Friday, December 10, 2010

Connecting with Challenging People: Practical Tips

Oh man... my eyes opened wide when I read this post. I LOVE THIS ARTICLE! :) Hee. Because it's something very close to my heart. I remember how my shepherds didn't give up on me even when I was a very challenging person.

I think there is something very important, however, that the author didn't mention very much - the heart of God for these "challenging" people. These "challenging" people are often like the the one lost sheep that the shepherd looks for...
Luke 15
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

Mmm... I guess one thing I've always wondered was why did God let me go through the pain of being such a challenging person. But Jesus' words keep on coming to mind: "This happened, so that the work of God might be revealed in his life." :) Hee. And no doubt, after more than ten years, people around me can testify how God has changed me so much.

Well, I still am growing. Still struggling up to now. I can fully identify with the fear-management tactics that fearful people use. Things like 'tics', undesirable habits, and so on. And the cycle becomes very vicious. But that is where God's grace is so critical. That the church must not join in with the world in condemning and classifying, but instead to embrace and accept (even while helping the person break free of his/her fears) wholeheartedly. God's grace, in order to smash Satan's vicious cycle of destruction, delay, deceit and despair, so as to set the captives free and bind up the broken-hearted. Then the world will notice how we treat the undesirables and the losers... and know that we really are His disciples, if we love one another.

But I think all the more God has called me. I find I have a special heart for the challenging people, especially the children. So have started pioneering a "special-ops kids" CG in children's ministry. Funnily enough, it's full-circle for me. That I was one of the challenging kids in Sunday school... and now God has used me to start a ministry as such. So rich is His mercy, and so abundant is His grace, even to a sinner like me. :)

Hee. Do read this article: I think it'll challenge your existing preconceptions. Really pray and hope that your heart will be convicted of whatever existing prejudices you may have... and to see as the Lord sees the 'sinners' and the 'outcasts'. :)

May God's grace and peace be yours this beautiful season! Amen.

