Do you have someone in your worship team, choir, or congregation who seems to take exception with almost everything? It’s a dilemma: how to lead with strength yet engage opposing voices redemptively.
Here are 4 practical steps to help you deal with contentious people.
The first step is to make sure your decision is based in godly authority rather than in personal preference.
For the leader, this means affirming the clear, biblical basis of your decision with a group of trusted advisors. The Roman Senate was developed to counsel the Emperor. The English Parliament evolved to advise the King. Likewise, the New Testament model is that of pastors engaging with their elders to prayerfully wrestle over essential matters. Emperors, kings, and pastors all go astray when they grow deaf to wise counsel.
For the Christian leader, true authority doesn’t come by brute force or popular consensus; rather, it comes from pastoral calling, from the mandate of scripture, from the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and from godly accountability. We can avoid unnecessary conflict by making wise decisions. That said, sometimes the right choice is not the path of least resistance…
So the second step in dealing with contentious people is leading with humble transparency. Once a decision has been made, it’s important to communicate the reasoning and implications to your group in a clear and non-manipulative manner.
Unfortunately, too many of us have grown skeptical of leaders. In the back of our minds, there’s a small voice telling us not to trust the person in charge. As that great theological band The Who once sang – “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss — we won’t get fooled again!”
If you lead, you need to be sensitive to the fact that your choir lofts and pews are filled with people who have been cajoled, manipulated, and betrayed. They — we — are wounded. Opposition to change may be as much a defense mechanism as anything else.
We don’t earn people’s trust by forcing our agenda down their throats. Rather, we learn to listen well. We weep when they weep. We acknowledge their wounds by showing them our scars. We consider their position rather than only defending ours. We realize that people are not the means to our end; rather, souls are the end for which Christ bled and died.
That’s why godly leadership is such a fragile, daunting, and sacred trust. Anyone can be a bully, but honest transparency is a more compelling reason to follow.
Third, once our decision has been vetted by godly criteria and communicated with honest clarity, we ask our people to join us on this journey.
This isn’t some kind of cult-like, Kool-Aid-drinking abuse of authority. Instead, we invite them to set aside their personal preferences to pursue the direction chosen by transparent, trusted leaders. Along the way, we give them honest updates of the challenges we face toward our collective goal. We don’t shame; we encourage. We don’t censor; we engage. And when the inevitable grumbling and complaining starts, we go to them privately with one or two witnesses (Matthew 18:15-16), gently insisting they not be divisive.
It’s very difficult to demonstrate love toward a contentious person. They actually expect to be rejected; and this rejection only confirms their fears. Sometimes a gentle word turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1) but not always….
Finally, if a contentious person persists in being divisive, it may be time to ask them if this is really the best place for them.
Respected counselor Henry Cloud has written a marvelous book called “Necessary Endings” (Harper Business, 2011). Its subtitle sums things up nicely: “The employees, businesses, and relationships that all of us have to give up in order to move forward.”
Sometimes, it’s time for them to leave. Sometimes, it’s our time to move on. Either way, such transitions must be done promptly with dignity and grace. Otherwise, we allow chaos and ambiguity to keep us — and our organizations — “stuck.”
Several years ago, while visiting a church in Missouri, I asked the pastor how it was going. He confessed he had performed an average of one funeral every week for the past year. He also said his church was experiencing profound spiritual renewal as people who had been stuck in their ways were making way for people who were interested in what God was doing today.
Prayer: Lord, may I never grow so contentious that it’s better for me to go home to you than to obstruct what you’re doing here. Help me lead with charity and clarity. Make me sensitive to those who have been hurt by toxic leaders. Instead, give me your mind and your heart to lead by serving. Remind me that each one is made in your image and redeemed by the blood of your Son. Amen.