If you’ve ever been on a whitewater rafting adventure, you’ll remember that rafting guides know how to address unhelpful behavior right away—if they don’t, difficult people can ruin the experience for everyone, or even put their safety at risk. Likewise, when ministry leaders fail to address counterproductive behavior on their ministry teams, they jeopardize the congregation’s mission and vision.
At a congregation’s staff leadership retreat, I noticed a couple of people thwarting the mission and effectiveness of the team. One was extremely rigid about how things needed to be done, and frequently shut down conversations that the group desperately needed to have. Another team member’s identity was wrapped up in the role she played in the congregation. She needed to prove herself to others, and often chided others who weren’t as committed as she was. On the side, I asked a couple of people how long these behaviors had been happening. One said, “Oh, longer than I’ve been here”—more than seven years. When I asked, “Why hasn’t anyone addressed these situations?” I heard:
• “I didn’t see it as my role to confront them.”
• “I know it’s a problem, but I don’t have the time to deal with it.”
• “It’s easier to work around it than deal with it.”
• “I don’t want to hurt their feelings.”
• “I’m uncomfortable dealing with conflict.”
As an outsider, it was easy for me to see how difficult people were adversely affecting the team’s productivity and cohesiveness. This team had created and regularly recited a covenant that gave every team member permission to address the dysfunction that was present. The “I don’t have time” excuse is simply that—an excuse to remain immobilized. In my experience, these conversations take very little time. Most people are simply afraid of entering into these conversations because they feel ill-equipped to do so.
Small problems become big ones when we fail to address them. I’ve noticed that most problems among leadership team members generally fall into one of three categories—after each one, I’ve offered a possible “script outline” for how to respond:
- A single, isolated situation: “I noticed that you arrived 20 minutes late to lead the choir rehearsal and some members were visibly upset while waiting for you. Is there anything I should know about what prevented you from being on time?”
- A series or history of events that demonstrate a pattern: “I’ve noticed that you have a pattern of arriving five minutes late each week for teaching Sunday school. This prevents us from greeting each person as they enter the room, and sometimes causes interruptions for other teachers. What are some possible solutions to this problem?”
- A situation that adversely affects relationships: “Tom, the deadlines we assign to you are consistently not met, which disrupts our workflow in the office. I’m beginning to wonder if I can trust you with completing upcoming projects on time. Help me understand how I should interpret your behavior.”
My dad used to tell me, “Rotating bald tires is a time-consuming activity that changes nothing.” It’s a helpful metaphor for all the things a congregation does to dance around problems rather than deal directly with difficult people.
Jim LaDoux is the longtime Director of Coaching Services for Vibrant Faith. Jim lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife—he has two adult sons. He’s been a coach since 1992, and has a Master of Management Arts and is a certified PCC (Professional Certified Coach).