Every organization - including the church - has a few overly aggressive people whose main objective is to display their displeasure by being confrontational. Your reaction to this person is totally your own. No one can make you feel angry. That is your choice - and a poor one at that.

It is important to deal with the problem person before others become involved through gossip or the ripple effect of discord.

How to handle excessive behavior:

  • Listen. Gen. George Marshall had a three-part formula for dealing with difficult circumstances:

    1. Listen to their story.

    2. Listen to their complete story.

    3. Listen to their complete story first.

    Don't spend your time preparing your response, or interrupt to defend yourself. Just listen.

    Example: Jack bursts into the pastor's office and says, Pastor, you never listen to anything I ever say. I am not important to you and you just don't pay attention to anyone in this church. We aren't important to you, are we?

  • Give a regret statement. Realize this is a two-part complaint: not listening and not caring. In a calm voice say, Jack, I really regret that we are having a problem with communication.

  • Give an empathy statement. Continue, I can understand your being upset, because if I were trying to talk to someone and I thought they weren't listening I would be angry, too.

  • Look for areas of agreement. When you can empathize with the complainer, you immediately have something in common and you have diffused the initial anger.

  • Ask questions. By asking open-ended questions, you can find specifics where the person thinks you have let him/her down. Jack, what am I doing that demonstrates that I'm not listening and that I don't care? Once again, listen to his/her full reply. Well, pastor, the other Sunday right before the service I told you my mother was in the hospital and you barely listened to me and went into the service. Then, last week when I was in your office talking about the Sunday school curriculum, the phone rang and you turned your back on me and had a conversation with the person on the phone.

  • Offer suggestions. Include the person in a solution that will solve the problem, not just appease feelings. Have him/her share responsibility for making it work. Jack, I appreciate your sharing this with me. I know that early on Sunday mornings my mind is on the service and I'm preoccupied with the details of worship. I apologize for that. I'll tell you what, the next time you want to tell me something right before the service, would you jot it down on a piece of paper so I can deal with it later in the day, because I don't want to neglect it. And you can help me in my office too. Remind me - if I don't do it myself - to tell my secretary to hold my calls, because I know how important matters of curriculum are to both of us.

  • Thank him/her, not for complaining, but for coming to you. [A study showed that 6 out of 10 people with complaints never tell the person they are at odds with. Another finding showed that when a problem is resolved to his/her satisfaction, a person will tell three others about it. But if it is not resolved to his/her satisfaction, he/she will tell 11 others, and the results could spread as far as 250 people before it dies. It is to your advantage to positively solve matters of conflict.]

  • Follow up. Don't let the matter drop. Both the pastor and Jack have to work toward success. Jack, I appreciate the note you gave me at church. I was able to handle it later at home. Thanks!

  • Practice. Studies show that it takes 28 tries for a new behavior to be learned. By committing to diffuse conflicts directly at the source, and in a positive manner, it will become easier and faster each time they develop.

From How to Handle Conflict, Criticism, and Difficult People in the Church by Dr. Walt Lacey. Copyright (c) 1989 by Interlink Seminars, Overland Park, Kan. Used by permission of Church Growth Institute, Forest, Va., 1-800-553-4769.

Dr. Walter A Lacey received his Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Care/Psychology and Communications from Golden Gate Seminary in 1978. He is a consultant and educator, having led training seminars for churches, businesses, the military, and educational and health-care facilities for 13 years.