Internship and ultimatum. Internship I welcomed because I had dreamed of being a minister ever since I was 8. The ultimatum was a surprise.
In my desire to succeed I set out door to door to raise the goal for mission funds assigned to my two churches. I tried my best, but the church members were not enthusiastic. The fund-raising dragged on for three months.
Two nights before Christmas I joined a handful of brave solicitors in a hopeless attempt to reach the goal before my holiday vacation. The wind was fierce and frigid. Most of the residents refused to open their doors to us. We went home, the goal unmet. The next day I headed to Washington, D.C., for Christmas.
My new year began with an ultimatum from church administration. Next year there will be no vacation until the funds are raised. There were no words of appreciation for the three months of business solicitation and the doorbell ringing night after night. Just the ultimatum.
At first I felt fear; then angry feelings stirred inside. For years I rehearsed that ultimatum.
Why, after realizing my dream of being a minister, was I angry?
Henri J. M. Nouwen observes: "Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth words, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart."1
Agendas shaped by programs. Well meaning church leaders intent on church growth appear to be franchising methods that threaten to homogenize ministry. Church "marketers" blessed with finances and high-tech tools imply that pastors who don't jump aboard the program are less than loyal. The end result can be the cramping of personal spirit and creativity.
When these programs alone shape our agenda we end up exhausted by the required attention to detail. We feel frustrated and angry inside because we have not exercised our creative potential.
Eugene Peterson sensed this frustration. He states that we are all born to be creative, but being creative is difficult. We can't do it if we are lazy. It requires living faith because the created work has never been before.2
A lazy minister may welcome ready-to-use packages, but expecting all ministers to use them may bring frustration and anger to the creative minister. The benefits of such an approach are in question.
It has been written with wisdom, "God needs men and women who will work in the simplicity of Christ to bring the knowledge of truth before those who need its converting power. But when a precise line is laid down which the workers must follow in their efforts to proclaim the message, a limit is set to the usefulness of a great number of workers."3 "God's workmen must labor to be many-sided men; that is, to have a breadth of character, not to be one-idea men, stereotyped in one manner of working, getting into a groove, and unable to see and sense that their words and their advocacy of truth must vary with the class of people they are among, and the circumstances that they have to meet."4
The elusive job description. A 1976 Alban Institute study of new seminary graduates in their first pastorates showed that many of them had varying degrees of anger. These seminarians did not lack imagination or effort. Their anger was caused by the clash of two cultures, seminary culture and congregational culture. These cultures had divergent ways of thinking and working, different reward systems and values, and different languages.
After I had spent 38 years in ministry, an irate church member blamed me for what he perceived to be moral laxness in the church. He pointed his finger at me for 45 minutes while he angrily spelled out my job description. My study of ministry didn't allow me to accept his role for me.
I know of a young minister who enthusiastically accepted his first pastoral appointment. An elder of the church quickly introduced himself and then added, "In this church we get along much better without a pastor. It's nice to have a speaker every Sabbath, but that's all we need a pastor for." The young pastor's enthusiasm evaporated. Anger was a frequent visitor during his short stay. Reasonably so.
Kenneth Alan Moe acknowledges the presence of anger when there is a clash of role expectations. "There are those in ministry who feel guilty if they do not work 60 hours a week. Some of these pastors have become angry, frustrated, defensive, or depressed because their congregations do not appreciate their long hours of labor."5
What is anger?
According to Neil Clark Warren, "anger is a physical state of readiness."6 In this state of alertness we are not only prepared to respond to hurt, frustration, and threat, but we also have power to carry out action to avert further discomfort. This arousal is physiological and a natural part of being human. Experiencing this arousal should not be cause for shame or guilt.
When I received the fund-raising ultimatum, my body and mind went into an arousal state. I felt hurt, and I perceived it as a threat to my job security. The young pastor who was told he wasn't needed was probably frustrated because he would not be able to use the exciting ideas he gleaned in the seminary. Arousal in both cases was healthy.
