An Angry Pastor Can Destroy a Congregation

joeeaster2012-228x300Consider 2 Timothy 3:1-5. It’s a pretty powerful and prophetic scripture:

“But realize this, that in the last days, difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self … boastful, arrogant, revilers … ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited... Avoid such men as these.” 

Veteran Christian workers get this a lot. People tell you of a conversation they had with you years, or even decades ago, in which you either said the magic words that changed their lives or came out with something that infuriated them back then, and continues to bug them to this day.

You don’t remember any of it.

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In cybermail, I recently had two such messages, one of each kind. One young minister was thanking me and the other was venting. Both conversations had occurred nearly 10 years ago.

The second letter told of the time the writer sat in my office, seeking guidance for entering the ministry. According to his note, I asked what kind of church position he was interested in. And that’s what ticked him off.

“I was morally outraged by the question,” he said.

After all, he went on to point out, the issue was finding and doing God’s will, not what he was interested in.

He went on from there, updating me on his situation and asking for prayers, but my attention was riveted on those words: morally outraged. I’m unsure what that term means, to tell you the truth, particularly in this setting.  My dictionary defines “outrage” as a severe insult or affront. But “morally outraged?”

I could not be more surprised by this than if my question had given him a sudden craving for chocolate ice cream. One seems to have little to do with the other.

We never know what is going to tick someone off.

Unresolved anger is a scary thing. One never knows when it’s going to rear its ugly head, who it’s going to victimize, and what price the perpetrator may be forced to pay as a result of the damage he causes.

Any minister harboring unresolved anger in his heart is a ticking time bomb capable of doing a lot of damage to a great many people. What’s worse, it’s all done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The angry pastor will wreck his relationships with the other staff members, with the deacons, with anyone coming to him with a plea for help, and particularly with anyone bringing a criticism to him.

Earlier today, I asked a group of friends for their response to this question: “What does an angry pastor do?” The answers poured in and piled up in a hurry.

  • Angry pastors take their aggression out on their staff.
  • They drive people away from the church.
  • Their preaching is harsh and graceless. They become “clubbers” from the pulpit, clobbering people with the Word.
  • They become vindictive, unforgiving, interested in payback.
  • The pulpit becomes a place to vent, to accuse, to belittle, to defend.
  • He is harsh to his wife and stern and unloving to his family.
  • He blames others for his failings.
  • He beats the sheep instead of feeding them.
  • He becomes bitter and sarcastic. “All sarcasm is rooted in anger.”
  • He crushes the hearts and spirits of the congregation.

A good pastoral counselor can be such a person’s best friend. We said a “good” one, please notice. The last thing an angry minister needs is a passive non-directive counselor who will nod and repeat back his own statements. He must have someone who will look him in the eye, call a spade a spade, and hold him accountable for his misbehavior.

This kind of counseling can be painful, is usually costly, and can require numerous sessions over many months. Furthermore, it takes a severe toll on the counselor himself. An hour session with an angry person completely wipes out the counselor.

In many cases, the bitter minister will not be going for counseling, however. The problem—as he sees it—is everyone else, not him. The world needs to change, not him. Woe to the poor soul who ventures to suggest he get counseling for his problem.

When a pastor (we’re talking about any minister) admits to his anger problem and seeks out a pastoral counselor, he has taken a major step in the right direction. But to say he’s “halfway there” would be simplistic. Not by a long shot. He has a long road ahead, but the people who love him most and believe in him strongest will cheer him on and will be there to celebrate with him at the end.

At a gathering of pastors from across denominational lines, various ministers were sharing prayer concerns. An African-American woman said, “I am the pastor of Phillips Memorial United Methodist Church. We are in trouble. In recent days we have learned that our church is built over a toxic landfill. The poisons in the soil are endangering everyone. We are going to have to relocate our entire church. Please pray for us.”

Anger poisons congregations as surely as the worst toxins in the soil.

It’s bad enough when church members bring active, unresolved anger into the congregation. It’s worse when the carriers of such ill-will are leaders of the church. But when the mad men are the pastors and spiritual leaders of the church, the news is all bad.

From then on, it’s all downhill.

Yesterday, I had a phone call from a search committee chairman inquiring about a certain pastor.  Among the things I was able to tell him was this: In spite of a difficult pastorate where my friend now serves, he has retained his joy in the Lord and a healthy perspective on ministry. He is angry at no one, and loves them all.

That’s the kind of person I want as my pastor.

It’s the kind of pastor I want to be.

A friend suggests that Dr. Wayne Oates, longtime seminary professor in Louisville and widely acclaimed teacher of counselors, had something special to say on this subject in his book, Behind the Mask. (I’ve just ordered a copy of that 1987 book.) The following are notes from my friend’s blog, which he attributes to Dr. Oates.

The angry pastor wants people to fear him. He is antisocial. Prides himself on his bluntness. Intimidation is his first tool of choice in relationships. He loves a good fight. His motto is “I don’t get angry; I get even.” He’s vindictive and people fear him. They are afraid to confront him or cross him.

Manipulation and coercion become his tools of conquest. Everything is about him.

How to deal with him:

a) Tell him ‘no’ firmly and solidly.

b) Refuse to be frightened by him.

c) Use gentle humor with him. Gentleness is the believer’s great strength, a lesson this bully has never learned.

I’m grateful for these insights.

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel, and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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