Anyone who has worked in any kind of ministry for any length of time will know that difficulties arise and difficult people will always emerge. Marshall Shelley has written on this in his book, “Ministering to Problem People In Your Church.” He comes at the subject with a candor that can only come from experience and investigation into these problem people that he appropriately terms, “well-intentioned dragons.” Shelley claims that his book is, “about ministering while under attack.”
From the outset, Shelley grabs the reader with his stories (the names have been changed but the scenarios are real). As I read them, I had to look around to see if I could spot the hidden cameras into my life. The scenarios were so spot on, paralleling so many of my own personal experiences in ministry or the experiences that I have heard firsthand from people who are close to me. I could feel my heartbeat speeding up as I found myself relating to so many of the stories, completely understanding the emotions of those who were being described.
Along the way, Shelley offers many practical means by which to handle these well-intentioned dragons. He humorously categorizes them and lists out ways in which we can engage them and others. Among his greater points to me was the fact that, “sometimes enlarging the frame of reference helps remind us that one mouth isn’t the whole church, one critic isn’t the end of our ministry, and even one church isn’t the whole body of Christ.” We need others to grow and we need others to encourage us. We can’t like everyone and everyone won’t like us, that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact, but we are called to love everyone, and some make that more difficult than others.
If I have any criticism for the book it’s that it felt that the idea of just up and leaving a church was given as an alternative too often. I fully admit that the landscape of ministry is changing and long-tenured pastors are not as prevalent as they once were, but studies have shown that time served is what is most effective in allowing change to take place. I have served a church myself where things began to unravel. The pastor eventually left and his successor undid everything that had been done up to that point. How effective was that? It’s possible that Shelley sees that leaving a church should always come as a last resort, but I didn’t feel that he made that as explicitly clear as it might need to be.
Overall, Shelley offers a humorous and practical approach towards handling difficult people. As long as we deal with people, they will be difficult. There is no getting away from them. Shelley ends the book with a story of a little known monk who originally went the way of the desert monks, sequestering himself and separating himself completely from the world. Eventually, he realized that his growth could not take place without the presence of other people.
Shelley’s bottom line is this: “developing Christian virtues demands other people – ordinary, ornery people.” We cannot learn in a vacuum and expect that we will actually grow. We can’t simply read books without incorporating some kind of praxis to apply the knowledge that we have gained. If we want to move along in our own sanctification process, we need other people, difficult, frustrating, and real.
(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Publishers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)