Not unusual in pastoral ministry, crises may come without notice and may take different shapes. A death of a family member, an accident, a marriage falling apart, a run-away child, a theological conflict, a challenge to the pastor’s leadership, a complaint, a committee meeting gone sour, a church split, a power play, an interpersonal conflict—and the list goes on.
Our human tendency to feel personally threatened and vulnerable makes every crisis both frightening and potentially destructive. The crisis, whatever its origin, quickly and easily becomes a challenge to our own sense of self. We take it personally. We worry about how we respond. We hope we will prove adequate and competent. We identify with the people in crisis and feel vulnerable. We allow the crisis to become a referendum on our personal value as pastors and as persons.
The last is especially true when the crisis centers on pastoral performance. A church member writes a letter suggesting that we might be happier doing something else somewhere else. We hear that people are unhappy with our leadership. Or, a family transfers to another church and lets it be known that they are looking for better preaching. Our supervisor may at that point ask us to come to his office to discuss the complaints from some of our members.
How do we respond to such crises? What should we do? And what should we not do? The following pointers may be helpful.1
What you should not do
Don’t feel you are a victim. You are not. You are not helpless. People have different personalities and perspectives. Just because people don’t agree with you doesn’t mean you are a helpless victim. Once I felt that some members were constantly after me, and their criticism clouded my thoughts and perceptions. I was telling some fellow pastors about this situation and how hard ministering in that church had become. One pastor looked at me and said, “How long have you been feeling victimized by your church?” That was all it took to shift my perspective because I realized that I was not a victim. I chose to continue pastoring that church and to stop complaining about it. I chose not to be a victim.
Don’t get defensive. Keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose! Listen carefully. Seek to understand rather than to be understood. Don’t explain, give reasons, or argue.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. What you are facing is not a catastrophe. Relax. You’re not the first pastor to be criticized—nor will you be the last. Concentrate on what you can learn from the crisis. It’s OK to be human. It’s OK to fail. After all, even the great apostle said, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). The answer was clear: No one. You’re just a servant of God. You don’t have to be God. Relax.
Don’t get tensed up. God looks after you. He can help you handle this.
Don’t overwork. You don’t need to show off by launching a blizzard of activities to solve every problem. Don’t try to solve problems that belong to others.
Don’t try to control everything. All you get when you try to control others is a conflict between wills. Will conflicts polarize? Just get behind someone on the highway, and blow your horn to get them to pull over or speed up. Even God doesn’t attempt to control people. He gives them freedom of choice.
Don’t distance yourself from people. When you are hurt, the natural tendency is to pull away from those who have hurt you. No matter how painful, seek them out, and spend time with them. If you distance yourself from them—either physically or emotionally—you will increase the misunderstanding and fuel the fire of conflict. You have to stay engaged. Edwin Friedman calls this maintaining a “non-anxious presence.”2 You must stay present, and you must not be an anxious presence if you want to bring healing.
Don’t try to get people to like you. We pastors are powerfully motivated by the desire to have people like us. This is understandable, but not the best. We must be more concerned for the good of the people we serve than we are about their liking us. God has called us not to meet all the needs of people, but to make them fully devoted followers of Jesus.
Don’t manipulate. Manipulation means trying to get people to do something they don’t want to do, often by arranging circumstances so that they have no choice but to do what we want them to do. This usually happens behind the scenes.
Don’t vacillate. Your vacillation causes anxiety in others. An old adage in carpentry says, “Measure twice; cut once.” Carefully, prayerfully, thoughtfully decide what to do, then do it without vacillation. People who act like they know what they are doing calm other people’s anxieties and reduce tension.
Don’t polarize or allow polarizing. Don’t draw lines. Don’t exclude people who disagree with you. Don’t put people into opposing camps, and don’t let other people do it. When people polarize, they feel obligated to defend their position. It’s so easy to let a disagreement become an “us versus them” issue. When it does, reason goes out the window. Tension increases. Conflict escalates.
Don’t get triangled. A triangle happens when you get pulled into a conflict between two other people, or between two groups, or between two conflicting ideas. Two church members in conflict with each other tell you their sides of the story, and each hopes you will take their side. Get out of the triangle and refuse to listen to gossip about others.
Don’t try to rescue every time someone has a problem. When we see someone in trouble (even if it’s their own fault), we want to rescue them. In most cases, people are more resilient than we give them credit for. They don’t need to be rescued. They can handle it; they will grow from it. Besides, our efforts to rescue often prevent real issues from being brought to light, and they never get handled.
What you can do
Share your vision. Tell people your dreams, what goals you have for your church and your members. Paint a compelling picture of a better future. Instead of responding to attacks or criticisms, say what you are trying to do, where you are trying to go.
Stay optimistic. You can get through your problems, for God is with you. He is faithful and will not abandon you. He continues as your Rock, your Fortress, your strong Tower. The people who oppose you are good people. They aren’t evil. They just have their point of view.
Keep a sense of humor. Try to find something funny, even in difficult situations. Grim desperation attracts the buzzards.
Empower others. Help other people, including your opponents, to say what they want to say. Express your confidence in them to do the brave thing and deal with the crisis.
Stay connected. People in interpersonal difficulties normally tend to keep apart from each other. Resist this tendency! Stay connected to everyone, especially to those who create the most unpleasant reactions in you. Don’t avoid them; work toward an even stronger relationship.
Disagree nicely. Stay polite and respectful. If you feel yourself getting emotionally hot, take a break, and count to ten.
Hold on to the wheel and keep the ship on track. Don’t start steering all over the place trying to please everybody. Listen to the other party carefully. Listening carefully and respectfully doesn’t mean that you will necessarily do what your critics want you to do.
Manage triangles. The basic rule for managing triangles: Get the people (groups) at the other two points of the triangle to deal directly with one another rather than going through you. How? By refusing to keep their secrets for them. Open the doors and windows, and let in as much light and air as you can. No private meetings. No private conversations. No secrets.
Stay tuned to God. Conflict situations should force you to your knees. God becomes your one true refuge and strength. Stay connected. Pray. Listen for His voice. If He calls you to repent of what you have said or done, repent and make it right with Him.
If you need to tell someone else you are sorry for what you said or did, do so, but be sure you are not just doing it to please people.
Be open and direct. Hidden agendas create problems. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Paul talks about the mutual benefit of “speaking the truth in love” and how such a practice helps us all to “grow up” (Eph. 4:15).
Keep your boundaries clear. Know what actually “your stuff” is and what is not. Think of your life as your yard: you have a property line that separates your yard from your neighbor’s. What’s on your side is yours, but what’s on the other person’s side is theirs. Determine for yourself, under divine guidance, how to feel, and let the Holy Spirit do the same for them.
Conflict is difficult. We all have our secret fears. When somebody “pushes our buttons,” we react because they are touching one of our secret fears. When this happens, we get frightened, panicky, and begin to act defensively. Our bodies go into a “fight or flight” mode. Our heart rate goes up. Our pupils dilate. Blood goes to our muscles and away from our internal organs. We are no longer rational. This happens to everybody to some extent. The good news is that you have time between the stimulus and the response, and you can use that time to choose a different response than the one that comes naturally.
1 I’m indebted to my friend Calvin Thomsen for much of this list.
2 Dr. Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation, deals with family systems theory.