This is an excerpt from my book 5 Ministry Killers that appeared in the spring, 2010, edition of Leadership Journal.
Pastor John was just finishing a long Sunday morning. With a weary “pastor’s grin” on his face, he chatted with those who lingered. He was tired, hungry, and ready to go home, when two women approached—one he knew was never happy. Her friend said, “Pastor, Ann here wants to tell you something that happened this past week.”
He thought,Wonderful, just what I need, another disgruntled member.But with a practiced caring tone he asked, “What happened?”
The veins in Ann’s neck swelled as she blurted, “I want you to know that I left three voice mails with the youth minister to talk to him about a problem I’m having with my son. And he never called me back. That so-called youth minister of yours is not doing his job. My son needed help, and he didn’t even care enough to call me back.”
John’s face flushed, and he slowly responded: “Ann, I’m sure Pastor Jimmy tried to call you back and wasn’t able to reach you. I will check with him and have him call you again tomorrow. I’m very sorry the two of you didn’t connect.”
She retorted, “Well, I’ve decided I’m going to another church where the pastors care about people.” She crossed her arms and stood with a what-do-you-think-about-that stare.
Stifling the urge to give her a karate chop, he cleared his throat and answered, “Okay, Ann, I understand your concern, and you must do what you feel is best for your family. But I will get to the bottom of this.”
She spun around and stormed off. Her friend grimaced and followed sheepishly.
For several days John mulled over this encounter and kept his pain to himself, even after discovering that the youth pastor had indeed attempted to contact Ann.
The worst was yet to come. Later that week he received a call from a woman with whom he’d often faced conflict. She was a bit of a drama queen, and her family was the church’s biggest giver. She requested a meeting to “discuss an issue.”
She and her husband arrived at John’s office, and after a few pleasantries she explained that Ann had called her about the recent conversation. Ann was “very upset” because John “hadn’t been responsive to her need.” John tried to explain what happened from his perspective, but her mind was made up. With dramatic flair, she swept her arms outward, and her voice quivered as she said, “Why didn’t you just reach out your arms and give her a big hug?”
John’s puke level rose to Orange. He didn’t know what to say except “I’m sorry she felt the way she did.” This ended the conversation.
As John sat in his office chair that night, his emotions roiled. After he breathed a short prayer he went home. His wife asked how his day went, and he replied with a less-than-forthright “Okay. Nothing much out of the ordinary.” He didn’t want to burden her—she too had often endured the ire of the drama queen. He wished he knew someone with whom he could process his pain.
For the next two weeks, he spent the bulk of his quiet time praying about this disappointment.
John’s story illustrates what recent research has discovered to be one of the two most common ways pastors handle these issues—by ourselves and in prayer.
We all unconsciously turn to our default responses when we face ministry tensions. Often those instincts are one-sided. Harboring pain privately can be a ministry killer.
Common responses of pastors
The Barna Group research probed what we pastors do in response to our frustrations and disappointments. They asked: “Think back to the last time you felt disappointed or frustrated with people in your congregation. What did you do—if anything—to address the challenges you faced?” The pastors could mention anything that came to mind.Here are the top ten responses:
- Prayed about the issue (37%)
- Confronted the issue immediately (34%)
- Had someone on ministry team/board/staff deal with the issue (15%)
- Looked for Scripture to address, solve the problem (14%)
- Sought counsel from someone I trusted (10%)
- Talked with the person (9%)
- Confronted the issue eventually (9%)
- Addressed it from the pulpit/in a sermon (4%)
- Had a council meeting/board meeting (2%)
- Self-examination (2%)
Survey research in general shows how people want to be perceived and may not always reflect an objective reality. Nevertheless, this provides a snapshot of how pastors perceive themselves responding to issues.
These and the other responses I’ve observed can be combined into several helpful categories. Let me use some animal characteristics to highlight the implications of these responses (but please don’t press the metaphors too far).
Several years ago I took our family to Georgia’s Callaway Gardens to visit the Day Butterfly Center. Inside a large, temperature-controlled glass building, visitors walk along paths to enjoy butterflies that fly around freely and even land on people. I enjoyed our excursion, but what interested me most was the challenge given by one of the guides: “Look up in the trees and see if you can find the sloth.” After half an hour, I finally spotted him clinging to a branch about twenty feet above my head.
A placard explained that sloths rarely move and only come down to poop. “Passive, detached, and unaware” best describes them.
Some pastors respond similarly to ministry frustration. In the survey, when added together, the categories “did nothing,” “no problems/disappointments,” and “not sure” equaled 13 percent. Among pastors, more than one in ten defaults to an unhealthy disregard for—or detachment from—a potential ministry killer. If you’re in this group, I hope you’ll own up to your responses to frustrations, even if you deny you have any.
The Skunk: leave the mess to others
One weekday morning as I arrived at church, I parked my truck about 50 feet from the door and began walking. About ten feet from the building, I noticed something. At first thought it was a cat. Then I saw it actually was a full-grown skunk that noticed me too.
I froze in my tracks, but he slowly lifted his tail as our eyes locked. As I edged away I claimed the promise ofPsalm 91:10—”There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.”
I didn’t exactly quote that, but I sure was namin’, claimin’, and prayin’. After the skunk saw I was giving him his space, he sauntered off without incident.
Had God not answered my prayer (or had I not moved back), the skunk scent would have made me a very unpopular pastor for a few days. Again, don’t press the image too far, but some pastors respond to their frustrations by handing off their stinky issues to somebody else (see the third-largest category at 15 percent). Certainly in some cases we should delegate problems to others. But other times we delegate to avoid uncomfortable conflict we rightfully should face ourselves. When we do, we truly are missing opportunities God is giving us to grow.
