Book Review: Well-Intentioned Dragons by Marshall Shelley

Green dragonDealing with problem people in the church is the experience of all pastors, leaders, and congregations. Since difficult people are all too common in the church today, Christians have wondered how to best approach and help them. Marshall Shelley’s “Well-Intentioned Dragons” seeks to be that help. Shelley uses a strong metaphor of a dragon to describe “well-meaning saints who drive pastors to distraction and sap the vitality from the church” (p. 9). And the book addresses how to best approach such dragons in a God-honoring fashion. It desires to equip the reader with principles so that they may minister and help dragons in their congregation

Author: Marshall Shelley is the Vice President of Christianity Today International and Editor of the Leadership Journal. He is a graduate of Denver Seminary.

Summary:  The chapter titles are as follows: (1) Complex Conflicts, (2) Identifying a Dragon, (3) Personal Attacks, (4) The Play for Power, (5) The Best Defense, (6) The Second-Best Defense, (7) When the Dragon May Be Right, (8) When It’s Time to Confront, (9) When There’s No Resolution.

The book begins with a dialogue between a pastor a church leader who try to work out their differences. The point is to show that handling difficult people in the church is possible but needs the correct approach and strategy (Chap. 1). He then discusses how you can easily spot (and categorize) specific problem people (Chap. 2) and how to deal with being personally attacked (Chap. 3). Shelley then describes the special tactics that these dragons use in order to obtain power in a church (Chap. 4). He proposes that the best defense is a healthy church (Chap. 5) and healthy eldership/leadership (Chap. 6) and goes into detail on how to cultivate both. However, he does mention times were people may be right about their criticisms, and gives practical advice on how to receive it (Chap.9). The final two chapters address good shepherding principles and ways the approach church discipline (Chap. 8) and how to continually coexist with such dragons (Chap. 9).

Weaknesses: It’s older book (1985) but it doesn’t really show its age in its language. But it may be harder to find copies in bookstores. In the chapters, much Shelley’s personal experience is being passed on, so you don’t see too many Scripture references (which may be a turn-off to some). Nevertheless, biblical concepts are addressed. Furthermore, the book contains chapters with lengthy dialogue that were a bit long for my taste (might be a stylistic choice). They have nuggets of truth within them that you can pull, but I found myself skimming through these sections a bit faster.

Strengths: Good practical application for ministry. He does well in speaking from experience and using others’ experience. He is well-organized and straight-forward. He is makes sure to emphasize the humility in approaching problem people in the church, always looking to yourself first.

Recommendation: I highly recommend it to everyone in any form of leadership in the church (pastoral, deacon, lay-leadership, etc.). Shelley’s target seems to be those in pastoral ministry, but you can translate the principles easily. So I would also recommend it to any lay-person who is dealing with difficult people in his or her own local church.

Personal Application: As a way of thinking through application, I thought it would be nice to list a few concepts from this book (and future books) that I would seek to apply in my life and ministry. These are not all the possible applications, but they are a few that stuck out to me:

  • Don’t elevate putting out fires above growing the ministry.
  • Focus on the joys of life rather than the bemoaning discouragements.
  • Better to be a gentle friend than someone who grabs control.
  • Don’t be all business with people, share common interests to be more accessible.
  • Don’t paint the church in a picture that is false for newcomers.
  • Pursue deep relationships even when they don’t come naturally.
  • Pray for those with whom you are angry.
  • Don’t look at problem people as lions, but see them as wounded sheep. It will change the way you treat them.
  • Be gentle but firm.
  • Be careful in not focusing on the vocal minority which tries to act like the majority. One mouth and critic isn’t the whole church.

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