A MINISTER'S professional success will be determined to an extent by his ability to deal wisely with hostility. Most veteran ministers would admit that the maximum or the minimum of a minister's usefulness is related to this problem. This truth will also be confirmed by the laity. The minister's problem with hostility is twofold; first, the hostility which is directed toward him; second, the hostility which he personally feels.
The tensions thus created manifest themselves more frequently as people know each other better. The pastor serving a church with a small membership in a community of slow growth will have a larger problem than will the minister serving a metropolitan congregation. Thus the inexperienced minister often has to deal with this particular problem in its most crucial forms.
Hostility is often expressed by laymen in an open reluctance to support the preacher or his program; and it may also be manifested by the minister in an antagonism toward members of the congregation who are slow to perceive his value, or who show an ardent attachment for a former pastor. The malady is as contagious as the common cold and, improperly handled, is a malignant growth upon the Church as the body of Christ. Like colds and cancers, the best cure is early detection and time.
A wise physician of the soul will learn to expect a certain amount of hostility in dealing with people. The sermon that lays an ax to social sins in the community and a scalpel to the secret sins of the congregation will arouse antagonism toward its preacher. This result is wholesome when properly channeled into constructive enterprises.
One of our most brilliant ministers was limited in his tenure of labor because he could not tolerate any attitude toward his program except one of enthusiastic support. While he accomplished more during his short pastorates than others achieved in a longer span of service, he paid too large a price in nervous tension and melancholia for his mushroom success. Appointed to an inactive church in a growing and prosperous county seat, his contagious enthusiasm and ecclesiastical enterprise inspired the congregation to pay off a debt which had too long strangled their initiative. The plan for raising the money had been adopted, the program of publicity was being arranged, and the date for bringing the offering to the church was being settled by a committee. The preacher suggested Easter Sunday.
The layman, who had guided the church's limping program in the past, voiced his objection to that date. This was the first note of dissent in the campaign.
The preacher jumped to his feet and began pacing the floor, saying: "I can't do a thing for you—I can't do a thing for you, if you don't follow my plan."
Describing the scene to me later, the preacher said: "I don't know why I did it. Of course, the Board went on and approved the plan and we raised the money, but I made an enemy out of Mr. Blank. I believe he was as interested as the others in paying the debt. He was speaking only to assert his sense of leadership." He paused, shrugged his shoulders, and, looking me in the eye, added: "What's the use? It's all over now."
The incident was over, but the pattern has characterized his career. He has never learned to avoid an explosion by being prepared to face opposition. Leadership consists in an ability to give others a part in the planning, and where this trait is absent, one has a dictatorship. Hostility is created by a dictatorial attitude.
Hostility must be treated impersonally. The signal at a railroad crossing suggests the proper clue. It should read, however: "Stop talking and listen." The tendency to push one's own ideas is strong in all men who have exercised responsibility, and success breeds confidence in one's judgment. The pride in opinion which the minister has is equally present in the mind of the layman. One's pride is hurt and one's feelings are injured when improvements are offered to one's ideas.
You cannot successfully silence other people, but you can drain off their hostility by giving them an opportunity to express their thoughts. A Lexington hotel executive employs this technique. Good personal relations with his guests are tremendously important, for he does a large repeat business. Every complaint is treated with respect, regardless of how trivial it may appear. When a guest complains of the service, the bill, or the room, my young friend soothes his irate patron thus: "I put myself on his side. I get on his team. I offer sympathy." The criticism is thereby directed toward the hotel and not toward the manager.
Sound business practice, as well as Christian concern, dictates a similar policy for the minister. When you are confronted by an angry man, stop talking and listen. When you find yourself becoming angry toward an individual, stop talking and listen. When expected hostility is treated impersonally, a liability has a chance to become an asset.
One must understand the nature of a destructive emotion before one can find its antidote. The nature of a minister's work should make him proficient in understanding and interpreting the emotions. The minister sometimes succeeds in counseling emotionally overwrought people where the technician has failed. His success is not due to an understanding of the technique of psychiatry but to an insight enabling him to understand the work of God in the soul.
Like anger, jealousy, prejudice, guilt, fear, and the other destructive emotions, hostility is neither reasonable nor rational but an unbidden reaction to frustration.
This article is being written as I view one of the most beautiful scenes in the Blue Grass section of Kentucky, and I write surrounded by all the conveniences of a modern office, furnished according to personal specifications. Yet I am struggling with hostility. A man has just parked his automobile in the church parking lot. The driver has lived in this city for a quarter of a century, becoming a wealthy man and the recipient of many honors during his successful professional career. Many of his contributions to the community are outstanding. While accumulating the just recognition of reward for his labor, the gentleman has never united with any church in the city though he attends worship services from Sunday to Sunday. He is parking his car in the lot of a church to which he does not belong, for whose program he has never assumed any responsibility, and in whose future he has no personal stake. Every time I see him use church property I succumb to a feeling of hostility; my first reaction is definitely unchristian.
This man is a victim of his religious background and a prisoner of an early environment that shaped his thinking toward the work of the Kingdom of God. Encased in a polished, self-made success, the veneer on the outside covering his spiritual poverty, he needs help as desperately as a drifting derelict, whether the derelict's harbor be a Fifth Avenue penthouse or a fifth-rate flophouse. Only through an understanding approach can I deal as a Christian with this situation.
If a minister must guard against hostility in his own life, consider the pressure of the layman as he works in the stress and strain of the business world. The minister wise enough to interpret emotions from this view will be skilled enough to handle hostility by helping the frustrated.
Reprinted by permission from the March, 1960. issue of Pulpit Digest; copyright 1960 by the Pulpit Digest Publishing Company.