Seven Ways to Lead “Unleadable” People in a Church

“I am so frustrated. I am ready to leave this church and the pastorate altogether. The church members are unleadable.”

The email came to me just as I quoted. Though I didn’t think “unleadable” was a word, I knew exactly what the pastor meant. He was in an established church. He had been there for less than four years. And he was frustrated. Very frustrated.

From his perspective, every initiative he made to lead the church forward was met with resistance. Members were more concerned about their preferences and needs than reaching the community with the gospel. Some of the members responded with anger and overt negativity. Others were passive aggressive.

But all of them were frustrating the pastor.

What is the solution to leading unleadable people? Though I do not have a cookie-cutter approach, nor do I have a quick-fix solution, I can tell you what I’ve learned from other leaders in similar situations. I can tell you about some of the stories where leaders have been moved from frustration to celebration.

Allow me, then, to share with you seven ways to lead unleadable church members.

  1. Pray for those members. Make it a point to pray for them by name. Pray for God’s work and blessings in their lives. Pray for their families. And pray that God will give you a greater love for them regardless of their responses.
  2. Pray for your own attitude. A leader’s attitude is contagious, whether it’s positive or negative. Church members can discern pretty easily a leader’s disposition. Sometimes, the negative attitude of the leader exacerbates a difficult situation.
  3. Mentor one or two of the recalcitrant church members. You don’t have to use the word “mentor.” You can just start spending more time with one or two of the tougher cases. Take them on ministry visits with you. Share informally your heart for the church. Get to know them better.
  4. Have a quality new members’ class. I will be expanding on this topic later, but the idea is to establish clear expectations of new members on the front end. They will then likely influence other members in the church.
  5. Get influencers in the church to help you. They may or not be the people in key positions in the church. They are the ones that, when they speak, everyone listens. Share with them your passions. See if they can be a positive influence on the more immovable members.
  6. Demonstrate consistent ministry to these more recalcitrant members. Don’t avoid them because you don’t like them. But, also, don’t give them disproportionate ministry time simply because they complain. You don’t want to reinforce negative behavior.
  7. Be persistent. Some of the greatest missionaries around the world did not see ministry fruit for a decade or so. But they persisted, and God has blessed their labors. Leaders of established churches should view themselves as missionaries on the field. And they must be willing to be patient and persistent. Earlier research I led showed that the greatest fruit in a pastor’s ministry typically occurred in year five or later of tenure.

I would love to hear your struggles and victories in leading unleadable people in your church. The greatest part of this blog is the reader. You offer so many great insights. Let us hear from you.

photo credit: lumaxart via photopin cc


  1. Mark says

    I would recommend trying to figure out why people are unleadable. Were they harmed by previous leadership? Have they been refused leadership positions for petty reasons? Are they young and invincible?

    First, just what is unleadable? Is it someone who just won’t do what you tell them to? If so, why should? What’s in it for them? Did you offer a convincing argument? Did you outright reject their suggestions?

    If you do not accept input, it is hard be a good leader.

  2. dave frasure says

    Number 5 is critical. In fact I would add to actually build relationships with key influencers. When I have failed to do this I have failed terribly. When we communicate that we are going to move on without these key influencers they often become adversaries. Investing time to get to know these people and learning to love them goes far in getting us on the same team.

    • Mark says

      The key influencers (donors) can get put in a bad situation. If the younger people have to go to them to get support when leadership won’t listen to them and clergy have to go to them if they want to change anything, the influencers can be torn between the two sides. One must remember that the large donors with influence are generally older people and so they will listen to their personal friends too. Most influencers get their influence with donations, not savvy, and really don’t want to play politics. That means they become the ones who are in control instead of being arbitrators.

  3. says

    A lot of times with the established church they are reluctant because pastors change things way to fast. It’s almost like you need to earn your congregations respect. See how they do things, evaluate why, and prepare an action plan. These plans can be done in phases over years sometimes a decade. As ministers we often forget what it is like to be a laymen at the church. These people will be at this church for most of their life and they don’t want a pastor whose known for staying 3-5 years to come in and change things. Earn it. Be patient and your flock will listen.

  4. says

    To often preachers have been warned against making friends in the congregation. This leads to a division between the pastor and people. I try to treat all in the church as friends as well as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Time and transparency will build unity of purpose.

