A large elephant in a room

How to Deal with Poisonous Parishioners

Wah, wah, wah!
Murmur, murmur, murmur.
Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Every church has ‘em — whiners, complainers, gossipers, and backbiters. It’s enough to drive a leader looney!

What’s even more challenging is determining when and how to respond to these toxic church members. It’s more of an art than a science. But it’s part of a pastor’s job.

For clarity purposes, I define the duties of the Senior Pastor as LEAD, FEED and sometimes WEED.

  • LEAD the body to fulfill the mission and vision of the church.
  • FEED the body with a healthy balanced diet from God’s word.
  • And when necessary, protect (WEED) the body from cancers that can destroy the body.

Over the years, I’ve learned to gauge my level of response based on their influence level.

infographic showing how to response to toxic people based on their influence level

You only have so much energy and focus for leadership. You must choose wisely where and how you will expend it. I recommend that a healthy leader spend 80-90% of their time and energy on healthy, life-giving tasks like dreaming, vision casting, sermon planning and preparation, empowering leaders, discipling new believers, engaging the community, and the list goes on!

Of course, no leader can or should avoid the unpleasant tasks of leadership. It comes with the job. BUT, if you chase every whiner, you’ll end up burned out and bitter. Don’t let little people drag you down; choose what to chase.

So how do I respond to the negative Neds or Nancies?

First, I have to determine if it is feedback or blowback.

Feedback is when I need to learn.
Blowback is when I need to discern.

If it seems to fit more in the latter than the former, I respond based on the person’s influence and the nature of the negativity.

meditating businessman paying no attention to crowd of screaming angry people

Here are 3 general responses:

1.  Ignore them.

The first step is to discern whether this is coming from maliciousness or immaturity. Often negative people are just members who have not yet matured. Since part of my job is to LEAD and FEED, perhaps, they just need some time to grow.

In the meantime, how should I handle their negativity?

Nehemiah serves us well on this one. While he is working on God’s mission, his enemies are working on his nerves. In chapter 6, his detractors attempt to become his distracters! I love his response in verse 3:

“so I replied by sending this message to them: “I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come. Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?”” (Nehemiah 6:3, NLT)

Man, I crack up every time I read this. Basically, Nehemiah is saying, “I’m working on something more important than you.”

I would say about 80% of the time; the best response is no response. I’ve found that when you give a whiner your time, it only encourages them to waste even more of it.

2. Confront them.

When the scope of influence or the nature of the complaint has the potential to spread toxicity, then I step in.

As Barney Fife would say, “You’ve got to nip it! Nip it in the bud!”

Paul summarizes a senior pastor’s duties in the verse below:

“Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2, NLT)

Correction is a part of a pastor’s job. I like the old English word: Reprove.

Webster defines reprove: “to scold or correct usually gently or with kindly intent”

Thinking that you can make disciples without ever reproving them is as silly as believing you can parent children without correction.

Everyone needs a dose of discipline now and then.

Pastor, if you shy away from correcting troublemakers, you are like a doctor treating cancer with a placebo. You must care more for the body than your own discomfort.

No one likes confrontation, but without it, churches will crumble from within.

The truth is most troublemakers are cowards. Many will back down if you simply call them out.

When I was being bullied at school, I remember my dad telling me, “Son, bullies are cowards hoping no one will ever call their hand. Stand up to him, and he’ll probably stand down.”

“But what if he beats me up?” I asked.

“Well then,” dad said, “make it a fight he won’t enjoy, and he’ll probably never pick it again.”

Dad was right.

3. Discipline them.

There are, however, periodically troublemakers that do not respond to confrontation. Instead, they increase their vitriol.

How do you handle incessant inciters?

Kick out the troublemakers and things will quiet down; you need a break from bickering and griping!” (Proverbs 22:10, The Message)

You’ve got to cut out the cancer.

It’s my personal belief that church discipline is primarily reserved for this category of sin.

In the book of Proverbs Solomon identifies seven sins God especially hates. Number seven states:

“A person who sows discord in a family.” (Proverbs 6:19b, NLT)

Thankfully, Jesus provided a detailed step-by-step process for handling toxic members in Matthew 18:15-17.

If the person remains unresponsive and continues to sow discord, it’s time to politely invite them to find a church where they can be happy.

Sadly, I’ve had to follow this process a few times over the decades I’ve served as a pastor. It’s never enjoyable. It’s incredibly heartbreaking and always difficult.

However, I care more about the health of the body than the pain of the process.

The church matters too much to allow a poisonous parishioner to distract, disturb and destroy our mission.

You cannot surrender the mission of the church to whiners.

  • Anna
    Posted at 18:49h, 08 April Reply

    Excellent content from a very excellent leader!

  • Stacie Siers
    Posted at 20:32h, 08 April Reply

    Good read, full of sound biblical advice…thanks!

  • Jim
    Posted at 11:14h, 09 April Reply

    One of the many things I admire and respect about you is that for every situation you always seek first the Bible first for guidance and then implement what is revealed to you for every given circumstance. That’s the kind of leader I am confident is the kind to follow. Thank you for your heart.

  • Jen
    Posted at 10:58h, 20 May Reply

    I just came to the faith (catholic) at 49 years old. I was baptized and confirmed in the church this year. I was volunteering with the altar guild with this long time church member who I mistakenly allowed to be my sponsor and befriended. She’s turned out to be a very controlling, manipulative and down right evil. Which unfortunately I didn’t recognize the signs soon enough. She has tried to start arguments with me in church after mass and even yelled at me in church! She gossips and slanders me behind my back to other church members. I have done my best to ignore her and I never engage with her. I don’t say anything about her to other church members and I’ve quit the volunteer position and I’ve blocked her phone number, email etc. she’s now engaging in stalking behaviour such as driving by my house all hours of the night, my tires were slashed and poisonous food was left in my backyard for my dogs to get. Thank goodness I intercepted it before my dogs could eat it. This woman is a total psycho and I don’t know what to do. The priest is dismissing my concerns and basically playing it off as two catty women that can’t get a long. I’m really in fear of my safety and not sure what to do.

    • Brian
      Posted at 12:43h, 20 May Reply

      Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry you are experiencing this. If the priest is unwilling to mediate, then it sounds like you need to contact law enforcement and pursue a restraining order as well as file criminal charges. Praying for you.

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