“LEARNING TO LIVE WITH A LIT FUSE:
HOW ANGER CAN LEAD TO MADNESS”
“He who doesn’t know anger doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know the immediate.” Henri Michaux, Selected Writing, 1952.
Tom Bandy, the internationally recognized consultant, and leadership coach for Christian organizations claims “The reason many clergy are depressed is that they are angry. And the reason that they are angry is that they are consistently victimized by dysfunctional bullies who wield power inside the church. Victimization is about emotional, physical, and moral abuse. In the current collapse of Christendom (when many healthy Christian members have died, retired, or given up), the vacuum has been filled by dysfunctional and fundamentally self-centered individuals who intimidate, manipulate, and denigrate in order to shape the church around their personal aesthetic tastes, political viewpoints, amoral biases, and petty ambitions.” Ministry Matters 9/15/13
I don’t necessarily agree with the accusation that such mean-spirited laity in declining churches are self-centered with petty ambitions. I believe many of those aggressive people are fearful that their cherished churches, where their loved ones have been wedded and memorialized on holy ground, will cease to be. I discovered that those angry parishioners agonized over church disasters as much as their home crises or more.
That kind of dread has to be detected and honored by pastors. There may always be some buried anger within congregations that will need to be surfaced. When I came across Bandy’s article while serving as interim District Superintendent I decided to ask Pastor Parish Relations Committee members if they had any anger toward the church. A gentleman next to me gasped and said “I thought I would never reveal the near-rage I felt seven years ago when a new pastor and lay leaders decided to forego a vision we worked on for three years.. I became angrier over it by repressing it. I felt I needed to get over it but it never went away. It even affected my job and family life during that time. I never blamed the pastor but I did not forgive the lay leaders who scuttled it.”
Two other committee members nodded indicating they must have held back with anger too. ***
When our 2-year-old daughter was sitting alone in the hallway of our home one morning she kept trying to hold as many adult playing cards in her little hands as possible. She smiled for a time while I kept walking by until a few cards slipped out, but she patiently kept picking them up and trying again. After a while a frown emerged and a tiny screech popped out. Sonja finally grimaced and began to cry. She suddenly stopped sobbing, gritted her teeth and went right back to grabbing the cards up and putting them into her hands by smashing them. She turned red and that’s when I detected some fierce rage. She skipped anger and went right to madness.
I was stunned by her behavior. I just stood there wondering where that fury might have come from. We lived near a Presbyterian minister who had a bad temper and often let out a curse now and then while in his backyard.
The first word uttered by her 4-year-old sister was “dammit” while I was attempting to put Christine in the back seat of the car. She bumped her head on the interior light fixture. It had to be that Presbyterian guy.
OK, a piece of my ire might have caused my offspring to blow their tops so I began to pay attention to how I dealt with anger. My dad and his dad had expressed some near-to-rage outbursts in my presence but I managed to outburst them by a long shot throughout my life.
So, the Presbyterian parson may not be the perpetrator.
I knew I had to overcome my anger issues when I chose to become a minister but I failed to pass the test at the initial interview with the Board of Ordained Ministry. I had asked my seminary classmates how their interviews went and they assured me the process was rather easy and informal. Well, the Board members didn’t look all that nice when I sat before them.
After a brief introductory time a rather mean- looking member asked me how I might deal with the Black Muslim movement as a pastor. I had to ask “Is that a standard question for those coming before you?”
“Nope, this one is just for you?”
I did my best to answer the question. Another stern member couldn’t wait to come at me. He said in a demanding tone “You are working as a youth director so how do you present Jesus Christ to your young people?”
I lost it and replied angrily “Well, I wouldn’t confront them the way you’re assaulting me right now!” The members sat there in silence for a couple of minutes. A few were holding back smiles and a couple of them were wrinkling their noses at me.
My board member advisor escorted me out of the room and as soon as we got outside he grinned and said “You did well in there.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“We all knew you had anger issues and we expected a few of the conservative members to get your goat. Most of us, but not all, were hoping you would stand your ground and not cave in to those who might try to rattle your cage.”
“Does that mean I passed?”
“Not this year but next year you’ll be a shoe in. Can you handle that?”
His advice implied, to me anyway, that anger might be appropriate within our congregations if it is honest but I held back for a couple of years on the job. I managed to suppress my fury by taking it home, disclosing it to my wife, hiding it from my kids, revealing it to my dog and on occasion, shouting it out in the backyard next door to my Presbyterian neighbor. I still consumed a lot of Tums.
I will never forget my first outburst with a lay person. Three pastors who had served the church in the past warned me to watch out for the custodian’s wife. They said she can be tough and demanding. They informed me that Ethyl seldom attends church services but she wants to know about everything that happens in the congregation. She called me on the first week of the job and told me she has to know before the rest of the congregation when someone is hospitalized or dies. She wanted me to call her first and evidently my predecessors had obeyed her. They might have not wanted to fight it out with her. I’ll admit she was very scary and demanding. Kind of like a pit bull.
