Dealing with difficult people comes with any vocation, whether student, parent, retail worker, waiter/waitress, nurse, police officer, pastor, etc. I came across the following quote from Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) in giving advice to pastors:
Now, your congregation will be full of sluggish people. Somebody must bear with those dull and stupid ones. You will find, what is a great deal worse, people who know everything, and yet know nothing. You cannot teach them anything. They are conceited. They are conceited snips of men, who are rushing up to you, and taking on airs in your presence, and you feel like smacking them, as you would a black fly or a mosquito. But somebody has to bear with them. If Christ died for the world, he died for a great many ordinary folks; and if we are Christ’s we must do the same thing… You have to say, “He is worth bearing with. I would better suffer in his place than let him suffer. He must be enlarged. He must be augmented, and made more a man of Christ Jesus.”quoted in Schumacher, 15.
Pardon his provocativeness, but how often we pastors must deal with difficult, obstinate people! Beecher reminds me of something my seminary mentor said to me and some other brothers as his final parting words of pastoral advice, “At times, your people will be unlovable, but Jesus still loves them.” There are many good reasons why pastors have historically been called “Father,” one of them being that the people under their care often act like stubborn children. How often one of these children will come to me, complaining about someone, and when the first thing I say to them is, “Have you talked to them about it,” they hesitate and become offended and act as if I’m no help at all to their sinful gossip. Other times they look at me like I have a booger hanging out of my nose. Sometimes, also, your pastor will do something you don’t like, even when there’s nothing inherently wrong with what he’s doing. Yet notice your pastor remains gentle and patient with you because of his fatherly love for you.
It is like St. Paul’s own love for the congregation in Thessalonica, “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). Pastors should always remember to be gentle with their children in the Lord, and the flock should likewise remain patient with their pastor, non-abusive, and not provoking him to anger and vexation.
Dealing with difficult people is difficult! Nevertheless, as Paul wrote, it presents an opportunity to nurse them with the Gospel. For only with the Gospel can they be made less like their egos and more like Christ, which means you will suffer by exhibiting such gentleness, just as Christ suffered for you on the cross instead of summoning His legions of angels. “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (1 Peter 2:23). May we ever strive to be like our gentle Lord!
Schumacher, Frederick J., and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume I, Year 1: Advent to the Day of Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2003.