What we do about anger is called anger expression. Expression of anger is learned. It can be constructive or destructive. Learning to express anger in a healthy manner deepens our character and adds joy to life. Learning destructive ways of expressing anger complicates life and adds misery to the lives of pastors and church members.
We cannot blame anger expression on our ancestors or on people who treat us thoughtlessly. We decide how we will react; therefore, we must assume full responsibility for anger expression.
The anger habit
Unhealthy anger expression may get us what we want for the short term, but it is a poor way to handle the hurt, frustrations, and threats in our lives. Acting aggressively alienates others. Ventilating simply sets us up to ventilate more vehemently the next time.
A sure way to develop the anger habit is to rehearse the injuries dozens of times. I rehearsed that ultimatum hundreds of times, coloring my experience with anger for years. Every time I rehearsed it, the anger was experienced as freshly as the day I received it.
Constant rehearsal keeps us in a constant state of arousal that can ultimately lead to physical, social, and spiritual problems. Stress-related diseases thrive in the body and the mind of the person who practices the anger habit.
Breaking the anger habit
Dr. Elden M. Chalmers taught me that a habit forms a literal, physical pathway in the nervous system, causing us to go from stimulus to action almost without thinking. A new habit develops by deliberate, careful, and prayerful decisions to go from the anger stimulus to a more productive action. The new action pathway can become as well developed as the first.
This doesn't come easily. It takes our finest and most balanced effort. It happens by admitting our own weakness and opening our minds to the power of the Holy Spirit. We will need all the power we can get. In prayer, we restate our decision to form a new pathway.
Keep a journal. Record your experience with anger. Learn from your mistakes.
Thank God for your victories. When you are calm, write out your new strategy for handling provocation. Read it several times a day for six months. This sets up your mind and body to go down the new pathway.
Make your own itinerary
I discovered that overwork and fatigue make it easier to slip into the old pathway. I must be in charge of my time and energy expenditures. I must work toward a balance.
Nouwen speaks about clergy who are too busy to wonder if any of the things we think, say, and do are worth thinking, saying, and doing. "We simply go along with the many musts and oughts that have been handed on to us, and live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord." 7
Slow down your pace.
What's your theology of ministry?
Without a theology of ministry, you'll be blown about by the dozens of models circulating in church circles. You'll be controlled and frustrated by the expectations of others. This is apt to keep you in anger arousal.
Know your strengths, your interests, and your gifts. Design a model that uses these. Don't be swayed by pressure to row your pastoral boat with someone else's oars.
I learned this from a veteran pastor. He listened as a church leader outlined a model that would "finish the work." He slowly rose to his feet, summarized his strengths, shared his personal view of ministry, and tactfully but firmly apprised the leader that he could not work with another person's tools. There was no rancor in his voice. He knew who he was. He was content with his success. Though open to leadership, he was not threatened by the pressure to use another model.
Loren B. Mead refers to this as the "tyranny of the new."8 He rejects the idea that only the new has value. We need pastors who are trying new ideas but who hold to old ideas that work and give stability. You have to live your theology of ministry lest the tyranny of the new creates anger.
For years we have been told that catharsis, venting, was a healthy way of handling anger, that anger expression was instinctual, something we had to do.
If this is your view of anger, you owe it to yourself to digest Carol Tavris's book Anger--The Misunderstood Emotion. She reviews many research projects that pulverize Freud's hydraulic model of anger. She puts to rest the idea that humans have no choice about anger expression: "Judgment and choice distinguish human beings from other species; judgment and choice are the hallmarks of human anger."9
She shares this bit of history. "Freud's and Darwin's theories represent a crucial pivot point in Western thought; for once the belief that we can control it indeed, must control it bowed to the belief that we cannot control it, it was then only a short jump to the current conviction that we should not control it." 10
If I had understood anger during my internship as I do now, I would not have wasted my energy. I would not have felt so guilty about having the emotion in the first place. After I calmed down, I would have gone to my administrator and told him the details of my beginning efforts. I would have informed him that his letter sounded like an ultimatum to me. Who knows, maybe he would have given me the affirmation I so much needed.
