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The community that gathers in the name of Jesus Christ is often populated by problem people who make things much harder for everyone. I call them “well-intentioned dragons.” Some are merely nuisances, others serious threats to church life.

It might be helpful to catalog some of the varieties of dragons inhabiting the church. All of the following have been reported by working pastors.

The Bird Dog: Four-legged bird dogs point to where the hunter should shoot. The two-legged Bird Dog loves to be the pastor’s eyes, ears and nose, sniffing out items for attention. “We need more activities for the youth.” Or, “Why doesn’t the church do something about . . .”

Most pastors respond to Bird Dogs by saying, “The Lord hasn’t said anything to me about this, but it sounds like a good idea. Obviously you’re concerned, and that’s usually a sign the Lord is telling you to do something about it.” Those genuinely concerned will take up the challenge. Bird Dogs, however, will grumble: “That’s your job, Pastor. I’m just calling your attention to something important.”

The Wet Blanket: If you’ve heard the phrase “It’s no use trying” or its close cousin “It’s too much effort,” you’ve probably spotted the Wet Blanket. These people spread gloom, erase excitement and bog down the ministry. In business meetings, they exhibit a negative attitude toward any step of faith. “We tried that before, and it didn’t work” is a familiar refrain.

The Entrepreneur: This person is enthusiastic. He’s the first to greet visitors at the church and invite them to his home. Unfortunately, in addition to being enthusiastic about the church, he’s equally eager to sell them vitamins, bee pollen, cleaning products or whatever product he’s currently offering.

“We were losing people because they felt victimized,” says a minister in Wisconsin. “It got so bad I had to mention in a sermon that we can’t make each other the objects of our enterprise. We also had to put a notice in our church directory that this list is not to be used for business activity.”

The Drill Instructor: This is the person who speaks with an exclamation point instead of a period. He is right, and everyone else is wrong. This kind of person is a steamroller who flattens anyone in his way with his overwhelming insistence that his is the only right way to see things.

The Anonymous Blogger: These dragons may claim to be “trying to save our church,” but they do it by posting comments and accusations and interpretations on the Internet without attaching their names. Their main accomplishment is heightening a climate of suspicion and dissatisfaction. Without identifying themselves, they air the church’s dirty laundry. Often there’s no way to evaluate the truthfulness of the rumors they spread.

The Fickle Financier: This person uses money to register approval or disapproval of church decisions. Sometimes he protests silently by merely withholding offerings, though more often he lets others know that he’s not giving. Others, however, because of the amount of their giving, realize their money means clout, and they directly manipulate people and programs.

There are many others: The Busybody, who enjoys telling others how to do their jobs; The Sniper, who avoids face-to-face conflict but picks off pastors with potshots in private conversation; The Bookkeeper, who keeps written record of everything the pastor does that “isn’t in the spirit of Christ”; The Merchant of Muck, who breeds dissatisfaction by attracting others who know he’s more than willing to listen to, and elaborate on, things that are wrong in the church; and The Legalist, whose list of absolutes stretches from the kind of car a pastor can drive to the dress code for the worship team to the type of disposable coffee cups the church uses.

Any of these can inhabit a given congregation. How do you know a dragon if you see such behavior? You can’t tell by looking. Dragons can be as friendly and charming as non-dragons. Sometimes you can’t even tell by listening (at first). People can criticize, voice dogmatic opinions, tangle with others and yet not be dragons.

The distinguishing characteristic of a dragon 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.

Often they have a spirit that enjoys being an adversary rather than an ally. They have a consistent pattern of focusing on a narrow special interest rather than the big picture, which leads to following tangents rather than pursuing a balanced church life. They persistently shift the church off course.

This spirit, of course, is difficult to discern quickly. It can only be judged by observing the person’s effect on the larger ministry of the church. As 1 Timothy 5:24 says, “The sins of some are obvious . . . ; the sins of others trail behind them” (NIV).

“The real problem isn’t so much their overt actions,” observes a veteran pastor. “But they divert your attention and keep you off guard even if they never openly oppose you. You find yourself not planning, not dreaming of the future, not seeking a vision for the church—you’re just trying to survive from day to day.”

If the first casualties in dragon warfare are vision and initiative, the next victim is outreach. When a pastor is forced to worry more about putting out brush fires than igniting the church’s flame, the dragons have won, and the ministry to a needy world has lost.

For in-depth advice on how to deal with problem people in your church, check out Ministering to Problem People in Your Church by Marshall Shelley.


This article is adapted from Ministering to Problem People in Your Church by Marshall Shelley, copyright 2013. Published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or redistributed in any form.

is vice president of Christianity Today International.