Shepherding the Dysfunctional, Part 1

by Joel Tetreau

Author’s Note: This article is not meant to be viewed as an exhaustive treatment of the topic at hand but merely an introduction to a theme I believe needs further examination. It is my sincere pastoral desire that this article will simply be used to spur further thought and discussion. “Ecclesia reformata et simper reformata!” (“The Church Reformed and Always Reforming!”)


At the church where I’m senior pastor, we analyzed the biblical theme of “The Good Shepherd” in our Sunday morning sermons. The series is titled “The Good Shepherd and the Shepherding of His Sheep.” We noted a variety of passages in our series. John 10 has been especially helpful. We also looked at passages in John 15, Matthew 18, and Psalm 23 as well as a tetreau_worried.jpgvariety of other texts. Our series focused on a few important aspects of shepherding. We looked at the soul care given by our Chief Shepherd. We also noted the role of under-shepherds. We saw how sheep can be rescued by shepherds, primarily by staying on the shepherd’s path to begin with. We are currently finishing our study by considering the nature of shepherding. In other words, if you find yourself functioning as a shepherd (such as fathers to families, parents to children, pastors to believers, etc.), what should your shepherding look like if you are following Christ?

Not long into the series, I found myself becoming more aware of a type of sheep within the body of Christ who seem to be self-destructing at an alarming rate of speed. While there may be a few hearty souls within the call of ministry who have attempted to help, my growing fear is that most of these individuals are either ignored, marginalized, or simply made fun of. There is, of course, a tremendous amount of energy drain that takes place when ministry is given in an attempt to help those the world might call “dysfunctional.” One of the so-called “dysfunctions” I will mention later is simply refusing to work. Spouses, parents, children, and others must work extra hard to make up for the one who is guilty of idleness. In speaking to those dealing with one like this, Paul warns, “Do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thess. 3:13). Why would Paul give such a statement? Because he knows by ministry experience that dealing with believers (and unbelievers) who suffer from what the world would call “dysfunctionalism” can and will be exhausting! Yet clearly in the passage is the instruction not to treat or view him as an enemy but to admonish him as a brother (v. 15).

Defining “Dysfunctionalism”

Before jumping into this topic, one might ask the question, “What do you mean by ‘dysfunctionalism’?” The online Cambridge Dictionary provides the simple definition “not behaving or working normally.” Encarta explains it as a condition “characterized by an inability to function emotionally or as a social unit.” Wikipedia, in describing how modern culture would view a dysfunctional family, gives the following observation:

A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior and even abuse on the part of individual members of the family occur continually, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal. Dysfunctional families are most often a result of the alcoholism, substance abuse, or other addictions of parents, parents’ untreated mental illnesses/defects or personality disorders, or the parents emulating their own dysfunctional parents and dysfunctional family experiences… . Dysfunctional family members have common symptoms and behavior patterns as a result of their common experiences within the family structure. This tends to reinforce the dysfunctional behavior, either through enabling or perpetuation. The family unit can be affected by a variety of factors.

Preliminary Statements

Before we look further into this topic, I wish to set a few preliminary barriers.

Preliminary #1—We do not accept the “normal” understanding of the word “dysfunctional” as is commonly viewed by those who hold that dysfunctionalism is primarily the result of a “disease.” This approach allows individuals to shirk personal responsibility for wrong actions based on a supposed determinative predisposition.

Preliminary #2—The majority of what psychologists call “dysfunctionalism” is what the Bible would call “sin.”

Preliminary #3—Dysfunctionalism, while at its roots is sin, is often exacerbated by physical, mental, and/or emotional challenges that are in whole or in part outside the control of the struggling believer. When helping individuals with dysfunctionalism, it is very important to separate aspects of life that are within the dysfunctional person’s grasp from those that are outside his control. When we fail to make this distinction, we simply heap more false guilt on top of the one who is struggling. We don’t need to add the wrong kind of guilt on top of any right kind of conviction the Holy Spirit is bringing.

Preliminary #4—It is possible for a believer to suffer emotional and/or physiological stress or to struggle with dysfunctional temptations yet experience a growing sense of success and victory in regard to his walk with the Lord as well as a healthy fellowship within the body of Christ.

Preliminary #5—Separatist churches and other evangelical groups struggle with accepting believers who struggle with one form or another of dysfunctionalism. This fact is especially true of congregations that are predominantly performance-based in their view of church life and/or Christianity.

Examples Within the Church

For my own thinking, I view dysfunctionalism as an “ongoing emotional and/or active behavior that is sinful, harmful, disruptive and habitual. Often those who struggle seem to be unable to overcome the tendency in question.” The following is a hypothetical list of examples that illustrate what I mean.

Example #1—A woman is habitually ungrateful for anything that is given to her. She may hoard clothes and shoes. She may have become entrapped by a covetous spirit. She always wants bigger this, newer that, or nicer of the other thing.

Example #2—A man habitually explodes with fits of anger. He may have a pattern of being physically and emotionally abusive or out of control. Typically, such individuals are “yellers.”

Example #3—A teenage boy habitually masturbates. A teenage girl is habitually bulimic. On top of the habit itself is the seemingly unstoppable compulsion to “act out.”

