Acts 20:28-31)

The further I get from pastoral ministry the more clearly I see some things I should have done better. One of those is being more careful about letting certain people control or manipulate me and set the agenda for the church. Instead of being on guard against them, confronting them, and protecting the body from them, I allowed them to cause me anxiety and stress. And worse, in the name of love and compassion, I actually failed to truly love these people and the congregations I was called to serve.

Paul is clear in the above text: You must be on your guard against “fierce wolves.” There are people in the body of Christ who are dangerous, who will hurt others (intentionally or not) and sabotage your ministry. The Bible says there are tares among the wheat. There are evil people in the midst of the church (e.g., Proverbs 5:1ff.). God warns us to “make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25). Even Jesus, the most loving Person in the universe, “did not entrust himself to [people], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25).

Religion attracts imbalanced people. The gospel attracts the mentally ill and the emotionally unhealthy. The church attracts narcissistic and self-centered people. This shouldn’t surprise us because the good news is for broken, messed up people. We want these people to have the means of grace and meet Jesus. Jesus spent much of his time in ministry to these types of people. You and I are imbalanced too! That’s why Paul says to “pay careful attention to yourselves.” When we restore others we must “Keep watch on [ourselves], lest [we] too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). So we are not immune from anything I’m addressing in this post. Nevertheless, we must not shrink from our responsibility to confront evil, maladjusted, off-balance, or otherwise unhealthy people when their bad attitudes, words, and behavior negatively impact the congregation. We must have more concern for the body as a whole than for indulging, protecting, and coddling these individuals.

In a moment I will describe six types of people to be on guard against. But first, four caveats:

  • Caveat #1: The proper names below were not selected because I’m thinking of particular people.
  • Caveat #2: The gender-specific names below aren’t meant to imply that men are more given to a problem than women or that women are more given to a problem than men. The problems I describe belong to both sexes.
  • Caveat #3: I offer these as generalizations only.
  • Caveat #4: All six of these proclivities operate in me all the time.

Herewith are six types of unhealthy people from whom we must guard the church:

1. Legalistic Louise – This person believes that there are certain RIGHT things (right, i.e., as defined by her) people must do in addition to following Christ, in order to be truly spiritual and loved by God.

In this group you will find…

  • homeschoolers, public schoolers, classical educators, and Christian schoolers
  • right wingers and left wingers
  • TR’s and Arminians
  • conspiracy theorists
  • dominion theologians
  • pro-lifers and pro-choices
  • flag wavers and Woke people
  • Trump lovers and Trump haters
  • people with a passion for a particular cause or ministry that everyone must be about

This person’s mantra is “You/We would be on the right track if only you/we did or believed _______.”

Legalistic Louise believes you can’t be a Christian and watch TV-MA shows or R-rated movies, listen to any music other than Z88, or read novels. She wants you to get behind campaigns to support Christian movies and doesn’t understand why you don’t like them. She likes to impose rules about personal devotions, family worship, etc. She likely opposes church debt, progressive outreach ideas, updated hymn tunes, Bible paraphrases, drums in the sanctuary, and creative efforts to contextualize the gospel.

2. Hyperspiritual Harry – This is Louise’s first cousin. For Hyperspiritual Harry, everything is a spiritual battle and it often involves politics.

Harry will approach you and say, “Pastor, you need to call the church to repentance and prayer….” or to some such spiritual campaign.

Harry’s mantra is something like, “We have to get prayer back in public schools.”

These people are unteachable. They can’t hear the other side. They are off balance. They don’t respect the field of psychology. They want an American flag in the sanctuary. They believe Satan is behind every bad thing that happens. Many of them carry a Bible filled with underlining and highlights but they scream at their kids and can’t get along with their spouse and no one on their street likes or respects them. They believe that sickness is probably due to sin. Many Hyperspiritual Harrys believe that God promises health, wealth, and prosperity to those who have sufficient faith.

3. Hasty Hermione – She will tell you, “The church must do this NOW.” Everything is urgent to Hasty Hermione. Everything is an emergency. If we don’t act, things are going to fall apart.

Her mantra is, “The sky is falling, and pastor, you need to do something about it.”