I tried to sneak into my office one early Sunday morning to go over my notes for the worship service. I turned a corner in the hallway to find Ethyl standing defiantly with legs spread and arms crossed looking really mean. She shouted from a distance “You did not notify me that Florence Higgins died and I had to learn it from someone else. I thought I told you to call me first. Don’t you dare slip up again!”
I dropped my notes and ran at her, stood inches from her face and yelled “Don’t you ever tell me what to on my job. Those days are over. So, just turn around and go back home!” She was wide-eyed and stunned but she turned around and left. I figured the personnel committee members would chew me up. I learned later she never told anyone including her husband about the confrontation. From that day on she was cordial and she sent pictures of her grandchildren to me for several years.
I believe most aggressive parishioners do not wish to totally annihilate their pastors but they might want to come close. They sense that they want a preacher who will be there for them in the tough family times.
An elderly widowed clergy spouse had been in the church for several years. She felt strongly that the pastor’s wife should not work outside the home. Edna managed to be on nearly every committee in the church. She asked for a ride to a finance meeting at a home across town. As soon as she got in my car she asked
“Where is the Mrs.?”
“She’s at home grading papers.”
I’m driving at a speed of 40 miles an hour and she says “Well you need to turn around and go back to get her now.”
“No, I’m not going to do that?”
So she grabs the steering wheel and yanks it so that we swerve into traffic and we narrowly miss hitting a car.
I bellowed “Hey, back off, you nearly got us killed!”
She’s quiet now and I am feeling somewhere between rage and sheer madness. I stopped the car in a Circle K parking lot. I was just about ready to blast her when she smiled and said “Well, you look like a man of action. You win, let’s get to the meeting.”
At my second pastorate I learned right away from my predecessors to watch out for the treasurer of the church. When she doesn’t like the preachers she will hold back their monthly checks for a week or more. Don’t mess with her, they warned me, unless you want a lot of flak.
A finance member (let’s call him Lyle – for Loyal) had been taking the Sunday offerings to the bank, a task that is supposed to have two church members depositing the funds. The treasurer (let’s call her Mona – for money) learned that there was a $200 shortfall one week. She was upset and assumed the finance member was on the take. The next week $300 were missing and she was livid.
The following Sunday during the coffee time on the patio Mona spotted Lyle in the midst of the crowd and began pointing at him and screaming “There’s the culprit, that’s the crook!”
I jumped off the porch in my black pulpit robe and may have looked like a crow in flight when I ran toward Mona and got there fast. I held her gently by the arm and whispered to her, “Stop it and get into my office now!”
She didn’t resist. I walked her across the patio and into my office. She looked to be in shock. I asked “Are you alright?”
“No one has ever talked to me like you just did and I don’t know what to think of it.”
I said “We might learn later that Lyle may be innocent and you may feel a little more than shock.”
It turned out that the bank was at fault. Mona (let’s call her now, Connie – for contrite) and I got along well until the next shortfall a few years later.
When I was appointed to a large church with a humongous annual budget shortfall I panicked given I dislike dealing with any kind of finances. I think every pastor assigned to any size church ought to have a Master’s degree in Business Administration. So, one of my first tasks in a new church is to find out what lay people have the skills and motivation to lead in that department but you have to keep with what you get in your first year or two as pastor.
I tried very hard to avoid attending finance meetings especially when the funds were dwindling. But at this church I fell short in the fiscal leadership recruitment and had to attend every friggin’ finance meeting. I can be fun and silly in most church meetings but not in the finance court of fiscal law.
The funds were in bad shape when I served as pastor and I followed a saint of a preacher that could do no wrong. He was my best friend so when he heard I was appointed to the church he just kind of winked and said “You’ll have your hands full in your new assignment.”
The finance chair was an executive at a large company and he was not happy about the fiscal crisis. He chose to bring a lap top to every meeting to display in living color a chart on the attendance, membership and finances. We were tanking in every category and William, the chair, kept eyeing me when he portrayed the graph as if I was the primary offender.
The meetings sparked heated arguments for about three years. Nearly every member on the committee were present. They seemed to love the fireworks. I was so angry with the chair I called him William when he wished to be called Bill. It was a petty gesture but I figured I would have the edge over him as his pastor by calling him by his Christian appellation, ‘William.’ Well, hey, I was just trying to survive the ordeal.
In the third year of monthly meetings William announced we had finally made up the indebtedness but he said it hastily and went on to the next topic on the agenda.
I said “William let’s talk about how we made it.”
“No,” he replied abruptly “we have a lot on the schedule!’
“OK,” I responded “how do you think we made the deficit?”
“Luck, sheer luck!”
“Oh really, I say it was faith that got us here. How many of you here think it was faith and how many assumed it was by sheer luck. Let’s have a show of hands?”
“Oh, Pastor, don’t push us to go there,” a member pleaded. So, we didn’t.
‘William’ and I became friends, believe it or not, after that endless mêlée, but he began to call me ‘Willard,’ and that irritated me.