The minister and anger

A minister's position sets him up for many hurts that can lead to anger. Is it wrong to be angry, or is it all right to be angry just as long as you don't act angry? What is the best way to deal with feelings of anger, and what should you do if you ' 'lose your cool' ' in front of the congregation?

Marilyn Thomsen is director of public relations and media, Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Dr. Archibald D. Hart, dean of the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary

Thomsen: What is anger?

Hart: Anger can be a feeling or aggressive behavior. Anger as feeling is always legitimate, because it serves as a signal. Anger is to the emotions what pain is to the physical body. It says, "Something is wrong with my environment. What can I do now?" It can motivate you to move to the next step of dealing with whatever is wrong. Unfortunately, our human mechanism is such that by nature we want to quickly move on to angry behavior.

Thomsen: We want to resolve our anger.

Hart: Yes. And the quickest way is to turn it into aggression. If I can express my anger as an aggressive act--"You stepped on my toe so I'll punch you in the nose"--I'll quickly get rid of my anger. But in the process I may start a war, so it wouldn't serve any good purpose.

Thomsen: Is anger ever appropriate?

Hart: There are at least three types of anger. Anger as a defense, as instinctive protection, is legitimate. When the organism is threatened, anger will be aroused to defend it. The other forms of anger--anger in response to hurt, and anger as a response to frustration--are seldom justified.

Thomsen: When does anger become a moral issue?

Hart: When you translate it into aggression. The moment you move beyond the point where it is a feeling and a signal to take constructive steps to deal with the source of irritation, then it becomes a moral issue.

Thomsen: Do pastors have any unique or especially difficult-to-control anger triggers?

Hart: The multiplicity of people they minister to invariably creates a multitude of hurts. The pastor is open to being criticized, offended, and hurt by every one. The more people a person is responsible for, the greater is the potential for hurt. Unfortunately, most pastors who experience the feeling of anger don't understand the difference between the feeling and the behavior. There is an erroneous idea that when you're angry, you should give expression to it. Since pastors often feel that they cannot express anger back to the one who caused it, they will either internalize it or take it out on someone else. And the most common "someone else" is, of course, the family.

Thomsen: Is a minister more likely than most people to misdirect his anger toward his family because they're "safe"?

Hart: I'm not sure he's more likely. I think that we're all prone to taking it out on the immediate family. They are very convenient scapegoats. Because the pastor has more reason for anger, perhaps there would be more scapegoating tendencies.

Thomsen: How can the minister's spouse help the minister deal with anger?

Hart: She needs to understand that when she's being jumped on, it's not a personal thing. It will help if she can adjust her thinking and her attitudes and learn not to take things personally. Second, the best way to resolve anger is to be able to talk about it and get it outside you so you can objectively look at what's causing the trouble. A spouse can be a sounding board for a pastor--that other person with whom he can talk and share his frustrations and anger.

Thomsen: Do ministers often direct their anger inward?

Hart: Yes. Depression and negativity are the two main signs of it. An inwardly directed anger usually gives rise to significant depression. Depression is self-punishing. It keeps a person from feeling good--from letting himself feel pleasure at all. It's a way of self-punishment.

Thomsen: Are there certain times when a pastor is more likely to experience anger?

Hart: Some physiological states make us more prone to anger. When we have been subjected to a prolonged period of stress, our tolerance for frustration and our resiliency go down, and we are likely to experience anger. Sunday evenings, when the weekend is over and it's back to the grind again, I find myself ruminating and not sleeping well. Monday I'm prone to be angry. I've got to watch myself very carefully on Mondays.

Thomsen: Is unresolved anger a major source of stress?

Hart: Yes, because anger triggers the fight-or-flight response. If you maintain that response, you are in a state of extreme stress.

Thomsen: Can stress-management strategies help prevent anger?

Hart: Stress-management strategies have the benefit of getting our stress levels down generally, and that will increase our tolerance in anger-producing situations.

Thomsen: Can you recommend a few strategies?

Hart: Well, you need to pay attention to three areas in keeping stress levels down. First, you need to improve your coping skills. Learn how to be assertive in a healthy way. Learn how to communicate better. Learn how to manage your time. The second area has to do with cognitive skills, attitudes, and values. Learn how to filter out irritations, how not to take things too personally. Third, and most important of all, learn a good relaxation skill. Learn how to relax physically, because whether it's anxiety or stress, the damage cannot occur if you know how to relax physically.

Thomsen: Does a tendency to anger diminish with age?

Hart: I don't think that age has much to do with it. As we get older some of us learn not to take things so personally. We mellow with experience. But some times aging accumulates hurts. Our resentment builds, so we become angrier as we get older. It can go either way. It depends on whether or not you're a well-adjusted person. If you're well adjusted, you'll get better as you get older. But if you're not, you're in trouble.

Thomsen: How does a minister avoid overcontrolling emotions in the attempt to prevent acting on angry impulses?

Hart: By "overcontrolled," you're saying he suppresses his emotions?

Thomsen: He becomes very closed.

Hart: He retreats, you mean. He becomes afraid and self-protective. That's a habit that has to be unlearned. The only way you can unlearn it is to go and get some therapy. You have to learn new habits. It's a slow process and something that has to be done with the help of another.

Thomsen: If a minister has lost control and shown anger to parishioners, how can he resolve that situation?

Hart: With much embarrassment and much eating of crow. You can rapidly lose credibility with the congregation if you keep losing your temper. I think you need to avoid unnecessary self-justification. Apologize. Admit you were wrong. "I lost my cool. I became angry. I should not do that." And try not to do it again. Too often ministers become defensive and try to justify themselves by saying, "Yes, but . . . you did this, or you said that." That erodes credibility with the congregation.

Thomsen: What is the role of forgiveness in dealing with anger?

Hart: Contemporary psychology teaches us how to hit back at the hurts that people cause us, not how to forgive. It has alienated us further from the source of our hurt and moved us farther away from forgiveness, not toward it. We need to rediscover the centrality of forgiveness in human relationships. Learning how to forgive and knowing when to forgive the hurts that are caused us are crucial steps to resolving the resentment that underlies so much of our anger. For the anger that is the response to hurt, forgiveness is the gospel solution.

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Marilyn Thomsen is director of public relations and media, Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.
Dr. Archibald D. Hart, dean of the Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary

June 1985

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