by Jason Sansbury
When you’ve been in ministry long enough (and sometimes when you’re just starting out), there are certain “moments” that you’ll experience. One of those moments is when the “haters” come for you. I wish I could tell you that being in the church world and in ministry meant that you wouldn’t have to deal with opposition, negativity, back-stabbing, name-calling, or any of the other attitudes that Jesus dealt with in his ministry. But I can’t in good conscience say that. Because the reality is that at some point, one of several scenarios is going to happen:

You are going to lead into some difficult changes.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “The only thing that likes change is a wet baby.” It’s true. And when you are guiding your ministry through changes, you are likely going to step on someone’s “favorite” part. For example, two years ago in my ministry we made the needed and desired change of splitting our youth group into separate middle school and high school Wednesday night programs. People were upset, frustrated, and convinced I was wrong. But two years later, our ministry is stronger because of that change. Part of leading through change and having vision means that you have to have the high up, helicopter view of the ministry, when the people involved (rightfully so) only have the view of what they are experiencing. In these moments, you need to communicate well, listen to what people are saying, and, if you are sure about the changes you are making, lead on.

You will experience miscommunication.

No matter how much and how often you say things, people always hear it through the filter of their experiences. So while you think you have been clear, someone else will remember or think something else, so be patient with them. Try and communicate well. If they are willing to sit down and talk to you, work through the situation as best you can.

You are going to be attacked.

This situation is the most difficult because there is nothing you can do to stop someone from attacking you. One of the things I say over and over again at the church I serve is that my door is always open and I am always willing to listen, to talk, and to try and understand. And while I realize that sometimes I am not a cuddly, teddy-bear kind of guy, you would think that most people would take me up on that invitation to come talk. And I thought that, too. But unfortunately, in the church environments I have worked and served in, that has rarely been the case. Instead what tends to happen is the following:

  • People complain to anyone and everyone who will listen. At this point, it is largely about the person who is frustrated with you wanting to make sure that EVERYONE knows they are frustrated and to make sure that EVERYONE is on their side. (This is the point when quality people in leadership, both paid and staff, will be helpful if they refuse to listen and will point people back to you and your open door. Currently, as a part of our church staff covenant, we all agree to handle these situations in this way and slowly that culture is being worked into the leadership of our church at large.)
  • These complaints will get back to you and you will stare at your open door and wonder why it wasn’t used.
  • Depending on the issue and the other concerns other people may have with you, the environment can become really contentious. When I started in ministry at my first church, the place where people gossiped and made vague comments and attacks was the church parlor. Nowadays the church parlor has been renamed “Facebook” and, unfortunately, the conversation is much louder to more people.

You have to choose. Think of ministry as a “choose your own adventure” book at this point. You have choices. You have control over how you react. That is it. So here are some of the things I have done, good and bad.

  • Go to war. If someone wants to come at you, be ugly, demean your name and character, and spread it all over the internet, there is a part of you that can play their game, especially if you are in youth ministry. No army is easier to move into the realm of gossip and slander than the youth group and youth leaders. And truthfully, this is probably the first temptation I face in any conflict. But the issue is that while it may win you a few battles here and there, it won’t help you “win” long term. Be mindful that this approach is only rarely an appropriate way to respond and should only come after we have tried other approaches.
  • Defend yourself. This one is different than “Go to war” but it lives in the same neighborhood. Try and backtrack who all has been talked to and then go around and try to plead your case and side of the story. Be detailed. Explain over and over. In the end, you may win the PR war.
  • Ignore it. Just simply think, “This is ridiculous,” and move on. Sometimes stuff can blow over and you can move on. Sometimes it doesn’t. This one is a roll of the dice.
  • Communicate and try to lead forward. At some point, the people involved may not want to move forward. The reality is some people love to play the role of the persecuted and hurt. But you can try and reach out to them, to try and work through your communication issues and leave on peaceful terms. That has worked for me in some cases and it has not worked for me in others. I do know that in the cases where it didn’t work, I was able to move forward personally with a clear conscience and continue in my ministry without concerns about the consequences.

So, I am sorry if and when the “haters” come after you. And I am sorry when they come after me. Hopefully, you are working in an environment that really values the way Jesus talks about handling conflict (Matthew 18: 15-17) and you are able to work through the concerns and get to a healthier place. At a minimum, do what you can to try to bring peace to the relationships involved; at the heart of most conflicts are relational issues that you can hopefully resolve.
And if you can’t resolve the issues at hand, heed the words of Jesus in Luke 9:5, dust your sandals off, and move on. But do that with a clear conscience because you tried your best!
Jason Sansbury is the youth minister at Belle Meade United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.  Previously, Jason has served churches in Franklin, Tenn. and Georgia and has been on staff with YoungLife.  Additionally, Jason was one of the founding partners of Crossed-Up Ministries, a ministry specializing in putting together large worship events for youth groups.  He has a heart for helping young people find their call into ministry and succeeding early in their ministry and careers. For fun, Jason loves movies, music, and television. He is a fount of useless pop culture trivia and dreams of being a winner on the TV show Jeopardy.