Coping with the Damaged People

The more effective the congregation is in reaching and welcoming all comers, the greater the likelihood of embracing a growing battalion of broken people all needing help of one kind or another. There is one group which is proving to be a genuine headache: they are the damaged people.  This description is offered with love, sympathy and concern.

Who are the damaged people?

  • Damaged people (DP’s) carry a heavy burden of pain from years past. Somewhere deep within there lurks a huge black spot of hurt, anger and despair. It is rarely if ever acknowledged.
  • Most likely they have had a history of unhappy and continuing collisions with authority figures with the DP being the constant loser, the victim.
  • They have suffered at the hands of others with the issues never having been resolved. Since no healing has taken place, the DP survives in the real world with the drama and losses of other days submerged.
  • The catch is that they have learnt to cope, at least after a fashion. There is no hint of anything untoward. But the lingering pain is real and powerful.

Church life and the damaged people:

  • Some DP’s have been in the church for years; others may be relative newcomers. But they call for all the wisdom that Solomon may have in his cupboard and then some.
  • The tough part of the equation is that they are extraordinarily hard to pick first up. Often articulate, even charming, DP’s have a serious commitment to the wellbeing of the church.
  • You will often find them in leadership positions or aspiring to such. There is an unswerving and admirable desire to be biblical, or constitutional, to play the game by the book.
  • While appearing to be genuinely keen to support the pastor and the church, another agenda of pain hunts in the shadows with the pastor usually being the sitting duck.
  • Usually it is not until there has been a conflict or a clash that the reality of damage begins to emerge. Strangely it does not have to be a big deal issue either.
  • But the symptoms start appearing in small ways: a rumour begins, a letter is circulated, unexpectedly there appears to be a hurt sustained. A pocket of unrest inexplicably appears out of nowhere. The DP becomes a champion of a cause which they often do not understand themselves.

Stage #1:

  • One of the early trademarks of the DP is their supreme ability to make others feel sorry for them. They play the victim role convincingly.
  • This is usually the first stage of a problem which moves into ever enlarging circles of complexity.
  • Nothing causes as much anxiety for a pastor and a leadership as a person who appears to have been wronged. This is all the more so when it is proposed that pastor and/or leaders are actually the cause.

Stage #2:

  • Once the DP has others speaking up for them in their defence, they move onto the second level.
  • This sees a transformation where, now having commanded sympathy in a most plausible manner, they press on to a carefully modulated, highly focused aggression almost always directed at the pastor and/or leadership generally.

Stage #3:

  • Once the momentum has been built up there is a go-for-broke syndrome with the DP becoming the proverbial terrier with the bone.
  • They will not be satisfied without the complete fulfilment of their totally destructive goals.
  • The wrong inflicted upon them must be corrected. An apology must be offered
  • The pastor must be brought to account.
  • The power of this awesome drivenness becomes a nightmare for the person or group who happen to be the target. The single mindedness of the DP is at the expense of the congregation. The loss of perspective is total.

Stage #4

The resting place for this ultimate tragedy may vary from situation to situation. Here are the possibilities:

  • The church will split with the DP having successfully manoeuvred a faction to back them to the very end. This support group, often good people with a good heart, has been successfully duped and persuaded by the sheer force of the plausibility of the DP. They have been convinced that there is a case to be answered despite the growing signals that there is something terribly wrong.
  • The DP will remain in a position of power with some at least. If they leave the church, they may take their strongest supporters with them. If they stay, others whom the church can ill afford to lose will move on. Most DP’s prefer to stay thereby demonstrating a love-hate relationship with the church.
  • If the congregation does not wake up to the dynamics of what is occurring (this often happens too late to be helpful), the fragmentation in the church may be such that it is impossible for the present pastor to address with there being no real alternative but to move on elsewhere and leave a fresh face to tackle the difficulties
  • If a sufficient number in the congregation twig to what is taking place, it is remarkable how quickly a church may arrive at a resolution realising that, without direct action, their collective witness will be lost and irreparable harm done to the ministry of the church.
  • Without this realisation occurring, however, at some point there will be a church meeting which will be extremely difficult to manage. The DP and supporters will be out in force with numbers of the solid church members not turning up through a dislike of church disputes. It is for this reason that the outcomes of such meetings are often inconclusive and resolve little. This, of course, is interpreted as a sign of strong sympathy for the DP.
  • The problem is all the more tragic if your DP is a member of the pastoral team (and it does happen). In this case it will be the Senior Pastor who will almost certainly be the target. Division in the congregation is guaranteed.

