A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, July 13, 2009

Should a Pastor Display Anger Publicly?

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.


Andy said...

Good thoughts. I've had only one very heated board meeting in my ministry (thus far) and I got kicked around pretty bad during it. Come home furious, told my wife I was not doing that ever again.

Next morning I woke up and realized as much as I didn't' want to, I was still the pastor of even those that were pretty hatful. I drove over to one of the leaders house and said, I'm sorry we disagree, but I'm still your pastor and I love you. That led to the tension being done away with and church moving on.

Now, I wanted to have "my side" get them. But, that would have destroyed the church. And that wasn't my job as pastor. It all worked out for the best. But you were right. Sometimes a good night's sleep or a week's waiting the desk is the best thing.

Anonymous said...

I do not think that a pastor, or a Christian for that matter should lose their temper. I have had people close to me whose children were victimized because someone was angry with their father the pastor. One publicly ignored the event and moved. The other invited the perpetrator outside to the parking lot. He got in trouble. I think there has to be some way to express anger when something truly evil happens. I think you are right when it comes to frustrations over late parishoners, bad furniture at the parsonage, whining church members etc. etc.

Country Parson said...

I'm sympathetic. Anger can rise to the surface in any person for such a wide variety of reasons. I think that losing one's temper, in response to Anon, is more often understood as the "flying off the handle" sort of uncontrolled outburst that can be truly frightening and sometimes predictive of an abusive personality. But even Jesus became angry, and I don't mean the bit about overturning tables. For instance, he was indignant when his disciples turned away children. Injustices can, and maybe should raise one's indignation. The problems come when we imagine injustices or jump to conclusions. I am something of an expert on that myself, and have sometimes experienced God thumping me behind the ear, strongly suggesting that I confess, and leading me toward a sometimes quite reluctant act of reconciliation.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Good thoughts, Allan. I much agree!

And letting something sit for awhile, is wisdom indeed!

Rev. Lara Zinda said...

There is a philosophy that suggests that the concept of anger is really nothing more than the "sin of offense" - or rather, the lack of our ability to be (or do) "perfect love". More than one time I have written those letters as you did - and never once have I sent them. It's a good exercise to help us sort out exactly what our own failures are as humans (let alone clergy).

The time that passes with the "letter in the drawer" also helps us learn to forgive. Time usually brings perspective and with perspective, a more faithfully grounded pastoral response appropriate to showing Christ's love rather than human wrath.

Mark Edwards said...

send the letter....better that than ulsers, heart attacks later in ministry...

:) seriously...a valid response may be to send the letter. Otherwise the sister in law will never know what a selfish cow she is...maybe she needs to be told.

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