Example #4—A senior abuses medicine and feels compelled to do so because of continual pain and/or fears.

Example #5—A young mother becomes hooked on alcohol partly as a result of trying to cope with the stresses of dealing with young children, the bills, and the many demands of a husband. This problem becomes especially worse when the husband is selfish, emotionally detached, or lazy. (A side note: As a counselor, you would need to resist the temptation to call the mafia to handle said husband.)

Example #6—A pastor’s wife lives as an emotionally closed spouse because of the continual physical and/or sexual abuse from her well-known and well-liked husband. So afraid of dealing with issues, she simply copes by allowing herself the continued physical care of herself or her children. In some bizarre cases, she actually becomes codependent toward the abusive spouse.

Example #7—A church leader is habitually 10 to 15 minutes late to everything. He is never on time and always has an excuse.

Example #8—A middle-aged man cannot or will not hold a steady job. Often this individual carried a comfortable job for many years. Because of changes in the job market, this individual will need to retrain himself for a different vocation. Instead of taking a less-paying job, he simply goes without work. This situation becomes worse if he is married and has dependent children living with him.

How to Help

Now that we’ve defined “dysfunctionalism,” made some important preliminary statements, and illustrated the types of problems this term entails, the question remains, “How should we shepherd the dysfunctional?”

Those who understand that God’s Word will help all actions and attitude challenges facing believers will recognize a common thread in all of the behaviors listed above. What we are primarily looking at is besetting sins, stubborn patterns of the flesh. Those who come from the nouthetic side of the counseling aisle will be tempted to throw out the environmental or familial influences of each situation. Those on the psychological side of the counseling isle will want to build a house on the environmental or familial influences. While ultimately the answer to life’s troubles are directly or indirectly found in understanding and following God’s Word, it is important to understand the setting in which each believer has developed the harmful patterns in question. The following list is not to say that the process of Matthew 18 should be displaced.

The following are biblical approaches to shepherding the dysfunctional:

  1. First, we must recognize that Scripture allows for the reality of believers who struggle with some of the challenges we’ve noted. Ministries do not help the dysfunctional when in word or in deed we pretend that such struggles are impossible within the hearts and homes of true believers. A clear indication that God places such troubled souls into our ministry path for help and healing is seen in texts like 1 Thessalonians 5:14. “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn those who are unruly, comfort the faint-hearted, uphold the weak be patient with all.” My growing concern with too many from the nouthetic side of the counseling aisle is that they would interpret the verse as, “warn the unruly … warn the faint-hearted … warn the weak … be patient only with those who do their counseling homework!” Part of the challenge of dealing with these types of behavior is that often the problem has been passed from one generation to the next. It is important to get a clear understanding of how a specific destructive pattern became a pattern.
  2. Second, we should love the people we try to help. That love cannot usually happen without our being genuinely concerned about people. It’s nice to know more about them than their struggles. This knowledge is what we mean by “developing a personal relationship.” The problem is that too many pastors and counselors simply don’t like people. It’s very difficult to do ministry “God’s way” if we don’t care for people. What’s odd is that I would even have to say that!
  3. Third, as we help these dear ones, we need to be watchful not only for them but also for ourselves (Gal 6:1; Acts 20:28-31; Heb 12:14-16).
  4. Fourth, we should lovingly correct through patient public and private teaching (2 Tim. 2:24-26; Titus 1:9).
  5. Fifth, we should plead with offenders to obey Christ by putting off the old man and putting on the new man (1 Cor. 1:10-11; Phil. 4:2-3).
  6. Sixth, we should warn them of further consequences (1 Thess. 5:14; Titus 3:10-11).
  7. Seventh, if they refuse to allow themselves to be changed by the Holy Spirit, they will need to be rebuked (Matt. 16:22-23; Gal. 2:11-14; 1 Tim. 5:20).
  8. Eighth, if the rebukes go unheeded, these people will need to be silenced (Titus 1:10-11) and, if necessary, placed outside of the congregation’s fellowship (2 Thess. 3:6; 14-15).
  9. Ninth, once they have been placed outside of the congregation, if they show fruit of serious repentance, they need to be pursued, forgiven, and restored to church life (2 Cor. 2:6-8).

A Final Point of Concern

I have several friends who minister by coming alongside pastors, missionaries, and other full-time and/or part-time vocational ministers. One ministry is connected with Institute of Biblical Leadership (IBL), headquartered in Lake Lure, North Carolina. From what I am seeing at IBL, there is not a diminishing of these types of challenges within separatist ministries. It seems as though these types of challenges are growing more common within various networks of Fundamentalism. While data suggests that similar challenges exists within the evangelical world as a whole, I am concerned about what’s happening within the separatist movement, specifically in this area of ministry to the dysfunctional. Perhaps a second article could examine elements within Fundamentalism that make ministry to those suffering from these self-inflicted wounds especially hard. In other words, are there elements specifically related to Fundamentalism as a movement that are directly or indirectly encouraging dysfunctionalism instead of challenging it?

joel_07.jpgDr. Joel Tetreau is senior pastor at Southeast Valley Baptist Church (Gilbert, AZ). He is on the adjunct faculty at International Baptist College and serves as co-director of SW Romania Missions Project.
570 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.