The Central Problem for the Leadership:

  • The emerging frustration is that it is common for the actual grievance to be beyond exact definition. No one is quite sure where to start. The stated problem is rarely the real issue.
  • But the DP makes it very plain that an injustice has been done and that they are either the victim or, alternatively, the one who can see the problems and can sort them out. Of course, by this time, the meetings have begun.
  • Certainly the leaders will have already invested acres of time in trying to sort out the problem having been completely distracted from the central task of mission.
  • The anxiety for the pastor is the intuition that there is something which is not quite right without knowing what it is.
  • Conscious that there may be many who are supporting the DP (although there is never any accurate number), they see the need for action. By this time the Bible has been well used or the constitution has been rolled in to prove that indeed there has been a serious mistake.

The Warning Signals:

When a DP moves into high gear, the following signals will usually be identifiable:

  • A refusal to accept any level of responsibility apart from perhaps a few cosmetic admissions.
  • A reluctance to accept any meaningful level of accountability coupled with a unique ability to play parties off against each other to great advantage.
  • The claiming of all possible high ground, moral and biblical. No one is seen to be keener than the DP for that which is right, just and honouring to the Lord
  • A superb capacity to talk the language of justice (or the denial of such) while at the same time making claims and taking courses of action which, to an observer, are anything but just
  • An active blindness which cannot comprehend the possibility of viewing the issue/s at hand in any way other than their own
  • A knack for recruiting the disaffected, the uncritical and the gullible which leads to the claim that there are “many who are unhappy and they will definitely support me in this.” They are past masters at multiplying such statistics.
  • An amazing skill which causes increasing numbers of people to be involved in their sorry mess: supporters, those in the firing line along with the conduct of endless leadership meetings which lead to show down type church gatherings. The essential work of the Kingdom is sidelined for months with little hope of an early recovery
  • A chorus of hurt, notices of further action and accusations of uncaring attitudes at any suggestion of discipline of this increasingly outrageous behaviour. It is manipulation of the highest order, a carefully orchestrated tactic to make reasonable people look foolish.
  • Genuine conversation and frank communication are pointless since logic was abandoned for emotion, often passion, long ago.
  • A total imbalance of power with the DP seen to be holding all the cards and those under attack seemingly bereft of any ground left to stand on.
  • No grasp at all of what is best for the congregation: this is irrelevant to the DP since the issues of justice and fair play for them personally are more important than what happens to others.
  • Like the dishonest woman who was happy for Solomon to dismember the child who was not hers, the DP puts their cause ahead of congregational harmony.[1]
  • No practical evidence of concern for the impact of their behaviour even when families are divided by the conflict (although they may claim they are concerned)
  • A light handling of the truth. Half-truths are frequently offered although the DP’s tentative grip on reality gives permission to engage in falsehood without their conscience being troubled.
  • A general dissatisfaction with any process which does not suit the agenda of the DP

Is It Possible for a Pastor to be a DP?

  • And the end result is usually mayhem. The major change in the plot is that the congregation becomes galvanised around those who are loyal to the pastor and those who are not. The DP pastor will take a fix on a person, or group, or family, or often someone else in leadership and set about in just the same fashion as any other DP.
  • This will be a very confusing and difficult time for the lay leaders some of whom will cotton on quickly to the real dimensions of the problem. The DP pastor will move rapidly to isolate these leaders in the push for understanding and support.
  • A divided leadership is the first sign of trouble. Not too far behind is a decreasing confidence in the leadership for those in the church who have been seduced by the pastor’s cause.
  • In the end there will be a sadly divided church. The drama is magnified many times over if the DP is a member of a pastoral team. In this case the Senior Pastor will usually be the hapless target.
  • Often the pastor will eventually quit but not before the heart has been eaten out of the congregation. What is left is a legacy of trauma and unrest. Many attenders will depart forever having lost interest and trust in the church and all that it stands for.

