Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior

by Arthur Paul Boer

Excerpt from Arthur Paul Boer's Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior

A man drove through an unfamiliar neighborhood that he considered shady. Its residents were of a different race and class than he. And sure enough, as soon as he drove down the first block (having carefully locked his doors), he noticed that people on the sidewalks were yelling and gesturing at him as he drove along. The further he drove, the more outraged and outrageous their angry communication sounded. This behavior confirmed all that he had suspected and disliked about "these kind of people."

But then he realized he had been driving the wrong way down a one-way street! People were trying to draw his attention to his unsafe wrong-way driving. If only he had paid more attention to his own actions!

It is tempting to blame or feel attacked by others, to assume that others or their behavior are our problem, to believe that our well-being or peace of mind could be assured if only others would cooperate. All that we have studied shows us that ultimately we are primarily responsible only for ourselves.

Appropriate Focus on Self

Focusing on and blaming other people and claiming the role of victim is an insidious form of anxiety. While we may recognize the difficult behavior of parishioners, leaders often play this game too. Pastors tell many martyrdom stories. I know, because I have often done so. [Alban Sr. Consultant] Speed Leas believes that when a terminated "pastor places blame entirely on other persons or groups," he or she shows a major sign of interpersonal incompetence.1

Seeing oneself as a victim inhibits growth. We refuse responsibility and attribute blame elsewhere. With such an attitude, we block our capacity to grow. Moreover, when we regard ourselves as victims, we often act destructively and hurt ourselves more. But life does not have to be this way. We can make choices. We do not have to remain mired in the past. Bad and malicious things may happen to good people, but we must make choices about what we do with those events.

The flip side of victim behavior is to see others as enemies. Focusing on others indicates fusion rather than differentiation; it assumes that the other controls our reactions and emotions. In family therapy, focusing on others is not helpful or productive. Seeing others as enemies is a way of blaming them when our hopes or ideals are not met.

A victim mentality and an other-focused outlook are anxious and irresponsible. They often involve triangling: A victim/martyr complains to a rescuer about the persecutor. Rather than look to others, we should more appropriately examine ourselves.

Leas encourages us to analyze what we gain from conflict. Why are we in it? What is my role? This difficult work may require the help of a therapist or a close, trusted friend. We need to ask ourselves what the payoff is for us in this conflict. Why do we keep it going? Perhaps because we cannot bear to see a relationship end, we stay in a conflictural relationship. Perhaps we do not know or believe that there can be anything better than a conflicted relationship. Women who return to abusive marriages may feel that being in a relationship is more important than not being hurt. Perhaps we enjoy seeing others as villains. Perhaps we enjoy exerting power...

Rather than act like victims or complain about enemies or oppressors, we can make the choice to grow and change. One of the most important lessons we can learn in relational difficulties is that we can not change or control others. We are capable only of changing ourselves and caring for ourselves. By refusing to expect others to change, we take away one more anxiety-inducer.

Our work is not complete until we understand how we contribute to undesirable situations and how our behavior can be changed.

Reorienting Our Perspectives

One great challenge in appropriately focusing on ourselves also involves taking responsibility for our attitude toward others and their behavior. Beware of concluding too quickly that the beloved (or not-so-beloved) antagonist in your church is pathological. Have you made every effort to understand what makes an adversary "tick" and why he or she acts out?

Once I was preoccupied with how a certain church family treated me. I could not let go of the memories of what that family did. Worried about my anger and resentment, I wondered whether I was getting stuck in bitterness. Alas, I could not try to forget these people because I drove by their house every day! (Avoiding it would have meant adding unnecessary miles to my daily driving.)

At a conference with church consultant John Savage, I had a meal with him and shared my dilemma. He led me through a simple exercise by asking these questions: Can you describe how you perceive them? Can you describe how they perceive the world, you, and others in church? Can you describe how others perceive them? Such distancing perspectives help us to be more objective and less reactive...

The Need for Self-Examination

Being differentiated means taking responsibility for oneself and staying focused on oneself. When we feel as though we are the uncomfortable focus for others' difficult behavior, out temptation is to focus on others and blame them for troubles. But the challenge is for us to work on our own growth and self-awareness.

We must ask ourselves whether in fact we are the cause of the problems... When we encounter disruptive behavior or our emotionality is rising, the first thing we need to do is pay attention to ourselves.