  5. Russ says

    It sounds like this Pastor walked into a bad situation. If you have a small percentage or specific age group you can focus on it can be dealt with. Three yr back I and a few others had to leave a church as the majority of old timers simply refused all attempts at change. “We like our little church just the way it is”

  6. says

    Being persistent is truly key. Continue showing love and praying for these people and some will change. Notice, I said some. In my experience I have had people whom I truly believe were adhering to this world and didn’t really have Jesus in their hearts. But those who are difficult who’ve accepted Jesus and simply have a negative personality can often be overcome with the love and support we will share with them. I remember one case where I met a person who literally made my wife cry when we got to the church. But when we left she was an avid supporter of us both. This ministry stuff is not for the timid, that’s for sure. But with the love of Jesus and the persistence that only He can give us, we will make it and lead some unleadable people.

  7. says

    Good points Thom. Number 2 is highly important. Our attitude is not only powerful but also changeable. Leaders set the temperature of productivity with their attitudes every day. Also important, is to have a consistent positive attitude. This creates a foundation of stability for success to grow and flourish.

  8. Bobby Thomas says

    A good post at the right time !

    Prayer is always a powerful weapon.

    Personally I have been going through some tough challenges with conveying my views to one of the sisters in my team, she was trying to dig up past mistakes those that were already forgiven and forgotten, this ultimately led to unhealthy frictions and losing my peace of mind.

    Point 1 helped me to come out of this issue quite quickly. It was clear that the enemy was using her to take away the peace and joy in my heart. The Lord hinted that I am different and that I should be having a large heart to forgive and further the Lord inspired me to pray for her so that she be used by God in the ministry.

    After praying for her on the phone and conveying the Lord’s need for her in the ministry, the reaction suddenly changed from bad to good :)

  9. James says

    I believe #4 is a critical point in the road to recovery for a church with a hard set mind of “the way things should be done” or a “we’re not going to do that” attitude. New members should be given a clear cut ideal of what a member of a church looks like. If this is not laid out for them all you can expect is to see them doing exactly what the members you currently have do.

    Also, #2 plays a big part in any church growth and leadership. If you are a pastor and are looking for something better you may as well leave now because you’re hurting that church. You are serving but you’re heart is somewhere else. I do believe it was Danny Akin who said, during a Q&A session at the SBC conference this year, “serve the church you have, not the church you wish you had, want to have in 10yrs or the church you think they should be. God placed you in their lives for a reason.”

    We also need to find those in the church who are leadable and are willing to work to see church growth in two different ways. First and most importantly, you must be willing to lead them in spiritual growth. This could be a small group of willing members who meet and grow as a group in Christ and that in turn will spill over into the church and allow for new leaders to step up. If a church is not ready spiritually then it will never grow or be able to deal with numerical growth. You get to a point where you have people but no one who is capable of leading those people and no that’s not completely the pastors job to lead. Second, that group must be willing to put in the foot work to help the church grow numerically by making disciples, spending time in their community and loving their neighbors.
    There will be resistance from the established members, but as we like to quote from Veggie Tales in my house, “God is bigger then the Boogie Man” and “patience is a virtue”. Remember who’s time schedule we’re working on. We may never see the harvest but we work the fields as if we will.

  10. says

    I have experienced these same frustrations and many time I’ve thought about giving up. Many times I’ve wondered am I the right guy here. I was taken to Exodus 32 & 33 and there I examined a man who was frustrated like me. He was leading an “Unleadable” people. What he did though was what I did – I turned my attention to God and His strength and not my own. Exodus 33:12-23 changed my attitude.

    For so long I tried to lead our church with what I thought were the right methods. The mistake was what “I thought” rather than what God desires. When I began to seek God’s glory and His presence, things began to smooth out. We all need to climb the mountain and ask God to show us His glory for it is here that everything changes.

  11. Michael says

    In reference to the second point: I have found when I truly LOVE those members things begin to change. The biggest change is with myself and my heart. After this takes place some, but certainly not all, of those unleadable members begin to change also.

  12. says

    I would say that the biggest reason for unleadable people in our area is the fact that pastors leave and people stay. So over time they take leadership positions that they may or may not be qualified for, just because the churches go so long in between pastors and the pastors who do come don’t stay long. It’s a vicious cycle that seems to convert people into being more self sufficient and territorial within the church, especially if they grew up in the church.

