Part 3 of the Series:

DEALING WITH DIFFICULT PEOPLE

How should Christians deal with Toxic People? What if the Toxic People are in the church? 5 Steps to Rise Above the Storm, including Setting Boundaries.

Welcome to part 3 of the Series, Dealing with Difficult People!

If you haven’t processed Parts 1 & 2, I encourage you to visit them first. They are foundational and paint a vital perspective as we move into Part 3.


PART 1 … is all about Aligning Our Beliefs with God’s Truth. 

Click here to start with this foundation that God loves His Creation. All of us.

Every single human is highly valued by him.

Part 1 explains that God still expects us to be gentle and to respond with love, even with our Difficult People. 

If you are a Christ follower, it’s not an option to not love. In dire circumstances, while we may be called to separate from a manipulative or abusive relationship, the foundation that God loves never wavers.

PART 2 … is about Understanding Fight or Flight. 

Click here to for a better understanding of this instinct that comes intensely into play when dealing with Difficult People. We cannot fully process difficult interaction without this understanding.

So, being aware of Fight or Flight is the first step in being able to grab onto our own “sound mind” in the midst of heightened emotions.

PART 3 … moves into Practical Behaviors and Conscious Choices.

I understand God loves this Difficult Person in my life (Part 1). I know I am Grounded & Surrounded (Part 2). So what now? 

What do I think? What do I do? How do I respond? 

Disclaimer: Please note that the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationships. 

DEALING WITH TOXIC PEOPLE & TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS

The term “toxic” gets tossed around fairly casually these days. I am obviously not a psychologist or a psychiatrist. However, I’ve worked in the church for a really long time. And I’ve seen my fair share of unhealthy people and unhealthy relationships.

I hesitate labeling anyone a Toxic Person.

While a person can have clearly toxic behavior, whether a person is inherently toxic is not my call to make. And Toxic Relationships sometimes happen when one person’s baggage just collides with another’s.

However, whether the Person is Toxic, the Behavior is Toxic, or the Relationship is Toxic, I think we can agree that any kind of Toxic is not good.

Toxic is defined as Unhealthy. Dangerous. Poisonous.


That’s a pretty wide definition of Toxicity. An unhealthy relationship I can tolerate. A dangerous one? Get me out now! 

For the purpose of this post, let’s just say a Toxic Relationship tears you down more than it builds you up.

As I discuss Toxic People in this post, I’m referring to their behavior, not their God-Created, Beautiful Centers.

(As mentioned above, the content in this piece refers only to non-abusive relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, seek professional help from your doctor, a nurse, a social worker, the police, or call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233.)

TOXIC PEOPLE IN THE CHURCH

Yes! There are Toxic People in the church! In fact, it’s often a pretty safe place for them to hang out. 

The church is a place where love and grace dwell. 

And, unfortunately, boundaries and assertiveness are sometimes looked down upon by all the loving and grace-filled people. 

Many churches do not have systems in place to deal with conflict or toxic behavior. The result occasionally leaves Toxic People with more influence than accountability.

But you can change the current.

And, at the very least, you can set your own boundaries and develop healthy habits to float above instead of being pulled under!

A LESSON FROM MADAM SECRETARY

I have noticed that my favorite TV shows over the years have female leads that I want to emulate. Tough Decision Makers. Confident. Calm in the Storm. Wise Leaders. Difference Makers.

I’m currently loving the TV Drama, Madam Secretary with Tea Leoni as the lead.

If you haven’t seen it, Elizabeth McCord is the US Secretary of State. She deals with heads of state, terrorist attacks, humanitarian crises, acts of war, hostage situations, natural catastrophes, and more. 

When facing crazy stressful situations, manipulation, bribes, and literally insane people, Madam Secretary seems to float above it all.

Non-Reactive. Absorbing. Processing. Even when surrounded by unreasonable, demanding people.

She makes clear decisions. And stands by the choices she makes. Willing and able to defend her ideals.

I want to be more like that.

How does she not get sucked in the drama? Enraged by the manipulation? Reactive to others’ seething emotions? Crushed by the yellers? Swayed by the criers?

Realizing Madam Secretary is a piece of fiction, I want to share with you a few things that have helped me. 

5 WAYS TO RISE ABOVE A TOXIC STORM

Before we dive in, I don’t believe that most Difficult People in your church are classifiable as toxic. They are just failed humans, like you and me. They carry wounds that have left them broken. 

Because I am also wounded, broken, and human, I’m sure others have used these tools at times when dealing with me!

I fail. I cry. I lose my cool sometimes too.

I believe most of us try our best. But sometimes even our best isn’t very healthy. 

So, as I walk through these 5 steps, I am not suggesting solutions for befriending the abusive, manipulative narcissist. Or the bigoted misogynist who has no concern for following a Jesus-path. (Please find a professional counselor who deals with mental illness for those types of relationships.)

These 5 tools are simply what I’ve found most helpful in relating to Difficult People, like you and me, who have more than their share of unhealthy behaviors.

1) PRACTICE MINDFULNESS

Mentally separate yourself from toxic situations by practicing mindfulness

Although mindfulness has become a trendy buzzword, it is not new or exclusive to eastern religion. It’s simply tuning into your moment. Your body. Your space.

You can try it right now:

Take slow deep breaths.

