Leading like Jesus – How to Handle Difficult People without Giving Up

Leadership is a tricky thing. If this weren’t so, then bookstores would be much more spacious, having eliminated the need for so many tricks, tips, techniques and disciplines toward being a good leader or observing how good leaders operate. If leadership of paid employees is daunting, leadership of volunteers might seem, at times, impossible. Within the church, this leadership issue is complicated by a multifaceted objective to accomplish the mission, meet volunteers where they are and help them grow spiritually, and maintain a level of excellence that reflects well on the church and the worthiness of the work. So often, after so many disappointments, so many invitations, so many opportunities, and so much frustration, a Christian leader will yield to the temptation to just give up on a fellow follower of Jesus. “They shouldn’t still be on spiritual milk,” that leader might say. “Jesus shook the dust off of his sandals when people refused to respond.” These are true, but let’s take a closer look at how Jesus really handled difficult volunteers – Peter, Thomas, and Judas.

Peter – the “all in, then nowhere to be found” guy

Jesus had many followers, but only three were in his inner group. One of those three, Simon Peter, was quite the character. You’ve probably seen this guy in your ministry. Once he trusted in Jesus, the rest of the world better look out. Not afraid to speak up. Not afraid to jump out of the boat and walk on water. Not afraid to pull a sword against soldiers to defend Jesus. The first to clearly confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The one to stand at Pentacost and preach a sermon to which thousands would respond. It’s easy to see that Peter was a valuable asset to the Kingdom.

But valuable and easy are two different things. Though Peter was faithful and brazen enough to jump out of the boat and go to Jesus on the sea, he wasn’t consistent enough to make it all the way to Jesus without doubting, sinking, and needing physical salvation. Not afraid to pull a sword against soldiers, but not consistent enough to admit to being a Jesus follower among commoners – even a servant girl. Bold enough to preach salvation to all of the people at Pentecost from all of their respective nations, but not consistent enough to eat the same foods with Jews that he would eat with Gentiles. Peter, at times, was all over the map.

So how did Jesus handle Peter? He pulled him in close. He entrusted his most important explanations of his most important teachings to him. He did grab his hand in the water. He didn’t just forgive Peter of his denials, He renewed His calling for Peter to feed Jesus’ sheep – to be the minister Jesus had prepared him to be. After this, Peter saw it a privilege to be beaten for Jesus’ sake.

How can we lead the all-in, all-out person like Jesus did? Pull him in closer. Give her more responsibility. Help him understand how crucial to the mission he is. Most importantly, let her fail and be ready to restore and re-engage.

Thomas – the “I’m in, but I’ve got some issues” guy

Poor Thomas. He gave up everything to follow Jesus, yet we still call him “Doubting Thomas.” That said, he did have some issues worth noting. In John 11, when Jesus heard about Lazarus’ illness, His disciples warned Him not to go back because the Jews would stone Him. But Jesus was set on returning to raise Lazarus from the dead. At this point, Thomas says something interesting: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Did Thomas mean, let us go with Jesus that we may be stoned with Jesus? That would have been a brave, loyal thing to say. Or did he say with reluctance, let us go that we may die just like Lazarus is dead? Though one seems more courageous than the other, neither speaks of the confidence that should be present in the presence of Jesus. Jesus didn’t say anything about dying – Thomas came up with that himself.

In John 14, Jesus says that He’s going to prepare a place for His disciples and that they know the way to where He’s going. Leave it to Thomas to pipe in, “We don’t know where you’re going, so how are we supposed to know the way?” And most famously, in John 20, Jesus appears to the disciples but Thomas isn’t there at the time. So what is Thomas’ reaction when the others – his closest friends – tell him the great news? “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (v.25 ESV)

How did Jesus handle the guy that always seemed to have a question – an issue? He appeared again to his disciples when Thomas was present. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (v.27,28 ESV)

So how did Jesus handle Thomas? He gave him more evidence than the others. Did Thomas deserve the right to actually touch Jesus’ hands and side? No, the others apparently believed without this level of verification. But we can see from later accounts that Thomas continued in his belief hereafter.

How do we handle genuine doubters and people that have legitimate issues with plans? Give them more information – not because they deserve it, but because they are valuable in the mission and you truly want them onboard. Go out of your way to meet with them one-on-one if this might help them resolve their doubts and go all-in on the mission moving forward.

Judas – the “I’m in, but not really” guy

Jesus only picked twelve guys to closely lead during His limited ministry here on earth. One of those twelve guys was named Judas Iscariot. He was the money-handler for the disciples – a trustee, so to speak. But physically following Jesus and managing the money are as far as we can go with praise of Judas. Judas was a thief even before his famous betrayal of Jesus. When Mary was “wasting” expensive oil on Jesus’ feet, Judas protested and it was noted that he was a thief and helped himself to what was in the money bag. Of course, Judas later betrayed Jesus to the Jewish High Priest for 30 pieces of silver.

Though Judas’ story is familiar, we still might learn from how Jesus dealt with him. Judas was a regular participant. Judas had responsibilities and importance. Of the hundreds who followed Jesus, Judas was counted among the twelve. But Jesus was not fooled and does not hesitate to be straightforward with Judas. When Judas protested Mary’s use of oil, Jesus told Judas to leave her alone (Jn. 12:7). During the Lord’s Supper, when the devil had already put it in Judas’ heart to betray Jesus, Jesus identified him as a betrayer and told him to quickly do what he was going to do (Jn. 13:27). Jesus didn’t beat around the bush with Judas. Judas followed Jesus but wasn’t a Jesus follower. He heard Jesus’ teaching, but didn’t trust in or act according to Jesus teachings. Judas was in, but not really.

Jesus spoke to Judas bluntly. He did not treat Judas as one of His children (Jn. 13:18). He didn’t refuse Judas’ presence, but He also didn’t assume Judas’ devotion. Judas was counted among the number of Jesus’ disciples without really being Jesus’ disciple – one who learns from a teacher.

The Judas guy can be dangerous – to the point of death in Jesus’ case. But the Judas guy has no real power. Even Judas’ treachery led directly to the most spectacular exhibition of God’s glory on earth. We must pray that Judas guy is really Saul guy – a very religious unbeliever who is changed by God and used for his whole life. But we must not ignore the spiritual deadness or fail to speak honestly about what we see.

Even as I write this blog, I am encouraged by Jesus’ treatment of difficult personalities. The reason I’m so encouraged is because the majority of my frustration comes from Peter and Thomas people – who both proved to be fruitful in ministry. This helps me realize that if I’m a little less Peter-like in my patience with them, God can grow us both!


Image By Tabitha Kaylee Hawk [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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