Many years ago when I was a young associate pastor, I had a wedding on a warm Saturday in July. I was very clear to the wedding party on the night of the rehearsal that they needed to be at the church, dressed and ready to go in plenty of time. About fifteen minutes before the wedding, one of the bridesmaids told me that the sister of the bride, the matron of honor, had not yet arrived. This was in the days before cell phones and since there was no answer at her home we assumed she was on the way, but how far away was she?
I had a prearranged sign with the organist to keep on playing if the wedding was to get started late. At a strategic place where only she could see me, I motioned for her to keep playing. We waited ten minutes and then fifteen minutes and then a half hour. The dilemma we had was that there was a wedding after the current one; and while we always scheduled plenty of time between weddings to take delays into account, we only scheduled so much time. I finally approached the bride after a half hour and said that we would wait another fifteen minutes, and if her sister had not arrived by then, we were going to have to begin without her. After all, someone else had scheduled a wedding and we needed to consider them too. The bride's sister did arrive about five minutes later and the wedding ceremony was held better late than never.
About a week later I received a very nasty letter from the bride's sister. First she told me why she was late. I won't go into the details, but let's just say that if she laid that one on a teacher in school, it would have been marked, "unexcused." And then she proceeded to berate me telling me what a terrible pastor I was and that if I were truly "a man of God" (her words) I would apologize to her sister.
As I read the letter I could feel the warmth going up the back of my neck as I became angry. The more I read, the more angry I became. I put a piece of stationary in the typewriter (yes, I still used a typewriter) and I fired off a well articulated and insulting piece of diatribe in response. I responded to her point by point and ended the letter by suggesting that if she were a caring sister she should apologize to her sister for just about ruining her once-in-a-lifetime moment.
As Providence would have it, I decided to show my response to the senior pastor before I mailed it. He read the letter and said to me, "Put it in your desk drawer for a week. Then take it out and read it again. If you still want to send it, then do so." I followed his advice and placed it in the bottom right-hand drawer of my desk. A week later, I took the letter in hand and read it again. I threw it in the trash.
The senior pastor taught me a valuable lesson that week. When the pastor displays anger whether in the form of a letter or an email or in public, the results are seldom positive, even when the pastor's anger is justified. This does not mean that a pastor has to sit there and take a parishioner's anger and insults, but a calm demeanor and a direct response will go farther than a shouting match; and if there are other people witnessing such an event, it is the pastor who will be held in higher esteem than the person doing the shouting. It is possible for a pastor to communicate the truth that in a given situation she or he is angry without showing anger.
Is there ever a time for a pastor to display his or her anger publicly. I would never say never on this, but I know that almost always it is better to be calm and respond with conviction and clarity than to join the cacophony of angry voices posturing to be the one to yell the loudest.
In the midst of a life-threatening storm we look to the one who displays the calm and steady hand, not the one who runs around screaming that everyone is going to die.