Toughest People to Love (Chuck DeGroat) -- Review

TOUGHEST PEOPLE TO LOVE: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life -- Including Yourself.  By Chuck DeGroat.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.  177 pages.

We have all encountered people whom we find difficult to love.  For a variety of reasons they cause us headaches and heartaches.  They can be family members, neighbors, people we work with, and as the title of this book suggests – we might even find it difficult to love ourselves.  All of this is especially true for those who have been called to pastoral ministry and leadership.  While we might called to serve all the people in the congregation, there will invariably be people we find it difficult to work with.  Yes, Jesus may call us to love our neighbors, but some neighbors are more difficult to love than others.

Chuck DeGroat, Associate Professor of Pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI and former teaching pastor at City Church of San Francisco, has written a book designed to help those in leadership understand and even love those whom God and church has called one to serve.  It focuses on the dark side of the persons leaders are called to love, serve, and lead.  This darkness is present not only in the “them,” but in the “us” as well.  The reminder that leaders might need to love themselves emerges out of DeGroat’s reflections on Henri Nouwen’s idea of the wounded healer.  One’s own brokenness becomes the fountain for good leadership.   

DeGroat’s book is divided into three parts.  He begins in Part 1, with two chapters that focus our attention on understanding those whom one is called to lead.  In the first chapter, he helps the reader gain a vision for those who one must lead.  He reminds us that leadership is not easy, and that 80% of new clergy leave the ministry within five years.  Dealing with people causes great stress.  But even if one can get away from others from time to time, we cannot get away from ourselves.  The point he wants to make here is that we need to move from a reactive mode of leadership, where the other defines our responses, to a more relational one.  There will be, in every situation, people who are difficult to deal with. Rather than ignore them, he invites us to try to understand them, love them, and watch for transformation of them and us. Therefore, in chapter two he reminds us that human beings are complex.  We are the product of our environments, as well as our genes. Most of us care with us an invisible bag, filled with the stuff that weighs us down.  Understanding human realities makes it easier to move from reactive to relational ministry.

In Part Two, DeGroat focuses more specifically on "leading and loving difficult people." In three chapters, DeGroat introduces us to four personality disorders, such as narcissism and border-line personalities. He shares how persons with these disorders can prove problematic and distracting. The same is true of persons with addictions (chapter 4). He subtitles the chapter on addictions: "loving in the dark." He speaks of addiction as an identity problem -- it is the result of a faulty attachment -- filling a need with something destructive, feeding the false self.  From there he moves to what he calls “loving the fool.” This chapter title can be off-putting, but as DeGroat shows us -- we will encounter persons who "blithely acts in foolish of sinful ways with little or no understanding of where these actions come from in himself or what their consequences are for others" (p. 86). There are three kinds of fools, the simple fool, the self-consumed fool, and the sinister fool.  These folks range from the one who is ignorant of their own behaviors, but who cause stress, to those who are not only blind to their realities, but who lack any sense of empathy for others.  They are, therefore, given to malevolent actions.  Dealing with such persons requires “cruciform love.”  This is self-giving love, but not a form of love that allows for evil to trample over the person.  It requires great wisdom and maturity – all of which takes time.

The third part of the book, builds on what went before, but turns the attention to ourselves, which "is the best help we can give another." In this section DeGroat helps us understand how to grow in the midst of pain -- the dark spaces in our lives. As I read this I was reminded of the recently published book by Barbara Brown Taylor Learning to Walk in the Dark: Because Sometimes God Shows Up at Night. There is value in recognizing the reality of darkness. He speaks of living with wholeness, including the need for rest and resiliency.  It should not surprise us that the final chapter of the book focuses on self-care, which he calls the art of shadow-boxing.  Drawing from Richard Rohr, he speaks of the need to get in the ring with God, and spar.   There are no quick and easy steps, just drawing closer in relationship with God. 

In order for those who are called to lead to respond appropriately -- in love -- to those who are difficult people to love, one must attend to one’s own self.  They (we) must recognize darkness present in our own lives.  We need to recognize our own need for rest and for self-care -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

DeGroat has provided us with very helpful book. It is good to have a resource that can identify and describe the kinds of people one will encounter in the course of ministry or leadership who will cause grief and trouble.  It’s not a matter of building a wall, so we can protect ourselves.  No, rather it is the need to understand personalities that can get in the way of true healing and grace.  That includes us.   

This is a book that requires much thought.  Understanding these realities might better enable those called to ministry to navigate their realities.  Knowing that such realities are not uncommon is itself a blessing.  Thus, this is a much recommended resource.  


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