Dealing with Difficult Lay Leaders

Every pastor deals with the issue of difficult members at some point. There are no perfect people or perfect leaders. By difficult members, I refer to leaders in lay ministry who, through experience and time, may have come to the point they believe their leadership and opinions supercede that of the established church leadership structure.

This can manifest as passive-aggressive behavior, gossip and slander, creating dissent and factions, pursuing personal agendas or fame, or just plain old hatred and dishonesty. I do not know a pastor who has not had to face a difficult church member. Nor have a found a church that isn’t harboring a few of them. So what is a church leader to do? Here are a few suggestions.

It’s the guys you have to watch out for. By and large, difficult members tend to be men. Occasionally a woman may assert herself in her role in an inappropriate way, but in a leadership structure dominated by the male pastor figure, it is rare to have a woman openly go against the pastor’s leadership.

The best way for a pastor to deal with difficult men, then, is to participate in preventive medicine, and cultivate good relationships with the men of the church. A pastor will be wise to engage in his own church’s men’s ministry, or in a church without a formalized men’s ministry, to be at those functions where men are most likely to participate. You must know the pulse of your men in order to be in tune with warning signs of difficult church members.

Know before you knock. Context and history is so important when dealing with difficult members. Before you chastise a member for being difficult, know with detail their history at the church and their current role and connections in ministry. I’ve listened to several pastors through the years who have lost their jobs and their churches to individual members whose standing in the congregation was much greater than their own—the pastor had just not taken time to understand those relationships.

A difficult church member is typically not born into the congregation with a sense of authority or entitlement. They had to develop that along the way. Maybe they helped the church through a crisis, or are in a key volunteer role that is not easily replaced. They can develop an unhealthy sense of their own importance, which comes off in conversation as defense and passion for the church itself. When you need to approach a difficult member, always approach with caution and get the background first.

Go with a brother. It is never wise to approach and deal with a difficult church member alone. Always meet with a close friend. You never want to leave yourself vulnerable to being misquoted or mischaracterized in a meeting. Have someone else in your meetings and dealings as an observer. In many cases I would even go so far as to make a record (notes) of your conversations with a difficult member. Faulty recollection can further damage a bad situation.

Choose your battles. As a pastor and a leader, you must realize that in any given congregation there are certain members who just do not want to be led. Whether through poor interactions, personal animosity or blatant disobedience to God’s Word, they will not respect the authority of the church and her designated leaders, while at the same time maintaining influence recklessly over others in the body.

Choose your battles with such individuals wisely, and step cautiously and carefully. Never step alone or without the counsel of trusted peers within that same body. Many a pastor has been destroyed by pounding their chest in a situation where discretion and quiet candor were the method that would have yielded results. Ask yourself “Is it worth dying on this hill?” or perhaps you can let a smaller argument go in order to address a bigger issue.

Understand and deal with it. Pastors must also fully grasp the cancer that difficult lay leaders are to their congregation. Often to avoid any kind of conflict, we just learn to live with them. That’s cause for escalating problems. I have personally observed members speaking openly against a pastor and his leadership, leading others away from the church’s core mission and vision, and espousing beliefs and agendas that are contrary to the accepted doctrine of the body. If this is happening—and you may or may not be fully aware of it—it is a cancer that eats at the heart of unity and direction that the church should have (John 17).

Pastor, you can and should be careful and cautious, but you also must deal with difficult members before they deal with you and deal a blow to the church herself. Be focused and intentional when disagreements and dissent arises to put action steps into place immediately to begin the process of restoring unity to the body. Every pastor will have difficult members. Many pastors continue to have them year after year after year because they simply refuse to take the first step to solve the underlying issues.


Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.