Dr. Marshall Shelley’s book, Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do With Well-Intentioned Dragons is the type of book that will help pastors better minister to difficult people or cause them to leave the ministry. Shelley provides one story after another, each full of conflict between congregants and the pastor. While some of these stories end well and others end in tragedy, they are all difficult to read. Anyone who has been in ministry can likely relate to a story or two. If it is not the person like Virginia who expects the pastor to get all her troubled, lost friends saved in one meeting, then maybe it is the board member like Dwayne who regularly criticizes the pastor’s preaching because it is not like his beloved big-name preacher with the radio show. Or maybe it is the ‘Bird Dog,’ or the ‘Wet Blanket,’ the ‘Entrepreneur,’ the ‘Legalist,’ the ‘Busybody,’ or maybe the ‘Sniper.’ Whichever the dragon, Shelley states, “The goal in handling dragons is not to destroy them, not merely to disassociate from them, but to make them disciples. Even when that seems an unlikely prospect” (39).
“This book,” writes Shelley, “is about ministering while under attack” (14). However, the most valuable aspects of this book come in the form of preventing conflict in the first place. In looking to avoid problems all together, Shelley argues, “Pastors, who are charged to ‘see to it . . . that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many’ (Hebrews 12:15), find that the best way to prevent dragon blight, or at lease minimize its damage, is to concentrate on developing a healthy church” (128). Shelley figures that “perhaps the wisdom of battle-tested veterans will prevent others from walking unaware into an ambush,” but more than understanding how to maneuver through existing conflict, pastors should be equipped by the latter chapters that discuss the best defense: prevention (14). “Taking opportunities to build a close, cohesive church,” advises Shelley, “will produce better results than the shrewdest political maneuvers to squelch dissenters after problems sprout. Defusing potential problems before they arise is far better than troubleshooting later on” (128). The second best defense is very similar. According to Shelley, “If the church itself is not healthy, the best thing to do is to build a healthy board. Cohesiveness among the spiritual leaders of the congregation is a healthy core for healing the rest of the body and for fighting the infectious attitudes that spring up from time to time” (141). The author also provides some direct advice for dealing with people suffering with mental illness, conflict through electronic media, and those making a play for power. In each of these areas, Shelley’s direct advice and coaching is far more helpful than the stories of battle-tested, beat-down pastors.
A couple issues found in the book are troubling and could have used further explanation or even an additional chapter or two. The first is found in the use of the title, ‘dragon.’ Shelley says:
"Dragons, of course, are fictional beasts—monstrous reptiles with a lion’s claws, a serpent’s tail, a bat’s wings, and scaly skin. They exist only in the imagination. But there are dragons of a different sort, decidedly real. In most cases, though not always, they do not intend to be sinister, in fact they’re usually quite friendly. But their charm and earnestness belie their power to destroy" (11-12).Seeing congregants as dragons almost puts them in biblical category of a wolf or predator in sheep’s clothing, although instead of harming the flock, dragons are ravenous for the pastor. Difficult people could end up marked as one who is against the pastor. The pastor’s role and motivations may become compromised if led too heavily by dragon-thinking or dragon-hunting.
After telling a tale of slaying a dragon, Shelly argues, “Unlike Daniel or Saint George, the goal of a pastor is not to slay but to tame the beast, to prevent further destruction on either side” (168). While his point is not to kill the dragon, Shelley still identifies the person as a beast or dragon, only now tame. A better thinking may be presented in Shelley’s story of Rob and the Millers. Rob saw the Millers as dragons, but the youth pastor, Jeff, offered this wisdom: “‘Don’t look at them as lions,’ Jeff said. ‘Look at them as wounded sheep’” (172). The pastor’s role is to help people in their sanctification process as they grow more like Christ. Rather than dragons, it may be better to see the difficult people as sheep that bite. In this case, like Jeff’s advice, the goal would be to see the difficult people still as sheep and work toward adjusting negative behavior rather than completely identifying them with a vile beast. Avoiding the label may actually help pastors reach Shelley’s desired goal to “make them disciples. Even when that seems an unlikely prospect” (39).
