In the work of the local church, a pastor will frequently come across people that are challenging to manage, much less lead. These are folks that have established unhealthy habits in relationships or have learned responses to conflict that have frequently proved destructive.

Who are these people and what can we do with them? Believe it or not, they come in several, easy-to-identify varieties and you can learn to manage them and even lead them to healthier behaviors.

The Thumb-Sucker

Okay, that’s probably not the kindest label to give to anyone, but you know who these folks are in your church. These are the people who become easily mired in self-pity. While everyone has needs that need meeting, these people usually manage to prove that their suffering is greater than others. They demand everyone’s attention. Their prayer needs outdo their praise reports by a 10-1 margin.

How to Manage Thumb-Suckers in a Healthy Manner

1. Be careful with this label. Since one of your church’s primary assignments is to care for those in need, don’t let your own weariness or personal frustration cause you to tag people with this label prematurely or unfairly. The thumb-sucker will prove himself again and again so you don’t need to be the first to identify him. In fact, it’s likely best if you don’t attach this label to anyone until you see others expressing weariness with this individual. Ultimately, you’ll deal with this person because of his impact on the church body and not just because he’s wearing you out.

2. Speak about attitude choices. In larger settings, help your people see that much of our emotional health is tied to how we see each day. Such insight into the power of attitude can help us all, but we want to be sure that the thumb-sucker has access to such wisdom.

If we approach life with an expectation of disappointment and pain, we will likely be downcast, but if we celebrate God’s goodness each morning, we’ll probably have a better day.

3. Expose them to people with greater problems. Ask your thumb-suckers to help you by visiting shut-ins or taking food to someone in need. Engage them in activities that connect them to the needs of others. Often, this is the kind of assignment that can provide meaningful self-worth and may give this individual something to focus on other than their own problems.

4. Meet needs, ignore pouting. Make your response to the needs of the thumb-sucker as reasonable as possible. Don’t withold pastoral care, but keep it at the same level that you can offer to everyone else. Don’t let pouting drive you to greater effort. If you do, you are reinforcing the behavior. At the same time, don’t neglect the real needs of these individuals. That will just help them gain the support of others in their belief that they’re needs aren’t being cared for.

5. Wait for teachable moments. Celebrate the faith of those who encourage others in the midst of their suffering. Applaud those moments when your thumb-sucker reaches out to someone else’s need on his own. You won’t correct this behavior by tackling it head on. Instead, you’ll make strides in a better direction by affirming the kind of behavior you want to see.

Most thumb-sucker behavior is an expression of low self-worth so believing in them and rejoicing over their positive moments has the best chance of teaching new responses to life.

6. Be patient. Ultimately, you’re a pastor. Caring for needs is a part of the job description and growing weary of the vast amount of need is to be expected at times. Don’t try to care for the needs of your entire church on your own, but gain the help of the emotionally healthy people in your church. And when you see someone who seems to demand more than their share of the attention, love them enough to help them find a new life pattern. But don’t expect instant results. Thumb-sucker don’t become healthy contributors overnight, but they can learn new approaches to life if they are embraced by a group of wise and loving people, like your congregation.


If you’re going to have healthy leaders, you have to teach healthy leadership, and once you have done so, you can, then, expect that healthy behavior. I have found that teaching on these things once a year to my leaders helps establish a clear understanding of the necessary expectations and gives me a reference point for requiring accountability when it’s needed.

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