You know Bertha. She’s your third-grade Sunday school teacher, a
veteran of 10 years. She’s reliable. But she’s standing in the way
of effective ministry.
You and your other teachers are ready to move ahead with a new
curriculum, but Bertha clings to her old, less effective ways. The
kids in Bertha’s classes are bored and really don’t learn much. But
Bertha shows up every Sunday.
So rather than risk upsetting Bertha, you put your new plans on
hold and pray that Bertha will someday soften — or retire.
It’s a typical scene in churches and Christian organizations.
It’s dysfunctional. And it obstructs your ministry.
Here at Group Publishing, the provider of ministry resources, we
face similar temptations. Perhaps because we’re ministry people, we
don’t relish the thought of confronting ‘Bertha behavior.’ We don’t
want to see people like Bertha hurt or embarrassed. But we’ve found
that if we ignore Bertha behavior, our ministry — and the rest of
our team — suffers.
So for the past 20 years or so, we’ve taught our staff about a
key ingredient of our organizational culture — direct
communication. When an issue or concern arises, we encourage all
staff to speak directly to the person involved. No complaining to
others. No sending of obscure signals. No ignoring the problem with
wistful hopes it’ll disappear on its own.
When new people join our staff, they’re trained in direct
communication during our extensive orientation program. And they’re
reminded of it often. If people start to say, ‘I’m really having a
problem with Joe,’ they’re generally promptly asked, ‘Have you
talked directly with Joe about this?’ This is now a natural part of
our culture — a culture that discourages behind-the-back talk and
unnecessary obstructions to ministry. We strive to deal with issues
in a direct, tactful, compassionate way that ultimately benefits
the entire organization and our mission.
What’s your mission? Why does your church exist? What are your
priorities? How do those priorities affect your approach with
Bertha? What’s more important — to refrain from confronting Bertha
or to improve your ministry to children?
All too often Christian leaders are more willing to diminish
their ministry than to directly handle an uncomfortable problem
with an individual. Obviously, no one wants to see Bertha hurt.
That’s not the goal. But leaders’ compassion for an individual
sometimes clouds their view of the larger ministry. Sacrifice of an
individual’s feelings is often seen as an unacceptable price for
more effective ministry.
Is it ever okay to sacrifice one for the benefit of many? We
believe God answered this when he sacrificed his Son’s life so that
we all might live.
As Christian leaders we’re called to lead with love, with
courage, and with a clear focus on the ultimate mission.
If Bertha is obstructing ministry, we need to help her change
her behavior or move her to a better role. How can we handle this
delicate situation with tact, compassion, and success? Here are
tips we’ve found helpful.
- Schedule a time to meet with Bertha one-to-one. Don’t gang up
on her. Arrange a time and place that offer respect and
- Gather your thoughts and give yourself a break. When
contemplating a conversation such as this, leaders often conjure up
all sorts of monstrous scenarios. The truth is, the conversation
rarely gets as dire as imagined. In fact, people like Bertha often
already sense there’s a problem. They’ve read the signals, but
they’re unsure how to extricate themselves. Though the discussion
may be uncomfortable, they’re often relieved someone is helping to
- Begin by thanking Bertha for her efforts. Then move into your
areas of concern. Focus on behavior, not on personality. Say, ‘Your
approach doesn’t seem to be working well,’ rather than, ‘You’re not
a good teacher.’
- If changing Bertha’s behavior is not likely, discuss new
options to better utilize Bertha’s gifts within your ministry.
Assure her that you want her to thrive in a spot where she can be
- Keep your priorities straight. Don’t allow the conversation to
weasel you into an outcome that diminishes your ministry. Remain
firm in representing the best interests of your children’s
- Outline clearly the next steps, your expectations, and your
- Pray with Bertha.
- If you’ve not done it before, now may be a fine time to
institute finite terms of service with volunteers. Ask all
volunteers to serve for six months, a year, or whatever is
appropriate. Asking people to serve with no end in sight simply
invites problems with those who under-perform. But definite terms
offer opportunities to affirm those who perform well, and offer
natural times to move those who don’t. When a term is up, ask good
performers to renew. But use the term expiration to propose that
poor performers accept different responsibilities for which they’re
Who is your Bertha? How could your ministry move forward after
some direct communication with her? We encourage you to do what’s
right for your entire ministry. And then watch what God will do
through you — and through Bertha!
Thom Schultz is founder and president of Group Publishing,
Inc. Joani Schultz is chief creative officer. Please keep in mind
that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to