How to handle hostility

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.

Minister, First Methodist Church, Lexington, Kentucky

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.

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Minister, First Methodist Church, Lexington, Kentucky

December 1960

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