  13. says

    I was about to throw in the towel because of the frustrations expressed in your article. That’s when the Lord whispered (quite loudly), “Refocus!” That command led me to an intentional, spiritual exercise. I made two lists. The first listed everything it “appeared” God was not doing in our church. It ended up be a list of my expectations and my descriptions of success. Then I intentionally listed everything I saw God doing the individual lives of my congregation. Needless to say, the second list was much longer. Through that simple (but sometimes painful) exercise, the Lord has renewed my spirit, joy, and excitement concerning my church. It was the first step in the process of realizing God is building His church according to His design and His plan. I am the instrument (Ephesians 4:1-16). He is the Designer and Master Builder (1 Corinthians 12).

  14. says

    Like has already been stated change can be slow in churches. It takes time. Prayer is crucial because at the end of day I really can’t change anyone; only God can do that. I have to give the Holy Spirit time to do the work. I also have to be sure I see an unleadable person as God see them. They have more worth than what I am trying to accomplish.

  15. Peter says

    Our church was having a difficult time communicating the vision of our church and the direction we believed God was taking us, so we implemented bi-monthly Members’ Meetings for us to share reports on the last two months of ministry, share updates on upcoming ministries and initiatives, and a time for our pastor to share his heart with the congregation. We also incorporated a time for the lay leaders of the other ministries to share what’s going on their area, for members to ask questions, and a time where prayer needs can be shared related to the church as a whole as well as individual members. We’ve done these meetings now for about two years, and they have helped tremendously in building the unity of our church.

  16. Patrick says

    I’ve been at the church I am currently serving at for 15 years now (Worship/Executive Pastor). Our Lead Pastor has been here for 20 yrs. – 10 yrs as Youth Pastor, 2 yrs as Assistant Pastor and 6 yrs as Lead Pastor. Our Pastor before him was here for 30 yrs. So we have seen a lot.
    There are recalcitrant people. There are those that will do it if it suits them. There are those that will do it and complain about it behind your back. They will do it if this one leads, but not if this one does. There are all sorts. But there is a remnant that does it “as unto the Lord”. Pour your vision and time into them. Help them to duplicate. Make sure of your calling (not hiring) where you are. Be confident in the vision God has given you and move forward in with deep biblical conviction,love and passion. We serve the Lord under someone and if we can’t do it with joy we need to step aside. It’s not about our comfort it’s about taking the Gospel to our community. Rom. 12

  17. Tony Jones says

    I am a young pastor, and the “recalcitrant church members” are a special source of frustration. I have learned three things.

    1. Don’t demonize them. They aren’t the enemy, Satan is.

    2. Influence their friends. This has worked really well. They are more likely to follow their friends.

    3. They are not allowed to control your ministry, God is.

  18. Matt Lawrence says

    Great words Thom.

    1. Be patient. It is our privilege to wait on God to answer our prayers and this shows the stern stuff of which our faith is made. Rom 8:2

    Don’t be in such a hurry. The flame never goes out, the blessings never end, the love is eternal. Trust and enjoy the ministry. Lev 6:12
    Ps 37:4-40

    2. Look at people differently. People are diamonds in the rough. Treasure them in your heart. Love, value and enjoy people as they are. Whatever wrong they may have done can be forgiven. Gen 1:26; Matt 22:38; Col 3:12-13. The love of Christ flowing through you heals people and helps them realize all the potential God has envisioned for their life. This causes a beautiful garden to grow up around you. Matt 13:8; 2 Cor 9:6

    3. Believe that things are changing even when people and circumstances don’t show it. You are successful at everything you attempt, you are victorious on every side, if at first it appears you have not been victorious, God will take you to a different place where you will see things with a different perspective and see that you were indeed victorious. From the foot of the table, leadership is a mountain of obstacles, but because of Christ, you sit at the head of the table and you see a stream of victories. Luke 14:10.

  19. says

    I believe the best way to lead is by example – impartation can take place at the point of contact…..doing the very thing you are preaching for an established season before requiring someone to follow you….if its evangelism then “do evangelism” for a season and invite anyone who wants to join you…eventually your life preaches louder then your sermons…be it positive or negative….

  20. says

    I am convinced personally that the greatest advice on here is to pray for them and for your attitude. I have found it to be the most beneficial for the ministry God has given me. Another one that I would add is to sit down with them and ask why they are opposed to something. Everyone has a perspective. They may not express it in the most God-honoring way, but God can use negative people to produce positive results in our lives and ministry. They may have a perspective that we haven’t thought of and by listening, we may be spared some pain and heartache in ministry.

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