A problematic example where identifying an individual as a dragon rather than a person in need of sanctification is found in a story where a dragon happened to be the same person who alerted the pastor to his daughter’s potential affair. This is a prime example of when the dragon might be right, the subject of Chapter Nine. But rather than following the advice of Chapter Nine, this pastor continues to identify the difficult person as a dragon and appears to make that issue greater than the broken marriage of his daughter and son-in-law, as well as that of two other members of his church. The trouble, it seems, is that the pastor stitched the dragon letter ‘D’ on Maureen’s sweater, allowing the pastor to assume he had a free pass to work less toward reconciliation with Maureen. If this event were merely between congregants, it is likely the pastor would have worked hard to seek reconciliation and forgiveness, suggesting that this conflict is a grand opportunity to demonstrate grace for one another. The same instruction and counsel in that circumstance should apply to the pastor as well.
The second complication of this book comes by way of Shelley’s treatment church government. In nearly every case, the pastor had a board of elected elders and that pastor was completely at the mercy of said board. There were many mentions of votes and political wrangling. Not every church function in this way. There are churches under higher denominational oversight. Others function with no board at all. Churches can be found with a plurality of elders who are actually the pastors that serve for life. Some churches are completely congregational and vote on everything without representation from a board. And there are likely many other hybrid forms of church government. By assuming that all the pastors reading his book work under the same system, Shelley misses an opportunity to provide guidance to pastors serving under differing kinds of church governments. Some readers may conclude that the majority of problems listed in this book are do to nature of leadership by an elected board.
Despite the two concerning areas of Shelley’s book, he still provides a great deal of helpful tools and ideas. Being able to identify the motivations behind a difficult person may be the key to finding a healthy approach to the problem. “The distinguishing characteristic of a dragon,” advises Shelley, “is not what is said but how it’s said. Even though dragons are well intentioned, sincerely doing what’s best in their own eyes, the characteristic that marks a dragon is that they are never quite with you” (47). Understanding the difference between a critic or even an emotionally charged attack from a person who is with you versus one who is not is extremely valuable and Shelley spends a great deal of ink on this topic.
Another helpful tool is the large number of wise, single-line offerings from so many pastors. Many demonstrate wisdom, either found on accident or intentionally driven. For example, one Oregon pastor would pointedly call out a person’s conduct and demand that they stop. Now he says, “‘Our first approach should be one of compassion, because nine out of ten sinners in the church are hurting more than we imagine. Now I’ll put my arm around a man and say in private, ‘Jim, I’ve heard some things, like . . . Is there any truth to this?’ Often he’ll break down and acknowledge it’” (179). This pastor goes on to say his primary approach and question is along the lines of “How can I help you?” and he says, “It usually take them by surprise” (179).
Also helpful is the entire chapter on dealing with individuals with mental illness. This can be an extremely tricky aspect of pastoring, either with the suffering person or the congregation that struggles with the suffering person. The chapter on engaging with electronic media is helpful too. This chapter reminds the reader of the helpful and not-so-helpful times to use email or text messaging and it provides some easy, bulleted lists. One bullet point that should probably be typed and pasted to the computer screen reads, “Do not use email if your emotions are running high (86).
As I read the first chapter, I wrestled with the question, “Is ministry worth this much grief?” The question continued to nag at me until I reached Chapter Seven. While I saw much of the advice up to that point as informative and helpful, I still cringed at the idea that we pastors simply dog along and use the necessary tools to deal with dragons. I kept finding myself thinking, if the Bible is true, and I believe it is, there must be a better approach to leading difficult people. The Shelley's answer was a great relief: seek to lead healthy churches and the dragons will be less likely. And should a dragon surface, the healthy church will be more likely to deal with the issue rather than there be a great need for the material in the first six chapters. Being aware of the first six chapters is helpful, but in the end, working toward a healthy church is exciting and encouraging. When dragons come along, keeping the goal of a healthy church at the forefront of the mind should provide a good path to dealing with dragons (or sheep that bite).
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* This post comes from portions of a paper written for the partial fulfillment of a DMin at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. It has been redacted and modified for this website. **Purchases from this website help support this ministry.