We can grow more self-aware by paying attention to those whose behavior we label "difficult." They tell us more about ourselves than anything else. We need to ask, "What is it about this behavior that pushes my buttons? Does it remind me of someone who troubled me in the past? Am I afraid I may be or become like them?"

Early in my years as a pastor, I got into a fierce conflict with a parishioner. My therapist kept asking an irritating question: "Why do this person's actions bothers you so much?" I was annoyed because it seemed obvious what was troublesome. Would not anyone be bothered by it? In fact, no. Something in my composition was unsettled by behavior that did not necessarily bother others. The challenge was for me to learn and grow.

Just as we try to turn critics into teachers, even the most difficult behavior can become a learning experience. People who behave in a difficult manner can teach us. As we understand ourselves and others better, we can grow in compassion.

Preoccupation with certain parishioners is an alarm signal that it may be time to seek help. Others include sleeplessness (especially that caused by preoccupation with the problem), talking incessantly about the situation with family or friends, depression, anger, indecisiveness, fatigue, weight gain or loss, fearfulness. All these are signs that something is amiss and that is may be appropriate to enter therapy. Self-awareness can be increased by conversations with trusted friends, supervision from a mentor, participation in a supervised clinical experience, work with a peer group, or sessions with a spiritual director...

Warning Signs and Perceptions

While the need for self-awareness cannot be overstated, I do not advocate or recommend naive navel-gazing. A savvy leader pays attention to what is going on and may notice early warning signs of trouble ahead.

Often an early sign of serious unhappiness is a dramatic change in the involvement of an active member. John Savage's work as a consultant began first with his study of inactive, bored, and apathetic members who withdrew for a host of reasons. People start on the dropout track after an anxiety-provoking event (which may or may not be church-related).

Next, they signal their anxiety in some way. If the signal is not responded to, then they display anger in the form of either apathy or boredom. Next, they withdraw. After their withdrawal, a six-to-eight-week period of opportunity remains when it is still possible to connect with such folk and help them to re-engage with the church.2

If someone's pattern of participation changes dramatically, the pastor or some other church caregiver needs to respond promptly. (Keeping track of Sunday attendance is one way to detect changes in attendance patterns.)cWhen people start to withdraw, they are already indicating some possible anxiety. Thus how we deal with them is important. By asking sincere and interested questions and showing interest in the other's situation, one can have a calming effect...

Withdrawing from church can be a passive-aggressive way of dealing with hostility or anger. Rather than confronting directly, members withdraw. In heavily enmeshed churches or in small "single-cell" congregations, withdrawal is sometimes used as a threat to get the group to behave according to the disgruntled person's wishes. In the small churches I have worked with, the worry that someone might leave has consistently been one of people's greatest fears.

While we need to connect with and visit those who withdraw or threaten to withdraw, we must be firm with such tactics. To cave in to ultimatums about leaving is to err on the side of fusion rather than moving in the healthier direction of differentiation. Differentiation includes the ability to let others go.

There can be good, healthy reasons to withdraw. That is another reason why follow-up "exit interviews" are helpful. Until we check with someone, Daniel Bagby suggests, we cannot know why they left, whether the reason is healthy or not, or whether they might come back...

There are other danger signs that we might note: decline in financial giving, strident positions taken by key people, rumors of dissatisfaction, circulation of petitions, anonymous letters of complaint posted on bulletin boards or sent to the church office, lobbying efforts for the pastor's dismissal, and the snubbing of one parishioner by another.3

Warning signs are all only alarm signals or "presenting problems"; i.e., symptoms of problems. They alert us that problems exist and need to be addressed.

It is not enough to pay attention to what we perceive or think is happening. It is important to test perceptions with reality checks. When one family stopped attending, I wondered whether they were angry about something. Perhaps so, but my anxieties were allayed when I learned that they now attended a Mennonite church much nearer their home, a church that had children in the same age range as their own children.

There are several reasons to check perceptions. For one, perceptions are often self-fulfilling. Too often what we think we see is what we end up getting, and our perceptions helped make this possible. Not only our perceptions but also our reactive descriptions and language can become self-fulfilling.

Another reason to check perceptions is that even with our facts right, it is notoriously easy to get our perceptions and interpretations wrong. So often dissent, unhappiness, and anger are expressed in ambiguous ways. Pastors are often not especially good at interpreting symptoms. Early in my pasturing, my mood would swing up or down with Sunday-morning attendance. I assumed that each Sunday's attendance (never mind holidays, vacations, illnesses, and travel) was a commentary on me. It took me a long time to convince myself that routine fluctuations in attendance are not about the pastor.