Free yourself to be yourself
There are many molds in ministry. The apostle Paul called the molds gifts. Be content with your gifts and use them joyfully. Don't allow anyone to push you into a mold that doesn't fit you. It will be uncomfortable and ultimately cause you to feel angry.
When I was 16, I admired my uncle Scotty, especially the shiny narrow dress shoes he wore. Just before I took the train to Philadelphia after my Christmas break from school, I bought a pair of shoes just like my uncle's. The salesperson suggested a wider shoe, but I insisted on the narrowest pair I could find. Proudly I boarded the train, hoping that passengers would notice my sleek appearance. Twenty miles out of the station I was in misery and angry at myself for buying those shoes. I untied the shoestrings, but the cramps in my feet remained. A day after arriving at the school, I gave the narrow shoes to a classmate with narrow feet.
Choose a style of ministry that fits your gifts and your personality. This will spare you a lot of frustration and anger.
Balance your life
As I was writing this article my wife shared with me that a doctor on TV reported his latest research on anger and heart attacks. He found that habitual anger and rage can initiate the onset of a heart attack in men aged 46 to 90. Similar information has been in print. On the flip side of that, good health practices reduce unhealthy anger expression that leads to such traumas.
Dr. Herbert Benson speaks of the positive effects of practicing relaxation response. 11 I can attest to the value of relaxation response that uses meditation. I believe it is one of the things that can facilitate a constructive expression of anger, but it is much broader. Diet, exercise, sleep, deep breathing, plenty of water, time for creative solitude, and time for personal spiritual nurturing are essentials.
By God's grace we can control anger expression. We can meet life situations confidently and hopefully. We can make advances toward personal, professional, and spiritual maturity.
1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the
Heart (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981),
2 Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative
Pastor (Dallas: Word Books, 1989).
3 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington,
D. C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1946), pp. 105,106.
4 Ibid, p. 106.
5 Kenneth Alan Moe, The Pastor's
Survival Manual (Washington, D.C.:
Alban Institute Publications, 1995), p. 23.
6 Neil Clark Warren, Make Anger Your
Ally (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth &
Hyatt, 1990), p. 77.
7 Nouwen, p. 10.
8 Loren B. Mead, The Once and Future
Church (Washington, D.C.: The Alban
9 Carol Tavris, Anger The Misunderstood
Emotion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 38.
10, Ibid., p. 33
11Herbert Benson, M.D., Timeless
Healing (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 147.
Benson, Herbert, M.D., Timeless Healing. New York: Scribner, 1996. A strong case on
the awesome significance of attitudes and thoughts for inner peace and outer
Smedes, Lewis B. Forgive and Forget. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Can forgiveness
and anger coexist? The author writes about forgiving for one's own sake, lest hurt
and hate become one's own worst enemy.
Tavris, Carol. Anger--The Misunderstood Emotion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
The author uses her latest research to present a new view of anger to challenge the
reader to grow through responsible decision-making.
Warren, Neil Clark. Make Anger Your Ally. Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth & Hyatt,
1990. An anger management manual, outlining how to understand anger and how
to utilize it for growth instead of destructive behaviors.
Continuing education exercises
1. List the expectations that your church administrators and your church members
have of you. Which of these expectations can you fit within the framework of your
theology of ministry? Communicate that theology to your administrator and your
2. Read Neil Clark Warren's Make Anger Your Ally. Treat it as a series of counseling
sessions. Carry out all the exercises in the book. If you do not see noticeable
improvement in six months, take classes or counseling in anger management.
3. Sit down with your spouse or close friend and assess your health practices. Make a
contract with that person to bring balance to your life. Ask that person to hold you
4. Read Eugene H. Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor. Then write an outline of how
you can serve your present congregation for the next 20 years. Remember to
include possible provocations and how you would meet them.