I received a disturbing email from a missionary serving overseas the other day that mentioned a relationship challenge he and his wife were facing. It’s an issue most of us have had to handle at one time or another. Namely, how to relate with high-maintenance people. It’s the subject of today’s show, where you will hear a few ideas for how you can deal with this challenge. I also explain why I found this missionary's email troublesome. It’s not what you might think.
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That troublesome email
And now for that troublesome email I got about high-maintenance people. I am one of many on the mailing list of the missionary who sent it, who, in connection with his missionary role, pastors a church overseas. The email came from him and his wife, with news they heard from their daughter while they were out of town.
For confidentiality reasons, I’ve changed the names of the people mentioned in the email. It begins with this:
Emily, one of our extra-grace church members, had died alone in her apartment. It wasn’t a big surprise. She had been in and out of the hospital more times than we can count. For most of us, her passing left us with a confusing mix of relief and sadness. She constantly challenged the limits of love and patience. She loved Jesus but sadly died without being reconciled with her own family. And Jared was her pastor for over 20 years – not always an easy job.
The first thing that jumps out at me is the descriptive term they use for the woman who died, “extra-grace church member.” From the context of the email, you can tell “extra-grace church members” is code for a high-maintenance person who wears people out, and who requires us to extend extra grace to maintain our sanity. Something like that, anyway. I’ll come back to this term in a minute.
I feel for this missionary/pastor and his wife. Many of us have been in high-maintenance relationships like this that tax our energy. The times I’ve been in situations like this, I want to hide or flee. But as a pastor, you don’t have that option. People like this come with the territory.
The problem with labels
But here’s why I find the email troubling: the description of the woman as “one of our extra-grace church members.” I first came across this concept at a church we were at years ago. Janet and I were on the congregational care
committee and would meet periodically to help with this important function of the church. At one particular meeting, we were given a list compiled by one of the pastoral staff of 6-8 people at our church who had various needs. Their names were listed together with what they needed. Things like hospital visits, meals for people getting out of the hospital, rides to church, etc.
Next to one of the names was a note, EGR. When I asked what EGR meant, I was told it meant “Extra Grace Required.” It referred to the person as being very needy, expecting a lot from the church staff, and who expressed displeasure when those needs were not met.
I cringed inside when I heard this. What if that list got out to the person, or anyone else for that matter, and EGR was explained to them? Who also is an EGR person in the church? Am I on the list, too, people might wonder. When we label people, it ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Please don’t do this. Please don’t label people like this. It can cause so much harm. Euphemisms and labels like this grow out of frustration, but they separate us from each other.
Source of the problem in relating to high-maintenance people
So what’s behind this kind of labeling and view of people? I’m sure it starts with pure motives. People like the missionary and the pastoral staff want to help, they want to minister to people. It’s why most of them get into ministry. They feel called by God to do what they do.
And I hope the same can be said for the rest of us. That while we may not be a missionary or a pastor, we want to care for people. We want to help each other. It’s wired into our DNA at some level because we are all created in the image and likeness of God. There’s a little bit of God’s character in all of us.
Given all this, let’s consider the source of the problem of relating to high-maintenance people. It’s easy to say the problem is with those people who are a pain in the neck with their demands and all that they require of us.In the reality, though, the problem is US, not them. People become high-maintenance to us largely because we let them. In some cases, we’ve trained others to be needy in their relationship with us. We do so mostly because we lack the skill to relate well with high-maintenance people. And it’s no wonder. For pastors and missionaries, how to relate well with difficult people isn’t normally taught in seminaries or bible colleges. The rest of us haven’t been taught either.
The good news is that we can learn the skill we need to deal with the needy. One skill that would be helpful to learn in situations like this is to apply the ORA model of relationships that I’ve talked about a number of times. Observe – Reflect – Act.
Let’s start with observe. What patterns of behavior do you see in the high-maintenance person, not isolated events, but patterns? What are the things that trigger those patterns? Is there one specific behavior that bothers me, or is it a constellation of behaviors? Is this person high-maintenance with just me, or is he or she like this with other people, too? How long has this person been so needy? Do you have any idea of when this person started being high-maintenance, or have they always been this way?
We also need to observe what is going on inside of me. It’s about self-awareness, one of the most important relational skills there is. Is there anything that high-maintenance people trigger within me? What buttons might people like this be pushing within me? Am I a people pleaser, and as hard as I try, there’s just no pleasing this high-maintenance person in my life? Am I trying to prove something to myself or someone else in keeping people happy? Is saying “no” to people hard for me, and if it is, why?
And is it possible, that my identity is so wrapped up in helping people that I kind of like it when they're needy? But only in the beginning, until they wear me out.
After making these observations, we need to reflect. For example, reflect upon what’s been done up to this point to deal with the needs of the high-maintenance person. What’s worked and what hasn’t? What other options do I have? To what extent have I been truthful with the high-maintenance person in my life?
Reflect upon my limits. Have I exceeded them? Do I need more margin in my life in order to have the emotional energy to relate well with high-maintenance people and others in my life?
Every time I say “yes” to what high-maintenance people ask of me means I’m saying “no” to something else. What is it costing me in other areas of my life to relate with needy people like this?
Reflect upon what might be causing this high-maintenance person to be the way they are. Take a guess. Every behavior has a payoff, so what could be the payoff to the person being a difficulty to others? What’s in it for them? Could their behavior be a manifestation of a mental illness?
What have I done in the past when I just didn’t know what to do? Are there other people who could help me in helping the high-maintenance person in my life?
Reflect upon what Jesus would do in the situation you’re in.
Reflect upon what would be the loving thing to do. Not the nice thing, but the loving thing. What would benefit the high-maintenance person the most, long-term?
And then reflect on this thought, do I already know what I should do, and I’m just reluctant to do it?
Finally, after we observe and reflect, it’s time to act in relating with the high-maintenance people in our life.
Ask God for wisdom. He’ll show you what to do. Reflect his character and image well in whatever action you take.
Doing nothing can be a wise option as long as it’s carefully thought out and considered in light of all the variables in play.
The answer to “what should I do?” may very well appear to you after you reflect upon what you observed. It often happens that way.
Listen well to high-maintenance people. Ask good questions. Look for meaning below the surface of their responses.
Whatever you decide to do, be truthful and express that truth with kindness and compassion. Be honest.
Tell the high-maintenance person what you can and can’t do for them.
Help them see the choices they have and the implications for each of them
Above all, point people to Jesus.
Here’s the main takeaway I hope you remember from today’s episode
Don’t let high-maintenance people get the best of you. Use the ORA principle of deepening relationships to relate with them. Observe, Reflect, then Act. It’s a skill. And as with any skill, it just takes practice.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about today’s episode. In closing, I hope your thinking was stimulated by today’s show, enough to put into practice what you’ve just heard about relating with high-maintenance people.
For when you do, it will help you experience the joy of relationships God wants for you. Because after all, You Were Made for This.
Well, that’s it for today. If there’s someone in your life you think might like to hear what you just heard, please forward this episode on to them. The link is JohnCertalic.com/177.
And don’t forget to spread a little relational sunshine around the people you meet this week. Spark some joy for them. And I’ll see you again next time. Goodbye for now.
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