Dealing With Church “Troublers”

Most pastors, elders, and members know what it’s like to have a person in the church who is a troubler.  I’m not writing this based on any current issues or troublers in the church I serve now, but I know from past experience and other people’s stories that not every church member is content with peace and unity.  Some people are always grumbling, griping, and complaining about one thing or another in the church.  I appreciate how Presbyterian pastor Thomas Murphy (b. 1823) wrote about those that trouble the church.  Murphy was specifically talking to pastors, but his words are helpful for us all to read:

The pastor need not be surprised if he finds troublers in his church. The discovery of such persons among the professed people of God sometimes shocks ministers, especially inexperienced ones, and discourages them, and sometimes leads them unwisely to give up their charges. But it should be understood as a lamentable fact that such persons are most likely to be found in every church, that the pastor will almost certainly encounter them, and that he ought to be prepared for the discovery, and not to be too much cast down by it.

It is well for the pastor to be forewarned on this subject, and to be undismayed if he encounters many dispositions which are calculated to disturb the peace of the church. He will find that some are sadly inconsistent, bringing constant reproach upon the cause ; some are complainers and fault-finders, acute at finding or inventing things to annoy ; some take pleasure in criticizing and opposing everything that is done or said by the pastor ; some are so utterly unreasonable that they will listen to neither argument nor entreaty ; some are restless, always finding something to agitate and distract ; some are quarrelsome, as if they found their greatest satisfaction in strife ; and others again there are whose business it seems to be to pull down, never to extend a helping hand even to the cause which they profess to love. The injustice and the cruelty of such persons toward him — and that, too, when he is conscious of doing the very best in his power — will sometimes almost break the minister’s heart.

Murphy next explained how the pastor should handle such people:

We would recommend as the sovereign remedy for such troublers in the church simply to let them alone.  Our advice would be, Do not notice them ; do not speak of them ; do not oppose them ; if possible, do not think of them ; and [then they will be] disarmed for evil. If they cannot excite any commotion, they soon become weary of their fruitless efforts to annoy.

There are other ways to handle such people.  I don’t think this is the only way – in fact, sometimes (often?) church discipline might be the right thing to do if a person is purposely disrupting Christian unity.  However, sometimes when the troubler gets no attention, he leaves or stops trying to annoy people (sort of like an immature child sulks away when no one pays attention to him).

Murphy followed up these notes with a few considerations to think of on this topic (I’ve shortened them a little):

  1. It is impossible to satisfy them (troublers) by any excellency of preaching or action.
  2. Though there may be one or more such persons in the church, remember their number is but small compared with the great body of the true-hearted members who are ever ready to stand by the pastor and help him in his work.
  3. Even such troublers and the dissatisfied and the constitutionally unhappy are a part of the material upon which the minister is appointed to work as he strives to build up and beautify that spiritual temple which will be perfected only when the Church’s earthly work is done (when Jesus returns).
  4. Troublers are not without their use; if the knowledge that we are watched by critical or unfriendly eyes serves to make us [pastors] more vigilant, more consistent, and more active, then even this, one of the pastor’s sorest trials, may be turned to good account.

I really appreciate these four points!  These are great things for us – pastors, elders, and members – to remember when dealing with a person that is “constitutionally unhappy” with the pastor’s ministry and the local church.  In God’s sovereignty, sometimes he uses bad people to make us better.

You can find this section in Murphy’s book, Pastoral Theology, chapter 10.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

3 comments on “Dealing With Church “Troublers”

  1. blund says:

    Great post on an important topic, Shane! I’m so glad you included more than simply leaving them alone. While that method may occasionally be necessary for seasons or certain individuals, I would see that as “cold shoulder pastoring,” rather than redemptively bringing the Law and Gospel to bear on their attitudes and actions. And I think your remark on church discipline is especially insightful – troublers can spring up more quickly when there has been very little “pruning” being done. I personally have benefited from Murphy’s fourth point; troublers help shave off rough edges on pastors! Thanks again!

  2. Mike Gregga says:

    Point 4 failed to include: more humbled.

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