Do a little body scan.

Are your muscles tight or relaxed?

Do you feel stress?

Is your breathing fast or slow? 

Notice your environment.

The hum of an air conditioner.

The dimness of the light.

The temperature around you.

If you did the few things mentioned above, you are probably already calmer. In your moment. More than you were a minute ago when you were quickly skimming the words to get to the point of this article!

In the middle of a confrontation or a stressful conversation, tune into your body and your environment.

The more you practice mindfulness, the more it becomes second-nature. You’ll return to it often without thinking about it.

This is a huge help when sharing space with a Toxic Person. If you stay in your own mental arena, the poison doesn’t spread.

It’s about detaching.

You can be around an unhealthy person without letting the ick get on you. But it does take some practice. 

Sometimes, physical separation is necessary

If the mental space isn’t enough, simply excuse yourself from the conversation. Look for the closest exit.

Your exit doesn’t have to be dramatic or even an obvious reaction to the person’s behavior. It can be a quick glance at your watch, “I forgot I have an appointment.” Or … “when did it get so late? I need to get going.”

2) DETERMINE YOUR THOUGHTS: MEDITATE ON WHAT IS HELPFUL AND TRUE

The Bible clearly talks about the power of choosing your thoughts. What you meditate on becomes part of you. It affects your beliefs, your behaviors, and your emotions.

While I strive to be a great listener, in the midst of toxic conversation, sometimes I redirect my thoughts away from the conversation for a little re-set.

Here are some of my go-to thoughts when I feel like I’m in the lion’s den. (A few from scripture, and a few contemporary wise words. All of these are memorized and pop to my mind quite often.)

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:5-7)

Between what happens TO us and how we react to what happens is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose. (Stephen R. Covey)

You will keep in perfect peace, him whose mind is stayed on You. Because he trusts in You. (Isaiah 26:3)

Once you detach from conflict through non-engagement, you rise to a state of empowering calm awareness, empathy, and safety. (Bryant McGill)

3) CHOOSE YOUR RESPONSE: DON’T REACT

The ability to choose our response is quite empowering. We are not animals that only react by instinct. 

We are intelligent, thinking, choosing beings. 

And the choice NOT to respond, is also a response. 

So, in the midst of a toxic conversation, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I need to respond? (sometimes it is enough to just listen)
  • Do I need to leave?
  • Do I play a part here? Is there anything I need to apologize for? Or change?
  • Do I need to seek a third party? Or professional advice?

4) SET BOUNDARIES

Determine your boundaries

Make sure you are clear on what’s okay and what’s not okay with you.

This means you need to take a little quiet time to ponder and jot down some thoughts. Journal a bit. What behaviors are you unwilling to be around? What behaviors, words or actions create angst for you?

Communicate your boundaries

It is not up to anyone else to read your mind.

Often, what we think is obvious is actually oblivious to the other person. So, it is your responsibility to communicate your boundaries.

Communicating boundaries sounds something like this: “I’m not okay when you _____________. If you decide to keep ______________, I can’t be around you. Please understand that next time you __________, I’m going to leave the conversation.”

Enforce your boundaries

Most people will respect your boundaries once you have shared them. They may need reminders, and they may not like them, but most people will respect them.

If not, you need to follow through and enforce them. If you have communicated your needs to your Difficult Person and they repeatedly keep crossing the line, please follow through.

5) SEEK MEDIATION OR PROFESSIONAL HELP

If you have done all you know to do and difficulties still remain, talk to a ministry leader, pastor, or counselor about getting some help. And if they don’t help you, go to the next person in line. Keep seeking help until you find it!

It is possible that your Difficult Person is simply unwilling to change, or even unable to change their behavior because of Mental Illness. 

In the case of unwillingness, if the behavior is unscriptural or damaging to the church body, your ministry leaders should step in.

In the case of inability because of mental illness, additional steps may be needed to disallow the person from causing more damage.

KEEP DREAMING, TAKE RISKS, and TRUST OTHERS

Whatever your current story, do not let Difficult People or Toxic Relationships suck your life and your passion away.

Do everything you can to Rise Above. 

In the majority of all difficult situations, this is more than possible. I have seen Difficult Relationships transform into Close Friendships with a process of honest communication and restoration of trust.

Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, SO FAR AS IT DEPENDS ON YOU, live peaceably with all.”

Clearly you don’t have all the say. Relationships are a 2-way street.

If you have tried your best and nothing seems to work, define your space without the Difficult Person in it. Find your circle of encouragers if you don’t have one already. It is worth the hunt for new friends!

I want to conclude with this quote … [the bracketed words are mine, not his]

“If you are fully secure in who you are [and WHOSE you are]… you will not be affected by others negativity … act like someone who is respected and loved by others, and in control of the important aspects of their life. This means: do not let the others’ negativity curtail your natural inclination to pursue your dreams, take healthy risks, and trust others.”

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D.

FOR MORE ON DEALING WITH PEOPLE:

Part 1: KEEPING YOUR COOL WITH ANGRY PEOPLE
Part 2: TURNING FIGHT OR FLIGHT INTO GROUNDED & SURROUNDED

AND, ESPECIALLY FOR WOMEN:

GOD SEES YOU: FINDING PEACE & FULFILLMENT BY DOING LESS, NOT MORE