As you see warning signs, remember not to be caught up in the anxiety-provoking potentials of specific details. Rather, look at the congregation as a system, and study what the warning signs tell you about the system as a whole.

A systems approach reminds us not to take everything personally. When our Sunday attendance swelled by 40 percent, I was tempted to take credit. When, a few years later, attendance returned to approximately its former size, I was tempted to take the blame. Systems analysis showed that the reduction in size was a homeostatic response. A major conflict immediately after the increased attendance was a mechanism to regulate our size. Systems perspectives call us to look not so much at the specifics of what seems wrong as to understand why this incident happened now. While our church needed to address the conflict, the conflict was part of a larger systemic picture...

More than ever, when difficult signs loom on the horizon, leaders need to take the stance of researchers, trying to understand the situation. The very process of trying to understand, a "research stance," calms down the whole system. Simply asking questions helps everyone to get away from emotionality and reactivity. The purpose is to move us away from our instinctual and unthinking emotive reactions.


We are subject to many demands and expectations, internal and external. Without proper self-care and a strong sense of direction, we are in deep, deep trouble.

A leader's work is stressful. That is a given. What is not given is how we choose to respond to it. Stress taxes us, but responsible professional clergy will be mindful of good ways to care for themselves.

Self-care is particularly important in relation to the subject at hand because dealing with difficult behavior and intense conflict can be especially draining. Health and stability should not be assumed or taken for granted. It is imperative that pastors practice self-care to protect their ability to continue being empathic in their work. This is particularly important when we feel attacked by difficult behavior. When I spoke to Henri Nouwen about some of my frustrations in pasturing, he bluntly said: "If people are using you, find your center."...

In the face of difficult behavior and conflict in the congregation, several elements are crucial for a pastor's self-preservation and care.

Self-care is vital in dealing with difficult behavior in the congregation. It keeps us vital and versatile as we face various changes.

Nourishing a Relationship with God

At bottom, the problem of difficult behavior is a spiritual issue and calls us to care for our own relationship with God.

During a devastating church conflict, I relearned something I had always claimed to know: I came to a deep realization of God's love. Such a rediscovery may sound strange. After all, as a pastor, I am supposed to be an expert in God's love: proclaiming it to others and knowing it in my own life...

Much of my early ministry was based in something other than love. I worked hard to please God as if to win salvation. But ministry is a grateful response to God's love. I do not need to win God's love; I need only to live it.

I worked hard to win approval and affection from others. But the only ultimately important affection is God's love, and that is already settled. It was achieved not by my merits but by God's grace. Resting in God's love, I detach myself from the traps of relying on the approval or affection of others. In doing so, I begin to love more freely and so am a better pastor. For a long time I prayed that my children would grow up to be disciples and that they would know joy in that service. Later, I added another petition: "May they always know that they are deeply loved by you."

When I was four, I attended my first vacation Bible school. Ever since, I have been deeply aware of God's relationship with me and have been conscientious about the faith. The song that I learned then, four decades ago, is one that I soon knew by heart, but whose message still nurtures me: "Jesus loves me! This I know."

When I met Henri Nouwen years ago, I talked to him about an experience with burnout. He told me:

God is calling you to a deep spiritual life... Tenderness can destroy you because you can just be pulled apart, burn out, and the whole thing. But you can also be a mystic. That's what you obviously have to be. To be a mystic, I don't mean anything more than that God is the one who loves you deeply. And that's what you have to trust. And keep trusting, keep trusting, keep trusting.

It seems ironic that my bitter failure better enabled my ministry. Perhaps I should not be surprised: Paul learned this long ago when the Lord said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9).

Arthur Paul Boer is a Mennonite pastor and writer. His work has appeared in publications including Reformed Worship, Christian Century, and Christianity Today. He is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of the Spiritual Formation Program at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.


1. Speed Leas, Should the Pastor Be Fired? How to Deal Constructively with Clergy-Lay Conflict (Washington, D.C.: The Alban Institute, 1980), p. 9.

2. John Savage, The Apathetic and Bored Church Member (Pittsford, N.Y.: LEAD Consultants, 1976), pp. 68-69.

3. Leas. Should the Pastor Be Fired?, pp. 5ff.

4. Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), p. 273.

January/February 2000
Copyright © 2000 by The Alban Institute