Pat Sikora is the founder of Mighty Oak Ministries (, a ministry devoted to providing tools and resources to equip the church for ministry to the wounded and broken. She also authored Why Didn't You Warn Me? How to Deal with Challenging Group Members. Pat maintains the blog, and she admits that caring for difficult people has become her specialty. She spoke to Tyler Charles about what church leaders need to know about ministering to challenging individuals.
You admit that caring for difficult people is your specialty. To what types of "challenging people" do you have the opportunity to minister?
Over the past 35 years, I've probably ministered to almost every type of challenging person. My earliest experiences were in a Christian singles group where many of the members were in their late 20s to mid-30s, wanting to be married but never quite making it because they were "challenging." There were men who were poorly groomed, clueless to social cues, clingy, and hovering. Some were very intelligent but lacked character or confidence. Others were not very intelligent but tried to pretend they were. Some battled alcoholism, pornography, or drug abuse.
Many of the women lacked confidence and direction; some had come out of a worldly lifestyle and still struggled with their identity in Christ. Some were over- or underweight, often because of deeper issues. Both men and women were afraid of commitment, prompting them to act "flaky."
Later I began ministering to women who had been abused in childhood, some profoundly. Many of these suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder). Most profound abuse survivors exhibit fear, anxiety, or panic disorders. They often have difficulty holding a job or living independently. Many are dependent, looking for a good mother or father figure. Others are control addicts. Many are chronically ill and even disabled.
Over the years, I've learned that, while some people have obvious issues, the reality is, we're all social misfits. We all have weak spots. We all have flaws in personality, character, or commitment. We all fail in one way or another. Some of us just cover it better than others. As John Ortberg says, "Everybody's normal…until you get to know them."
Based on your experience with difficult people, what are some common challenges they pose for those who genuinely want to connect with them?
I think the most common issue is fear. I find that no matter what the presenting issue, it usually boils down to fear: fear of success, fear of failure, fear of man, fear of bridges, fear of freeways. Fear of…well, just about everything. In our attempt to deal with the fear, we develop coping mechanisms that, over time, become tics, habits, hang-ups, and undesirable behaviors. These cause people to reject us, to want to avoid us.
I think many "normal" people shy away from the unlovely, not only because they have become unpleasant to be with, but also because we somehow fear they're contagious. In our desire to not be identified with the unlovely, we refuse to identify with them. The more separate we can remain, the safer we feel. And the irony is, we can do this even while thinking we're connecting.
Do most challenging people realize they're difficult to work with? If they're aware of this, does that make the leader's job easier?
At some level, I think most at least realize they are different and undesirable. These behaviors seldom develop in adulthood; most have been with the person from earliest childhood. They usually grew up in unhealthy homes. They were victimized by the bullies and mean girls. They were ignored by teachers. As they moved into adulthood, their problems followed them.
I remember one woman who was routinely asked to not join small groups, even recovery groups. One time she was the first person to sign up for a group, but was told the group was full. She was devastated. That's when I developed a group for challenging people, systematically teaching challenging women how to successfully be part of a small group. I coached them on good group skills and for some it made a difference.
Because these people have experienced so much rejection and failure, many expect to be rejected and to fail. So they protect themselves using a variety of methods. They may enter a ministry or a helping relationship assuming it won't work. They will not show up, complain, blame, sabotage, and more. That means that a leader needs to model consistency and unconditional love, sometimes for a very long time. It means you'll give and give before you ever (if you ever) receive.
Working with challenging people is obviously going to be, well, challenging. Do you think most church leaders are up for this challenge, or do they shy away from it?
Yes and yes. I think most people can do this work, but most shy away from it. Why? In addition to the avoidance mentioned above, it's time-consuming work with a high risk of failure. Why volunteer for a job like that? It's going to take a lot longer to see a return on your investment of time, energy, and prayer. And you may not get the return you wanted. I've had people I've ministered to reject me, turn on me, and spread lies about me. I've seen great progress only to have the person commit suicide. I won't kid you. This job isn't for wimps.
On the other hand, I can't think of anything more rewarding than seeing a former misfit coming into his or her own, becoming the man or woman God created them to be, learning how to be a true friend and a productive member of the body of Christ. And when this happens, it's important to deliberately encourage the transition from mentor-mentee to friends. Peers. Colleagues.
How would you respond a pastor or a church leader who says they just don't have enough time to give these challenging people the attention they require?
This is a wonderful ministry for volunteers and lay leaders. It isn't realistic for most pastors to take on more than one challenging person. (This doesn't mean you can't have input and can't be kind, but you may not be the key mentor). But here is where the body of Christ shines. Church leaders can fulfill their Ephesians 4 mandate and equip healthy members to do the work of the ministry. You can multiply your effectiveness as you train, equip, and encourage lay people to come alongside your challenging people.
Encourage small group leaders to include one challenging person. Not half the group. Just one. Let that group love the person to wholeness. Encourage adult Sunday School leaders to reach out to the one or two challenging people in their class, and to equip others to do the same. Encourage children's Sunday school teachers to identify these kids early and find a healthy kid to come alongside and befriend the needy child. Affirm those members of your church that you see reaching out to the needy.
You've said that simply treating challenging people like human beings can make a huge difference. Do you think church leaders might be failing to do this without even realizing it?
I think we all do this to some extent. As I mentioned earlier, we tend to shy away from challenging people, feeling either that they are contagious or that they'll make our ministries more difficult. Simply being aware of this, coupled with a desire to care, can go a long way. The key is recognizing the imago dei in each person. If we recognize that even the most challenging person is created in the image of God and is beloved by the Father, it's easier to let down our own defenses and simply love.
What are some common mistakes people make when dealing with difficult people?
If you're going to venture into this land, there are several tools you'll need. First and foremost, you must shed your Messiah complex. The reality is, these people have made it this far without you, and they'll probably continue to limp along just fine without you. You need to remember that God already sent a Messiah—and it isn't you. Therefore, you'll need to hold this ministry loosely. It's God's work; not yours.
Second, you need to bathe your efforts in prayer and the word of God. Go back to the source and see what his plans are for this person rather than trying to remake them in your own image.
Third, develop a broad skill base. I've not only received ministry for my issues, but I've also taken many classes and learned a variety of ministry skills. I have a very full toolbox, which allows me to be open to whatever strategy the Lord gives me for each person. Some people are committed to one method and use it as a "one size fits all" strategy. No matter how good the technique, that seems a little arrogant. And be sure that the method you use is biblical. Just because it "works" doesn't mean it's right.
Fourth, set and maintain good boundaries and train the person to honor those. I'm very clear with people that my family is my priority, and that I don't answer the telephone if it isn't convenient. They're welcome to leave a message, and if it's an emergency, say so. Just don't cry wolf.
What would you tell leaders who are frustrated because they've been doing their best to minister to a challenging individual (or more than one), and they aren't seeing results?
Don't expect overnight success. Change takes time. Lots of time. Lots and lots of time. Consistency is more important than immediate results. I've worked with some women for 15 to 20 years before seeing measurable results. That can be discouraging if you expect to wave your magic wand and fix things right away. But the good news is that God is faithful and he will multiply any efforts you make. Stick with it and you will see change. Sometimes even success. And that makes it all worthwhile.
—Tyler Charles; © 2010 Christianity Today International/


Jinghe said...

Hi bro,

Thanks for this post, it really speaks right into my heart and something I am chewing and reflecting on my leadership experience. :)


yeu@nn said...

Thanks bro! :D and thank God that this post blessed you. Thank God for your humble heart to learn and share your thoughts... we're all learning together! :D