How I Learned to Love Difficult People: 10 Painful Lessons

Someday if I write my memoirs from my years of pastoral ministry, I would like the title of the book to be, “How I Learned to Love Difficult People.” I was warned that, as a pastor, I would have to deal with difficult people, but I was not prepared for how venomous they could be at times. I have been on the receiving end of their vindictive anonymous letters, their berating phone calls, their accusing rants, and watched too many of them literally storm out of the churches I have served (not to mention their passive aggressive behavior, sarcastic remarks, cutting jokes, and backhanded compliments).

If I ever get around to writing that book, I think these will be some of the chapters.

1. Sometimes difficult people are the ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking.
Sometimes (not always) difficult people are the people who say to your face what others will only mutter under their breath. Difficult people are sometimes the only ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking. They can be downright ruthless when they say it, but difficult people can be the pastoral equivalent of when a physician orders blood work for a patient: difficult people can be a very efficient way to find out what is going on in the bloodstream.

Some people say there is a nugget of truth in every criticism, but that’s nonsense. Sometimes difficult people are rude but right, but sometimes they are rude and wrong. I once had a board member who consistently brought me any complaint he heard within the church even if he didn’t agree with the complaint. It was sometimes amusing when he’d bring to me conflicting complaints and expect me to find a way to make both people happy. His first priority for the church was that everyone be a “satisfied customer.” I, on the other hand, was not willing to let the church be held hostage by difficult people. It is an unrealistic goal to expect that every complaint in a church can be quelled. Sometimes the drums are not too loud. Sometimes a program is not a good use of church resources. The same room that is too cold for one person can be too warm for another person. The same policy that is too strict for one person can be too lenient for the next.

While difficult people are not always an effective way to assess organizational health, one way I have learned to love difficult people is by viewing their criticisms as a way of finding out what is going on in the “bloodstream” of the church when it is appropriate.

2. Difficult people are my most reliable indicator that I am doing something right.
I love difficult people because they serve as signposts to me: when difficult people start making life difficult, it is one of the most reliable indicators that I am doing something right.

I have never done anything important without being flanked by difficult people on all sides. There is a common strand running through every major turning point of ministry, every unquestionable breakthrough, every visible success, every time I could point to measurable results, or even every time I was received some level of recognition. The common element in each of those things is the pestering presence of difficult people who opposed me every step along the way.

I actually started to get excited when one woman in my last pastorate would come to pick a fight with me because her fights with me always came right before a major growth spurt, a major breakthrough, or some great news of some kind or another. The correlation between her rants and the ministry breakthroughs simply became too obvious to ignore.

In my case, I love people difficult people because they are one of the most reliable indicators I have been able to find to tell me that I am doing something right.

3. Difficult people help us develop thick skin.
Dealing with difficult people is one of the most effective ways to develop the thick skin a pastor needs in order to be fit for ministry. There may be no other substitute. Dealing with difficult people is to our souls what weight training is to our bodies: it makes us resilient and strong.

We all say we shouldn’t take it personally, but difficult people often make it personal. The criticism and complaints are often really about the responsibilities of our position rather than us, but just as the difficult people rarely make the distinction, we also struggle to make the distinction. Difficult people often make sure to make it personal. The very point of their anonymous letters, as useless and unhealthy as they are, is to make the issue personal (for us, not for them). Most difficult people I know resort to ad hominem attacks sooner or later, attacking the messenger when they run out of ways to attack the message.

I have learned to love difficult people because they make me stronger.

4. Difficult people are like carnival mirrors.
Paul Tripp once said in an interview, “I like the metaphor in Scripture of the word of God being this perfect mirror that I look into and see myself as I actually am. What we tend to look into is carnival mirrors. They show me me, but they show me me with distortion, like the carnival mirror at the fair. I see myself, but there is distortion. This identity thing in ministry is one of those carnival mirrors. Here is where you see something that is a normal human struggle intensified by ministry.” He was talking about pastors seeking their self-worth and identity by what they do, and I believe this is an area where difficult people are a blessing. Difficult people and critics in our lives can be like carnival mirrors who show us ourselves but they portray an exaggerated and distorted version of ourselves. We recognize immediately that the distorted image is not who we are because it is so exaggerated and this can provide for us the opportunity to look at our lives and see ourselves as we really are.

Difficult people have forced me to face up to my own insecurities, and my need to be liked. They force us to choose the need to be firm on some issues over our need for acceptance. Their criticism strikes at the lie that the Enemy has planted in our hearts: “This is who you really are, and all the nice things people say is just them being polite.”

Pastors will make tough decisions, sometimes on a daily basis, and some ministries will cave to a participant who throws a temper tantrum. We must have a conviction that if we do the right thing it does not mean that everyone will respond appropriately, and just because someone responds inappropriately it does not mean we did the wrong thing. Leaders need to define their priorities, and who they are before the difficult people ever show their faces.

