by Eddie Pipkin

I have a new neighbor.  He and his girlfriend seem like the nicest couple.  We took them some cookies; we liked them instantly.  But this affable new guy has proven utterly inept at figuring out the culture of the cul-de-sac, the established routines that keep the neighborhood humming.  I submit, as evidence, his complete disregard for the trash and recycling schedule and procedures.  I’ve tried to help the fellow out—explained the process, showed him where things go, and sent him the link to the website that details it all.  He just keeps on putting out the wrong bins on the wrong days and mixing the trash with the recyclables, willy-nilly.  I can’t tell if he’s a rebel or just really slow on the uptake.  Either way, it got me thinking about how, in the ministry space, there always have been and always will be a small group of folks who just refuse to get with the program.

These are The Obstinate Ones.

You know them.  They come in three categories (although you may feel there are more categories, or that you could classify them into more coherent categories, and I would encourage you to do so in the comments section, but these are mine):

  • The people who are perpetually clueless.
  • The people who intentionally refuse, because they are making a point that they disagree with whatever the policy or program is.
  • The people who think the rules don’t apply to them. Their compliance and cooperation usually depends upon context and timing—sometimes they do things the way they are supposed to be done (if it’s convenient) and sometimes they don’t (if it’s not convenient).

Recycling turns out to be an interesting test case for the apparently obstinate.  Municipal programs across the nation struggle to get people to recycle correctly, and when people don’t know to sort their items into the proper bins, the whole system falls apart.  Inappropriate items in the chain (like, notoriously, pizza boxes) can spoil a whole load, as explained in “Recycling in the U.S. is Broken: How Do We Fix It?”

No society can long hang together productively without procedures and protocols.  Yet we promote communities of faith which are encouraged to welcome and nurture people of all levels of spiritual development and relational maturity, and that means we’ll have lots of Obstinate Ones (of various flavors) at any given moment in time.  If we booted all the scofflaws to the curb, we’d be left with itty-bitty flocks to manage.

This is a theme that is, of course, well represented in the scriptural record.  I shall now cite this passage from the prophet Zechariah, eleventh of the Twelve Minor Prophets, but no stranger to The Obstinate Ones, as none of the prophets were, as the Lord said:

“But they [the obstinate ones of that generation] refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.”

People never change.  No matter how many times you print the time and date of the big fall spiritual retreat, people are going to ask you again at the last minute when it is or show up late.  No matter how many times you spell out the vision for hospitality that includes everyone wearing his or her customized hand-crafted name tag, there will be people who still walk right by that strategically placed name tag pick-up board on Sunday morning.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  I’m not telling you anything you haven’t experienced a hundred times over.

We can continue to refine our communication procedures (which I strongly recommend); we continue to pray for divine intervention (which is always a biblically endorsed strategy); we can continue to scan the Internet and every other source for ways to do things better so as to increase congregational engagement (which can’t help but help) . . . but let’s face it: there is always going to be a subset of people refuse to get with the program.  As Jesus said about the poor, “They will always be with us.”

Therefore, our choice is how to react and respond.

Given this inevitable outcome—that there will always be one or more Obstinate Outliers—it is malpractice to not have thought about a healthy reaction and response beforehand.

I didn’t recount the full and complete quote from Zechariah earlier, sort of withholding the punchline for now: “So, the Lord Almighty was very angry.”  In fact, the obstinate people were thereupon scattered among the nations like strangers, and their land was made exceedingly desolate.  Ouch!  I suppose, if you are so inclined, you can cite that and other biblical passages of God’s righteous wrath as justification to give people ‘what for’ when they let the organization down, maybe even impose some draconian penalties.  Local churches have been known to do this, a little discipline being formative for much-needed maturity.  There are sometimes financial penalties for being late; sometimes an inviolable sign-up cutoff; sometimes a public reprimand; sometimes a loss of privileges; there are lots of ways to impose penalties and express displeasure.  The question is whether this is the greatest path to the greater good.

The prophets did noble work for their time and historical context, work that involved a lot of scolding and was often the prelude to divine retribution.  But Jesus showed a new way, emphasizing forgiveness, compassion, empathy, and story telling as a gentle (or sometimes not-so-gentle) prod to build new capabilities and sensitivities in people, so that they might be encouraged and inspired to be better.

There is, of course, an ineffective middle way that we sometimes choose: ignoring the issue altogether, frequently accompanied by a seething undercurrent of resentment.  Sometimes such unexpressed, simmering resentment explodes, leading to drama and conflict.  Sometimes we keep it bottled up indefinitely, leading to unhealthy stress and burnout.  None of these are good outcomes.  They don’t help us; they don’t help the people who are inconvenienced by the obstinate ones; and they don’t even help The Obstinate Ones progress to a better plane of citizenhood.

A better way is patience and loving accommodation.

Remembering that relationships are the most important thing of all in our work and that the preservation and restoration of relationships is the core of the gospel message, we should constantly prepare our hearts and minds for our frustrating interactions with the inevitably obstinate.  We should learn the psychological trick of embracing these moments of potential friction as opportunities to strengthen our composure and practice kindness, and we should learn the spiritual truth of embracing these moments to practice the deep work of empathy and love ‘in spite of.’

Certainly we should first ask ourselves if someone is truly being obstinate, or if this is just our selfish perception.  Putting ourselves in their shoes, it may be possible to get a glimpse of their perspective that they’re not the problem, we’re the problem–maybe, for instance, we are a Poor Communicator.  Every glitch is an opportunity to analyze if we could be commuinicating better.

If someone is truly being obstinate on a regular basis, we should carve out one-on-one time with them to talk about it a non-confrontational manner, focusing on the opportunity to deepen and grow the relationship.  Perhaps there are underlying issues that need to be addressed.  Perhaps there is a simple explanation that has been overlooked (because it has remained unaddressed).  Perhaps there is a gap in technological knowledge or a cultural difference that has been underappreciated.  What appears to be obstinance is a confusion or a personal struggle–maybe even a sign of depression or anxiety or troubling personal problems.  Diffusing the tension by talking about it can lead to unlocking any of these mysteries and to open pathways to unexpected avenues of growth.

For the truly, obnoxiously obstinate–those rare and consistently irritating cases–it is good to get to the bottom of exactly what the wellspring of the discontent is.  It may be an irreconcilable difference.  It is still possible to be in a relationship with people with whom we have an irreconcilable difference, but it’s important to know the exact terms of that dissonance.  It’s important to have talked things out and laid all the cards on the table . . . in love.  Always in love.

If everything was easy, no one was ever obstinate, how would we ever test the bounds of love?  How would we know what irritations and difficulties love was capable of smoothing over and powering us through?

What has been your own history of dealing with The Obstinate Ones?  Has your attitude about this common irritant changed over the years?  Do you find that what used to cause you ulcers and sleepless nights is now a thing to be laughed off?  Have you developed healthy techniques for dealing with those who refuse to get things right?  How has a deeper appreciation for empathy and love shown the way?  Share your stories in the comments!  And have a great weekend doing what you do.