Are there any Strategies that Work?

The difficulty in coping with a DP is that the usual approaches in dealing with conflict assume a willingness to listen on the part of all concerned, an openness to find what is commonly valued and a determination to negotiate where appropriate. But the DP is allergic to all of these in their relentless pursuit of getting their own way. Some possible ways forward:

  1. Pray! You cannot undervalue the spiritual dimensions of a DP situation. While it may be said that a DP is simply a very needy person driven by forces which they scarcely understand, there is also the very real possibility that the manipulation, the intrigue and the confusion arising from their behaviour may have the smell of evil about them. Anything which assails the fellowship, witness and ministry of the congregation cannot be trifled with. Prayer will offer the inner strength, the insight and the courage to address the situation for the wellbeing of the congregation as a whole.
  1. Be alert! If a person is resistant to reasonable and caring suggestions as to how difficulties may be handled, you could be dealing with a DP. In this case the presenting issues will not be the real ones. In future make sure you meet with the potential DP with another leader whose judgment you trust. Draw the lines in the sand early.
  1. Share with your leadership. You will need to apprise your leaders of the situation but keep in mind that a deacon or two may have already been lobbied by the DP. A divided leadership group will make the going much more difficult.
  1. As a pastor your commitment is to the wellbeing of the individual and the church. A DP needs to hear it from you that you are holding these two responsibilities in balance before the Lord. They also need to know that you will steadfast in protecting the congregation from anything which may harm the ongoing effectiveness of the church in its ministry. It is about this time that you will start to hear the standard DP complaints: accusations of being uncaring, sweeping problems under the mat (a common one) and being afraid to deal with the issues.
  1. Since the DP is expert in presenting ultimatums, you may need to offer one or two of your own. You will need the support of your leaders. This need not be done in the heat of the moment, but with measured voice and a clear indication that you will not be caught up in the politics of the situation. If you do propose a strategy, it may be a good idea to provide this both verbally and in a brief written statement which can be offered as a summary of what you are about. This will help to clarify the inevitable misunderstandings which may come later.
  1. Understand that your DP knows how to get support. While it is always a good idea to have as few people as possible involved, the unrestrained DP will probably have begun recruiting their supporters. The issue will expand very rapidly in this case. The preferred biblical approaches may not work if the matter has already taken on congregational proportions.[2] Further, any process which does not suit the ends of the DP will be disregarded. They are expert at attempting to manipulate and control due process for their own ambitious ends.
  1. As much as you can, avoid the trap of taking too much on board as personal criticism. This will interfere with your own effective functioning and will render you powerless in your leadership. Do not be afraid of setting clear guidelines for a church meeting should this be necessary. Leadership is about taking a stand and living with the consequences. There will usually be a sufficient number of thinking people in the church who will be ready to respond to a situation if they are given the opportunity to have at least some grasp of the issues.
  1. The question of strength is an important one. A DP in full flight can operate like a Stealth bomber: difficult to track and can come from anywhere. The need for the congregation is for the leadership to remain unswayed by an intimidatory DP who, deliberately or unconsciously, may want to crush the opposition, you included. They need to bump into someone who is unmoved by their crusading tactics. A DP will finally wake up when they have hit a brick wall. They will not like it but most will finally back away if the pastor is able and willing to acquaint the church with the impending calamity. This can be done firmly, pastorally and prayerfully.

There is no joy in dealing with a DP. Having been damaged themselves, they wreak havoc and damage in the lives of others. Deep down the craving for love, acceptance and wholeness cries out in desperation. It calls for a special gift, a special touch of the Holy Spirit to break through this traumatised darkness. Few DP’s see any need for external help or counselling as they alone are “right before the Lord.” A pastor requires immense fortitude, grace, patience and wisdom to provide guidance when these unpredictable onslaughts occur.

Rev John Simpson

[1] 1 Kings 3:16-28

[2] As found, for example, in Matthew 18:15-17