Hermione doesn’t see it, but haste is actually one of the great enemies of the church. The sky is never falling. God is sovereign and is always at work accomplishing his purposes. We need to trust his hand and not rush or make hasty, impulsive decisions. Invariably, people get hurt from impulsivity.

“Wait on the Lord” must be our mantra. That doesn’t imply passivity or inactivity. But it implies that God is bigger than our challenges and is quite adept at managing his world without our help.

4. Bossy Bobby – This person wants to be in control. He resents that you are over him in the Lord and will make your leadership difficult.

Bobby’s mantra is, “Why, if I were you, here’s what I would do. I’d do what we did in my company. Come on, pastor, it’s not rocket science.”

These people are used to being in power. Perhaps they are the CEO of a company, the boss of others. They crave attention and don’t like following. They want their way, and if they don’t get their way they’ll cut back on their giving or withhold it entirely. And though they expect you to give in to their demands, they may not even be members of the church. When a Christian refuses to take membership vows, you know something’s not right.

5. Whiney Wendy – Nothing is ever right or good enough for this person.

Wendy’s mantra is, “I wish things were like they used to be.”

For Whiney Wendy, something’s always deficient about your church. Either…

  • the website is not up to par or it’s too fancy
  • the service is too liturgical or not liturgical enough
  • the sermon has too many stories or not enough stories
  • the staff is too big or too small
  • the Sunday bulletin is too wordy or not expansive enough
  • the greet-one-another time is too long, too short, or non-existent

She will remind you that you didn’t visit so-and-so in the hospital. She will wonder why “no one from the church” (and she means you) called so-and-so when he was ill. She will complain about how unfriendly your church is. But interestingly, no one likes her or thinks she’s very friendly.

Beware: This person will often pit one pastor against another or draw a following to create ill will against you.

6. Cheap Grace Charlie – This person lacks commitment to worship, fellowship, and mission. He’s always talking about our freedom in Christ but when you probe a little you find he doesn’t feel compelled to give or to serve. He may show up for church or he may not. He says he does whatever the Spirit moves him to do.

Charlie’s mantra is, “God loves us unconditionally, just the way we are.” He talks a lot about justification (a precious, precious doctrine) but never talks about sanctification (also a precious, precious doctrine).

When you call the congregation to something like a building campaign or a service project or a higher level of consecration, Charlie will spread dissension by telling his small group that God loves us whether we do such things or not (which is true) and that “law” is Old Testament, not New (which is untrue).

*******

What do all these people have in common? They lack submission. Ultimately they do not love.

Submission problems are love problems.

One of the vows members take in my Presbyterian denomination is to submit to the government and discipline of the church and promise to study its purity and peace. To “study” means to strive after, devote oneself to, cultivate, and apply oneself to.

God calls his people to love the church, to pursue unity and peace, and to submit to their church leaders. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”

What should you do with people like the ones described above?

  • Build a strong elder board. Let your elders take the heat and share the burden. They are partners in the shepherding business. Don’t expose yourself by tackling difficult people by yourself. Instead, bring elders into discussions with difficult or dangerous people. Don’t put yourself in the crosshairs.
  • Recruit a team of mature, godly women who will fight with and for you. In my ministry I have always tried to bring wise, bold women alongside me as I dealt with difficult people. If you’re in a denomination that ordains women, these women will be key members of your Session, diaconate, or elder board. If your church does not ordain women, you need to deploy a cadre of wise women who love you and love the church enough to help you confront agitators.
  • Carefully organize and monitor the officer nominating and training process. Be extremely watchful about who winds up getting ordained as officers. They need more than theological vetting. They should also be evaluated for mental, emotional, and spiritual health. See Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, for ways to do this.
  • Confront the difficult people. For practical tips on how to do this, see Chapter 8 (“Tell the Truth”) of my book, Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership.
  • If you tend to avoid confrontation, get counseling. Develop skills in peacemaking and conflict management.
  • Even if you’re not good at it, push through your fear. Do the right thing. 1 Timothy 1:20 says that Paul “handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” In 1 Timothy 1:3, Paul instructed Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith….”
  • Refer unhealthy people to professionals and urge them to get counseling and/or medical care. Counselors and psychiatrists are trained to treat these people long-term. You have neither the training nor the time to get overly involved with unhealthy people.

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