Dealing With the Problem Children of God: a book review

The church is full of difficult people. Often they don’t mean to be divisive, but pastors have to navigate power plays from lay leaders or other people opposed to the minister’s ministry philosophy. Differences in theological convictions can lead to mistrust and questioning of pastoral motives. Sometimes lay leaders have convictions about how to deal strongly with sin in the congregation without seeing the full picture that the pastor sees in confidential counseling sessions. This often means that when ‘dragons’ act to nip a problem in the bud,  they cause undue hurt and consternation. Author Marshall Shelley calls these problem people, “Well-intentioned Dragons.” After all they aren’t trying to make life hell for those around them, but the end up causing much pastoral anxiety.

Ministering to Problem People in the Church helps pastors diagnosis problem people, set appropriate boundaries, create a culture of active lay participation and healthy leadership and confront these ‘dragons’ where necessary. Ministering to Problem People in the Church was originally published as Well-Intentioned Dragons. I actually read the earlier edition of this book and found it helpful of understanding the dynamics of fallen people in church. New to this edition was a chapter on electronic communication which gives pastors some principles for communicating well in a world of texts, email and social media (and not compounding problems!). Also Shelley has a chapter on dealing with those struggling with mental illness in the church, which is sensitive to the dynamics of treatment and affirms the full personhood of those who struggle without demonizing them.

I think Shelley’s shorthand of ‘well-intentioned dragons’ for difficult congregants is problematic (these are fellow image-bearers not mythical beasts) but he offers sound advice on how to navigate troubled waters. Despite the shorthand label, he advocates attempt to approach dragons with respect and understanding, sensitive to their past wounds. He also doesn’t think we are in the business of slaying dragons, but of winning them back to the body of Christ (following Matthew 18). So despite the nomenclature, Shelley humanizes God’s problem children in the church.

Another concern one might have while reading this book is, ‘what if the pastor is the the problem?” Spiritual abuse and clergy misconduct are real issues but that is beyond the scope of this book. Shelley assumes that the pastor is attempting to lead God’s people well. I would hate for abusive pastors to label all their opponents as ‘dragons’ as a way of silencing them, but that would be to ignore most of Shelley’s advice. But if you assume that this book is written to help pastors lead healthy congregations (which it was), and follow Shelley’s advice for creating a healthy leadership culture, their is little cause for concern here.

Pastors and ministry leaders will find  in Shelley’s helpful advice for shepherding God’s people, especially when they find themselves at loggerheads with those they seek to lead. This will be much more helpful to the ministry practitioner (its intended audience) than the general reader. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Bethany House Publishers for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.