The Hawk: look through a window, not in a mirror
On my way to the gym each day, I drive by a large open field. Often I see a hawk perched on a telephone pole, staring out into that field. I’m no ornithologist, but I know hawks have keen eyesight and love to eat mice. They constantly look for unsuspecting prey.
In the research, one tiny statistic revealed a most disconcerting discovery. Down the list of responses to ministry frustrations, number ten was “self-examination.”
Only two out of a hundred pastors responded to their frustrations by looking at themselves as contributing to the problem.
Like the hawk, many of us keenly look outward but don’t peer inward to see how we may be complicit in our struggles.
David Kinnaman, writing about the research, said: “Leaders exhibit very limited capacity or willingness to self-examine. This is not entirely unexpected; it’s human nature. Yet pastors rarely suggested that they look inward as part of their solution to challenges.
“Virtually none of the 615 leaders we interviewed said that their frustration or disappointment is that they can’t lead their people better—or considered that the commitment vacuum displayed by their congregants might somehow be a reflection of inadequate leadership.”
This reminded me of an insight taught by Jim Collins, who uses a mirror and a window as metaphors to teach a quality of great leaders.
Superb leaders don’t look out the window to blame others. They look in a mirror to take ownership when things don’t go well. They look out a window to praise others when things do go well.
Ignoring this could easily become a ministry killer as others begin to see us either as blamers or as shirkers.
The Turtle: hide behind spirituality
I love turtles, especially box turtles. I’ve probably saved half a dozen from getting pancaked when I’ve pulled over and jumped out of my car to rescue one ambling across a road. I even kept a pet box turtle in my backyard when I was 40 years old. I used the excuse that it was my son’s.
Any kid who’s ever had a box turtle knows what it does when you pick it up: It instantly pulls its head and legs into its shell to hide. In similar fashion, sometimes we pastors duck our frustration by retreating into our spiritual shells. At first blush, the 37 percent who prayed about their frustrations look quite spiritual. But at times prayer can become an excuse to avoid dealing with issues at hand. When “pray about the issue” is combined with “look for Scripture to address/solve the problem,” the percentage jumps to over 50 percent who choose private spiritual means as their default response.
I laud pastors who do this. However, a deeper look reveals something else. The Barna Group’s written analysis noted: “The clear picture that emerges from this is that pastors generally solve problems with one extreme or another—either through ‘human’ effort to confront the problem, or through ‘super-spiritualizing’ the issue—but rarely through both. Many pastors ‘hide’ behind prayer ….”
The Lion: comfortable in my own skin
We give lions an honored position: “King of the Jungle.” I understand why; I’ve had a lot of experience with the behavior of lions. (Well, I watch The Discovery Channel, and I saw Lion King twice.) Although I’ve never personally encountered one, I know lions roar a lot, exude self-confidence, lie around a bunch, and usually get their way. As a leader I hope I exude appropriate self-confidence. And I do like getting my way.
Over a third of the pastors indicated that when faced with frustration, they immediately confront the issue. Although some issues do warrant a quick, self-confident response, many should lead to a more thoughtful and deliberate approach. Unfortunately, we may over-lean on our strength, as the researcher’s analysis noted. “Many pastors … are a little too comfortable in their skin, without relying on prayer and self-examination to give spiritual context to their confrontations.”
Although I tend to be a turtle by handling my hurt in private and in prayer, I’ve also roared too quickly at someone who ticked me off. I’ve verbally fired back in defensiveness at someone who criticized me, or shot back an instant email only to regret it later. Moses, reacting in anger, murdered an Egyptian, and then looked over his shoulder for the next 40 years.
Healthy hybrid of lion and turtle?
Since the research indicates most of us respond to frustration with one of two extremes, can we achieve a healthier balance? Granted, it’s tough to respond appropriately in the moment. Sometimes we should just pull away, pray, and believe that love will cover a multitude of sins. If we’re too quick to respond, we may miss the gentle voice of God’s Spirit tempering our response. But prayer should never become an excuse to shirk conflict, and sometimes we must quickly confront an issue before it gets out of control.
The Barna Group’s analysis also observed: “A surprisingly small percentage said they both prayed and confronted the problem right away—a dual-pronged approach that was identified by just 11 percent of pastors. Even if we are generous in our definition and include any pastor who confronted the problem eventually or ‘talked with the person,’ only 14 percent of all pastors said they did this type of face-to-face interaction along with prayer.”
Kinnaman summarized well this tension between the lion and turtle responses: “Prayer is great, but is it a means to hear from the Holy Spirit or a way to delay a decision or a confrontation? I think it’s interesting that many pastors are likely to suggest passive or even passive-aggressive methods of dealing with interpersonal problems. And many of those who say they confront something immediately do so without prayer, Scripture guidance, or input from advisors. In other words, few pastors follow a biblical process of dealing with conflict.”
I don’t want to unduly criticize pastors. I am one! Probably no other vocation places a greater expectation on a leader to balance confrontation and self-confidence with spiritual restraint and humility.
We’re under constant scrutiny. Intentionally or unintentionally, people develop higher standards for us than they do for themselves. Often they expect us to be faultless, yet we know we can never perfectly handle our frustrations.
Ministry tension comes with the territory and will never go away this side of heaven. What bothers us and how we respond should clue us in to what saps our joy and energy. If we want to stay healthy and productive for the long haul, we must pay close attention to how we respond, take full responsibility when we err, and seek to always honor Christ.
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