5. Difficult people make us clarify what we’re doing.
Sometimes difficult people help us to clarify what we are doing and saying. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I was required to have a Research Reflection Team. The four people I met with on that team would often ask me, “I think you are you saying this … is that what you mean to say?” Sometimes I would answer them, “No, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all!” Then I would look at the page and realize that it was, in fact, what I had written. Without their input and watchful eyes I would not have seen that what I meant to write and what I actually wrote were not the same thing.

One more way I have learned to love difficult people is that, just as one string being out of tune on a guitar can force us to retune all six strings, one difficult person in a church can prompt us to clarify everything we do. They force us to make things clearer and more precise because of their complaints and sometimes in anticipation of their complaints. In this way, difficult people make our ministry better because they force us to be clear and precise about what we want to do, and how we are going to do it.

6. When difficult people attack, other people sometimes increase their support
A pastor needs meaningful friendships in order to endure. In my case, some of my most meaningful partnerships and friendships in the ministry have been forged in response to the difficult people in a church. At times I have seen people become much more vocal supporters of me as a pastor because they have seen a critic’s harsh attack. Some people can become motivated to be more supportive once they have seen difficult people on full display. The experience will motivate them to shield their pastor from the difficult people.

Those teams then can also help the pastor live to fight another day. I once had a couple who had been harassing me for months, threatening me, working against me behind my back, and turning people against me. This couple was holding the church hostage with their behavior, and I knew that to take them on by myself would be pastoral suicide. Only a few people knew just how bad it had become, and eventually those few friends and supporters in ministry were the very people who helped bring the situation to a head, and allowed me to not only survive the situation but to actually emerge stronger. Two of the most well-respected people in the church, a man and woman who were unquestionably above reproach, came to me saying, “You don’t have to do this alone. We will help you fight this battle.” When the angry couple finally had a public eruption and left the church, these supporters were the first to speak in my defense, and they even took some of the heat for me. These friendships not only helped me survive the firestorm, but they made some difficult days of ministry a lot less lonely.

Another way I have learned to love difficult people is that, by being difficult, they can help some of the wonderful people rise up and become proactive in their support of the leader they love. I am grateful to have several significant friendships that were forged in direct response to difficult people.

7. Difficult people make me a better boss and a better subordinate.
Difficult people have helped me to see how important it is to recognize good work, to applaud hard work, and to express appreciation. They also help me to see that not every opinion needs to be expressed. I have found that often that the people in my churches who have worked the most with difficult people (i.e., the small business owners, people who lead or teach in one form or another, or who work in customer service) are often the best at expressing appreciation. I do not believe that is a coincidence.

On the whole, I would like to believe that I am less critical of those who serve above me because of my experiences with difficult people.

8. I pray harder when there are difficult people in my life.
I wish this was not true but it is. In that way, if difficult people drive me to my knees in prayer, then I know they are a great gift. A.W. Tozer writes, “Whoever defends himself will have himself for his defense, and he will have no other. But let him come defenseless before the Lord and he will have for his defender no less than God Himself.” Difficult people drive me nuts, so they drive me to my knees in prayer, and that is one of the reasons I have learned to love difficult people.

9. Difficult people are not an obstacle to conquer
I once heard someone give a sermon about Eliab, David’s older brother, who burned with anger against David when he was asking the men about Goliath (1 Samuel 17:28). The pastor said:

Right there David faced a great challenge: was he going to fight with the critic, or keep his eye on the goal? Every champion has to make a decision sooner or later in that arena. Anybody who sets out to do something great for God will have people ridiculing him, challenging him, and criticizing him, and he can make a choice: either keep going as God has directed him, or stop and do battle with the critic. David could have fought with his brother but he never would have gotten to Goliath. There is always somebody around to tell you “You can’t do it,” isn’t there? There is always somebody around who doesn’t have the courage to do it themselves, and they want to make sure you don’t have the courage to do it either.

Critics are neither an indicator of success nor failure, so I have chosen in advance to battle giants, not critics. I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is an option. I have learned to love difficult people because otherwise I could easily become focused on conquering the difficult people in my life simply for the sake of conquering them. It is my job to keep my eye on the prize, so I will not waiver in my resolve because of difficult people. I do not want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over his critics; I want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over giants.

10. I am someone’s difficult person.
I know that I have been a difficult person in someone’s life. Sometimes I appear difficult to another person because of a disagreement, or because we disagreed about some social or political issue. Sometimes it is just because of a personality conflict, and sometimes it comes with being a person in leadership. But I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is a way I can do unto others what I would have them to do me.

And now, a confession.
This whole post has been a bit disingenuous because I don’t really love difficult people. Not yet, anyway. That’s why I hope that someday I’m able to title my memoirs, “How I Learned to Love Difficult People.” In the meantime, though, difficult people drive me crazy, and it is still a work in process.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.