Popular writer, speaker, consultant, and founder of Mighty Oak Ministries (, Pat Sikora is author of Why Didn’t You Warn Me? How to Deal with Challenging Group Members.

MIM: I’ve really enjoyed reading your book, Why Didn’t You Warn Me? How to Deal with Challenging Group Members. Tell us how you came to write this book.

PAT: Much of the material in this book began as a chapter in my first book, Small Group Bible Studies: How to Lead Them (Standard Publishing, 1999). That chapter was the most popular in the book, so when the book went out of print, I began photocopying that chapter and a couple of others for my book table when I would speak at conferences. This one was always the best seller. Then back in 2006, I got a call from Mike Mack, who had always been a champion of my book, and especially the “Why Didn’t You Warn Me?” chapter. He had just become an editor at Standard and was working on a four-book series of Small Group Help! Guides. He wanted Why Didn’t You Warn Me? as the fourth book in the series and told me I had two months to get it to him!

MIM: Two months! Isn’t that pretty fast to write a book?

PAT: It sure is! Especially that year. The deadline coincided with my son’s college graduation, which was to be followed a couple of months later by his wedding. I actually had less than two months to complete the book because of my prior commitments. Fortunately, God knew about my crazy schedule. I had edited and expanded the book a year or so earlier. I had toyed with the idea of self-publishing it, but just couldn’t bring myself to take on all the business details that would entail. So it was sitting there, mocking me, for at least a year before Mike called. But it was almost ready to go. I just needed to put it in the series format. It was exciting to see how God had it all planned out!

MIM: How did you become an expert in dealing with challenging people?

Pat: I’m not sure we ever become experts in this, but I’ve been involved with small groups for over 30 years. In that time, I’ve seen it all and have either dealt well with most challenges or learned from my mistakes.

My first small group experiences were as a baby Christian in a singles ministry that operated primarily though small groups. The lay leaders in that group were some of the best I’ve ever seen in terms of managing challenges and bringing even the most difficult people to maturity. I absorbed all I could in those years, and then took those skills into other ministries. I’ve led just about every kind of group except for a men’s group. I started and managed a mom’s ministry in our church for a few years. More recently, I’ve worked with a lot of women who were profoundly abused as children and now have a variety of more serious mental and emotional health issues. I have a heart for the wounded and they seem to gravitate to me. I believe they can grow, mature, and heal when given the proper environment—and so they do.

MIM: And what do you consider the proper environment?

PAT: A healthy environment for growth includes several factors.

First, they need to be welcomed into a group and treated like a “normal” person, regardless of the baggage they bring. I’m big on increasing the joy capacity of members. This is a concept I learned from Jim Wilder, a Christian psychologist who has written about it in The Life Model: Living From the Heart Jesus Gave You. Basically, what he says is that in order to heal from just about any emotional trauma, we need to be able to return to joy from negative emotions. We do this based on our joy capacity, which is supposed to be developed in a child’s first 18 months by good parents. All too often, it isn’t, so the church ends up needing to re-parent wounded people. We increase their joy capacity by simply communicating, “I’m glad to be with you” in an authentic way. Think about the way we usually treat people who are different. We sort of cringe and give off the message, “I’m sorry you’re here.” Simply by changing that subliminal message, letting our eyes and hearts delight in them, we’ll increase their joy and thus their ability to heal. I’ve seen people in my groups heal from this factor alone. When they were finally loved, appreciated, and valued, they began to change before our eyes.

Second, people need to be in a safe environment. As leaders, we can’t allow any member to act out. We need to make the group safe for everyone by dealing effectively with the challenging people.

Third, we need to structure the group for maximum growth. This includes paying attention to the type of study we do—working from the Bible rather than from a good book and working on application rather than theory.

Finally, but equally important, it includes leading from principle. In my book, I list seven principles that need to under gird any small group that I lead. When I keep those principles in mind, I can deal with a little discomfort from challenging people because I know why I’m doing this.

MIM: What is the biggest problem you see in small group ministries?

Pat: By far the biggest problem I see is leaders who are unwilling to get a little messy and welcome challenging people into their groups. They want their groups to run well, be fun, and meet their needs. And even if the leader is willing to take on a challenging person, often the group members aren’t. They want to be in a group of people like themselves, and that doesn’t include challenging! I understand this reaction. People are tired, overstressed, and busy. In the little free time they have, they want to be ministered to. But if we all take this approach, who will love the unlovely?

Leaders, perhaps unconsciously, want to look good. They want a group of people they know how to manage. They don’t want to live in the messies, as I call the real lives of challenging people. I don’t blame them. We all want to be successful. But perhaps we need to redefine what success is. Perhaps it’s loving someone to wholeness.

MIM: Why don’t we see more of this type of leadership?

Pat: Frankly, I don’t think it’s being modeled for us. It isn’t being taught or encouraged. Recovery ministries are often “over there” rather than right here in the middle of the church. The people who attend them are branded, labeled—and excluded.
If I’m an average, middle class person in the average, middle class church, I probably haven’t seen real people transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Most of us want instant success. It would be nice if these people could get it together by next Tuesday. Sorry, transformational ministry can take years. Many years and many different forms of ministry.

MIM: Can you give me an example?

Pat: I could give you many, but I’m thinking of a single mom I began praying with after church about 10 years ago. Maybe longer. Week after week, she’d wait in my line for prayer. Sometimes for an hour or more because I had several women who came to me every week. We’d sit down and she’d start dumping. Fifteen minutes later she’d take a breath and dump some more. It was clear that I was the only person in her world who would just listen to her and not judge. It was hard to know where to begin. Her lifestyle was out of alignment. Her thinking was out of alignment. Her emotions were all over the place. After a few years of this, I invited her to be part of a group I started for challenging women who didn’t fit in the church’s regular small group ministry. We did that for a long time. Then I began discipling her one on one. When she had grown to a point of stability, we stopped for awhile. And she kept growing. We reconnect periodically. I now consider her a spiritual peer. She prays for me. Effectively. Her faith is solid. She dresses differently. She looks different. Her kids have turned around and are following the Lord. Just because someone took the time to listen, hold her accountable, and love her.

MIM: That sounds exciting. What can people do to get started?

PAT: Begin by praying that God would give you a heart for the challenging and the ability to see His image in them. Ask Him to bring you the one person He wants you to love to wholeness. He won’t give you more than you can handle. My book gives simple, step-by-step tips for dealing with 19 of the most common challenges. My blog at is available with more information and I’m always happy to answer questions on the blog. I’m also available to consult with churches that want to become better at ministering to challenging people.

Pat’s book Why Didn’t You Warn Me? How to Deal with Challenging Group Members (Standard Publishing: 2007) is available from your local Christian bookstore and most online booksellers, or from Pat at

Talk Back

DreamBuilders invites our readers to talk back to Pat Sikora by making related comments or commenting on the following questions:

Have you ever had difficulty with a challenging group member? If so, how did you handle it?

Pat said that success is loving someone to wholeness. Do you agree or disagree. Why or why not?

Has anything Pat said changed your perspective of difficult group members?

To respond, leave your comments below.