Dealing with Difficult Leaders and Difficult People

[This post is from a previous Jenkins Institute magazine, Hope and Expectation. Used by permission.]

I begin by saying I’ve had few people who aggravated me constantly. I’ll discuss some people who brought pain for a time and how I dealt with each.

As a young preacher, a man came by the church building each Saturday to talk. At that time, I worked seven days a week. It didn’t occur to me to not be there Saturday morning. He wouldn’t come up to my office on the second floor. He sat on the third step. His visit consisted of telling me about good preachers who I was not as good as. His speech was consistent: “Tom Holland and Alan Highers’ enunciation and pronunciation are clear. They arrange their thoughts in a logical manner.”

What I heard him say was, “You don’t talk plain, and you’re not well organized.”

I did nothing but endure.

Two ladies came at 1:00 each Friday afternoon to clean the building. They commented on the previous Sunday’s sermon loudly. One was in the front of the building, the other in the back.

Following a Sunday sermon on giving, they repeated, “These young people think you can just give, and give, and give. You can’t just give, and give, and give. Some day they’ll learn you can’t just give, and give, and give.”

After a few weeks, I concluded no one told me I had to be in the building at 1:00 Friday afternoon. I started visiting the hospital Friday afternoon. That’s progress.

The most painful experience in my preaching history occurred on December 19, 1976. I’d taught my Bible class in the basement and walked upstairs for the morning service. One of the elders said, “Brother Jerrie, will you step into the office?” I cooperated. His next statement: “Brother Jerrie, I think it would be good if you would think about resigning this morning.” That had never entered my mind. The first song we sang was “Anywhere Is Home.” I preached my sermon, went home, ate lunch, told Gail I’d been fired, went to a deacon’s house, cried a good part of the afternoon, preached that night, and started making calls to find a place to preach. I did learn a great lesson, and it provided material for a blog post: The Best Day to Fire Your Preacher: how not to distract a preacher immediately before worship begins .

At another congregation, a man was appointed as an elder who thought I had too much power. He didn’t talk it out. He and the other elders acted it out. Soon after he was appointed, I was excluded from many elders’ meetings. My suggestions were rarely considered. The rules had changed. I wrote two epistles to the elders asking for an explanation. They said nothing had changed. After about a year and a half, thinking, praying for wisdom, and seeking wise counsel, I told the elders I was ready to leave. We set up a workshop with a counselor, talked about why I was leaving, when and how to announce it, and carried out the plan. There was no conflict in the congregation. I’ve been blessed. The congregation did well after I left.

As I was preparing to begin one of my interims, a brother sent out an email with false information. He was irritated at the elders of the church where I was going. I called him. I said, “I received an email with your name on it. Did you write it?” He replied he did. I told him it was false information and asked his source. He said two deacons told him that was what the two elders said in an elder-deacon meeting.

I asked him, “Do you trust the elders?” He said he didn’t. I said, “Let me get this straight. You received hear-say information from two deacons who quoted two elders you don’t trust to tell the truth. And you sent that information in an email as fact. I don’t understand.”

After about an hour, this brother, who is impeccable in his soundness and faithfulness, apologized for sending false information. But he refused to send an email to correct the false information.

About a year later, he sent another email with false information. I called him and requested he select a brother he trusted, and I would select a brother I trusted to let them help us resolve our differences. He refused. I repeatedly encouraged him to select a person, place, and time to discuss this (Matthew 18:15, 16). He refused.

My reply: “I’ll wait two weeks. I hope you change your mind. You’ve done much good and have many good qualities. I want to resolve this problem. If you refuse, I’ll not spread your name in the brotherhood. But, when I know someone will be interacting with you, I’ll warn them you’ve been deceitful with me and refused to correct it.” He hasn’t corrected it. But he hasn’t written more false accusations, I’m aware of.

Principles to Deal with Difficult People

  1. Why do people do what they do? People do what they do because they think it’s the best thing they can do at the time. “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the hearts (Proverbs 21:2, NKJV). “Why Would Anybody Do That?: they thought it was the right thing to do” When I understand that, it changes my attitude toward the people involved. Most people aren’t trying to make your day and their day miserable. They think they’re being helpful.
  2. Practice accepting, inviting, and enjoying criticism. I had many more difficult people when I deflected and avoided criticism. When I started cultivating and encouraging criticism, I had less difficult people. Criticism Rule: a leader is more like a lightning rod than a cute wall decoration You may listen to my criticism workshop: How to Accept, Invite, and Enjoy Criticism Second criticism workshop: How to Deal with Cruel Criticism – message begins at 17:45
  3. Be thankful for the good qualities and actions of difficult people. While he was in prison, Paul had fellow preachers who were insincere and wanted to hurt him. What was Paul to do? He said, “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:12–18). Paul was able to look beyond bad attitudes, insincerity, and desire to harm to their good points and rejoice in those.
  4. Reflect on what I did or didn’t do to enable the person to inflict pain. My observation: when people have hurt me, I permitted them and have often helped them. 3 Ways I Helped Get Myself Fired: why would anyone want to release a good preacher like me?
  5. Pray, aim, and work toward not being a difficult person. Am I on someone’s list of Difficult People? If so, what can I do to be removed from that list?
  6. Don’t be a victim. If people are hurting you and you can do nothing to prevent or rectify it, you’re at the mercy of the next person or group who wants to hurt you. Ask for help. Think. Reflect. How did I contribute to that? What can I do to prevent it the next time?

I’ve had several people comment, “People are always running over me.”

My question is, “When did you lie down?” It’s hard to run over someone 5’ 9” tall unless he or she cooperates.

Gail Champion Barber is featured on Stories of Amazing Grace. She tells the story of writing her book, Fleecy Clouds. It’s the story of her life of early pain, hope and excellent training at Childhaven Children’s Home in Cullman, Alabama, and recovering from the trauma of her early childhood by counseling in her 40’s.

You can watch this on YouTube: Stories of Amazing Grace.

To see and buy Fleecy Clouds on Amazon: Fleecy Clouds, by Gail Champion Barber

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Jerrie Barber
Servant of Jesus, husband to Gail, father to Jerrie Wayne Barber, II and Christi Parsons, grandfather, great-grandfather, Interim Preacher, Shepherd coach, Ventriloquist, barefoot runner, ride a cruiser bicycle

4 Responses to “Dealing with Difficult Leaders and Difficult People

  • John H. Williams
    5 months ago

    Jerry, I admire you because you are a survivor. Many men have left the church for far fewer reasons to do so than you have. Why doesn’t the gift of the Holy Spirit make people better and kinder? It’s a question I often ask myself, although I have suffered nothing from others compared to you.

    • John, You are kind in your comments. Thankfully, that’s most of the list of unpleasant experiences. That’s not bad fo 62 years of preaching. Two things helped:
      1. Changing my attitude toward criticism brought less criticism and less pain with what I received.
      2. Realizing that much of the pain was self-inflicted. I didn’t have to listen to the ladies’ criticism each Friday. When I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear it. Is criticism still criticism if no one’s there to hear it? I didn’t have the Friday afternoon indigestion. If I have two drive-by shootings in two weeks, it’s time to invest in bulletproof glass.

  • John H. Williams
    5 months ago

    Jerrie, sorry I spelled your name wrong in my comment. I can’t proofread as I would like.

    • Jerrie W. Barber
      5 months ago

      John, I appreciate your attention to details. I hadn’t noticed. Thank you for your continued reading and encouragement.

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