Seven types of Difficult People commonly seen in the church


By Rev. Dr. Kent King-Nobles
Rev. Dr. Kent King-NoblesOver the years, we have discovered that "difficult people" come in different types.  The lady in the parking lot was one of the easy types.  Seven of the types that we see in the church are not such easy types: the change resistor, the bully, the critic, the person who touches our wounds, the dependent or needy person, the person with borderline personality disorder and the sexualized person. Let’s explore each types typical behavior and strategies for working with or addressing each type of challenging person.

Notice that firm personal boundaries are important for dealing with each these types.  Need more information on creating, maintaining or strengthening boundaries?  Click boundaries1 or boundaries2 for more information.

  1. THE CHANGE RESISTOR is someone who has difficulty with anything that is not "as usual."  Their behaviors can range from foot-dragging to petty sabotage to outright rebellion.  It seems that uncertainty and perceived loss of control is overwhelming for them.  Possible strategies for addressing this type of person include actively listening to their concern, acknowledging their anxiety, attempting to help them understand the reason for the change and communicating that the change will be reevaluated. Be careful to maintain your boundaries and resist the urge to try to lead them to water.  If possible, give them an opportunity to work on an area of the change that they do support.
  2. THE BULLY in the church is used to getting his or her way and maintaining as much control as possible by using threats.  They threaten to get mad/upset, to make your life miserable, or to withdraw their money or support.  The threat can be almost anything.  Their behavior is often abusive.  Why do they do this?  Because it works. Most people (especially in the church) are intimidated or “nice” and back down in order to avoid a confrontation.  No one ever calls them on the carpet for their inappropriate behavior, so they continue, maybe even ramp up their behavior.  While some bullies may come to respect a person who stands up to them (especially if done in a calm and caring way and if there is a demonstrated willingness to continue the relationship), but many bullies do not react this way.  It is very important to avoid getting into an ongoing power struggle or all-out fight, if at all possible. Clearly and calmly communicate what you feel or what you believe; taking responsibility for yourself.  Then ask the bully to take responsibility for himself or herself.  If they say, “Everyone is really upset with you,” come back with “How do you feel?”  Do not give in to blackmail.  Create clear boundaries.  General behavioral boundaries can be discerned in a group setting if this is an ongoing problem.  The group can be asked to hold each other accountable to these.  If the bully is actually a threat to your physical or emotional well being, seek help.
  3. THE CRITIC can take a real toll.  Most clergy want to be liked.  It is very typical for a minister to get a constant barrage of criticism, even when things are going well.  And many of these complaints are going to come at a bad time, like in the 5 minutes before you climb into the pulpit to lead the morning worship.  We live in an individualistic society where people are encouraged to voice their personal preferences and disappointments.  Some critics really want to make the church better.  Some need to feel important.  Some are acting out their anger. It is important to discern the motivations of the critic that is bothering you.  If a person is angry and searching for things to complain about, solving one individual complaint will not placate the critic.  The most helpful strategy is to learn not to take the criticism personally.   Set up boundaries that help you receive criticism appropriately (i.e. “I will be happy to talk to you about that later but I can’t right now because I have to focus on worship.”). Have a trusted person with whom you can discuss criticism and discern its merit.  Stay focused on your goals and vision for making the church better.
  4. THE PERSON WHO TOUCHES OUR WOUNDS One person in the church may drive one minister crazy, while they do not bother anyone else at all. Why?   We all come to the present with unresolved issues.  Someone may remind of us of a person who mistreated us in the past.  Or they may remind us of a part of ourselves that we do not like.  We may get sucked into overworking or offering too much care for someone who reminds us of a person we cared for in the past.  The grieving widow may really get to one minister because she is about the same age as his own wife.  Much of this is subconscious.  Sometimes we need help to know why a certain person is really getting to us.  Whether we dislike the person or over identify in positive ways, we are still responsible for providing appropriate, professional ministry.  Good boundaries are essential.  At times, however, you may need to find a lay person(s) or other clergy to provide the care that is needed so that the appropriate space can be maintained.
  5. THE DESPERATE DEPENDENT walks into your office and communicates to you that you are the only person that can save them.  Often, their needs are very real and deep.  Most clergy are compassionate and want to make a noticeable difference in the lives of others.  The desperate dependent will often encourage this by rewarding any steps toward taking responsibility for them with high praise.  Again, appropriate professional boundaries will allow a minister to say “no” to inappropriate demands.  You can say to the person, “I care about you, but I do not want [or should not, can not, etc.] to take care of you.”  Then you can tell them about the varieties of ministry the church and others offer and try to help them think about how they might benefit from that help.  You can expect them to protest and try to make you feel bad in a last ditch effort to get you to take responsibility for them.
  6. THE PERSON WITH BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER person can be one of the most challenging and stressful.    Persons with BPD have never developed a strong core identity to help them know who they are.  BPD people have difficulty dealing with others.  Often they have alienated most of the people around them. They have inflexible negative behavior patterns, intense emotions, unstable self-image, poor impulse control, and can be quite manipulative.  BPD people are often crisis oriented.  Be sure to set firm boundaries for yourself and your staff.  Be firm, but sensitive.  Recognize that you need help to deal with this person and that it is nearly impossible to help them resolve their crises as another will always surface or be created.  It almost takes a team to provide intervention, and even then interventions don’t always work because it is hard work for the person to manage this disorder.
  7. THE SEXUALIZED PERSON is someone who believes that a person's value comes from his or her sexual appeal or sexual behavior.  They think that intimacy is only achieved by being sexually involved with the person. They tend to see all intimacy in the church (holding hands, hugging, praying, talking, being alone together) as sexual.  The sexualized person may be male or female and can be an adult or a child.  There are a myriad of reasons for this type of behavior.  But, it can cause great turmoil in the church.  Possible strategies for dealing with this type of person are to set firm boundaries for yourself that you make clear to the sexualized person and try to never be alone with that person.  If approached inappropriately, remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.  Flirting should be ignored, sometimes this will extinguish the behavior.  

Most ministers excel at expressing empathy and compassion.  This may not be the best first step when dealing with some difficult people, at least not in the same ways that it has been practiced effectively with others.  The sexualized person, for example, may interpret this as a come-on.  The bully may interpret this as surrender.  The Borderline Personality may see this as an offer to fill their lacking core identity.

It is inevitable that we will encounter difficult people; even in our Christian walk.  However, it is empowering to know that in many situations, we have the ability to influence what happens next.  Our perceptions of the encounter, our response or non-response, as well as the way in which we doggedly hold to healthy patterns of behavior and model Christian love, can change how the encounter moves forward.  We should enter into prayer, asking God to help us see more clearly and work toward healthy outcomes.  We should also remember that we are not alone.  Help is available. 

( Rev. Dr. Kent King-Nobles is an ordained pastor in The United Methodist Church with a doctorate in pastoral counseling and psychotherapy)