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We have come to a stopping place in our quest for ways to care for troublesome people-the backbiter, the authoritarian person, the competitive person, the dependent person, and the star performer. I know I have not covered all types of troublesome parishioners. There's the eccentric, the chronically suicidal, the sexually promiscuous person who acts out in the congregation... If you identify other kinds of troublesome people, please let me know.
In discussing the five prototypes, I have given some clues and principles for a strategy for caring for troublesome people. They are not inflexible rules. They are guidelines summarized here:
First, our own personal self-examination is a form of spiritual housekeeping discipline. A pastoral support group can be a sustaining grace. There you and your colleagues can be frank about irritations with troublesome people. You can celebrate some of your wise and creative people. Fresh hope appears as you share with and pray for one another. I have such a group that meets every Tuesday at 7:30 in the morning. Such a group cannot remove the responsibility for individual self-searching, but it can offset the isolation and loneliness that come with the territory of being a pastor or lay leader.
Second, an effort has been made in this book to emphasize the care of—rather than manipulation or isolation of—the troublesome person. With reason—repetition is one of the ways of ingraining a pattern or idea in our thoughts and actions—I've reiterated the importance of face-to-face relationships between people who are at odds with each other. I have based this principle on the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Jesus calls us to take quick initiative toward people who have something against us; we are to get right with them (Matt. 5:23-24). In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus outlines a pattern of persuasion with which to seek our offender's attention, "ear," and reconciliation. The objective is to gain the confidence and respect of the one who has offended us. The apostle Paul in Galatians 6:1-2, 5 admonishes us to restore an offender in a spirit of gentleness without heavy-handedness.
I have found that this principle of face-to-face caring for troublesome people works when we are on a level ground with each other. In the case of an employee initiating such reconciliation with a supervisor, one must be courageous indeed and be ready to seek other employment if the approach were to lead to dismissal. This potential for penalization or dismissal causes many pastors to say that Jesus' and Paul's teachings won't work today. They will work if we have the courage and the ability to take the risk.
Third, I've suggested that one care for the troublesome person by seeing and relating to him in the context of the system of the church and community. The person is not to be isolated and treated as a scapegoat. She is a part of the larger whole. The church becomes a stifling community when it is a closed system or a living, vital community when it is an open system. A troublesome person is sometimes punished or expelled, when in fact her troublesomeness may be a symptom of a closed system with an authoritarian leader.1
Fourth, I have emphasized the seriousness and depth of the life, work, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ in contrast to the entertainment shows of television and megachurches. This shallow motif of worship has infiltrated many smaller churches. Søren Kierkegaard calls their leaders "apostles of empty enthusiasm." It reflects the general cultural process of "amusing ourselves to death," as described by the title of a book by Neil Postman (1986). This issue calls for an agonizing appraisal of the driving commitments of churches, pastors, leadership, and smaller organizations of the church. I advise using Postman's brief book as a study guide for a retreat of the official board of the church.
By no means am I suggesting that we sacrifice genuine spiritual joy and spontaneity in the life of the church. I am confident that the depths of the gospel can be expressed with joy, thanksgiving, and genuine humor. The problem with the entertainment motif is its superficiality and shallowness.
Actually, this book itself, if you have persevered with me, could be considered a "downer"—concentrating on troublesome people. I hope not! Some of the antics of the troublesome people I have mentioned can be downright funny. In caring for them we must get them to laugh with us and assure them that we are taking them seriously. Especially with the dependent person, we might ask, "When was the last time you had a good laugh?" In fact, that is a good question to ask ourselves. Life can get so serious that suddenly things become ridiculous! Laughter that is not filled with scorn is a balm for the troubled spirit.
This is the note on which I want to leave you, assuming we have not already parted; if you have stayed with me to this last page, I leave you with a Latin farewell: Sursum Corda! "Lift up your hearts!"