I have a confession to make: I have a problem staying angry.
This is not a “humblebrag”—a word which a wise pastor from Brooklyn recently taught me. My mother spent most of my childhood trying to convince me that it was a virtue. It certainly worked out well for her, I suppose, because I wouldn’t stay angry very long, but would recover a more pleasant disposition and, for the most part, comply with my parents’ wishes.
This might have been good for my parents, and maybe even for me, at the time. But, in my adulthood, there are times when I think it is a liability. In ministry, there are times when we encounter people who make us angry, and who probably deserve to hear about it. I’m not referring to the folks who cut us off on the interstate, or even the ones who call on the third Sunday of the month wondering when the Fourth Sunday Community Spaghetti Dinner is, and what will be served. I am talking about the elders who sit in a meeting with representatives of their classis and admit they lied to the classis months earlier “because otherwise you wouldn’t let us do what we wanted.” My anger is kindled by members who moan and complain that their church isn’t growing, but who come to pastor to ask whether the new unwed mother who has come to find Jesus might be told she must wear long sleeves in worship to hide her tattoo. I become indignant at Consistories that refuse to fund time off for their pastor which they agreed to in said pastor’s call, and then become upset that she seems to be burning out and isn’t taking better care of herself. I want to yell at people who ask whether we really need to give nice things away to the people at the homeless shelter when cast-offs would do just as well.
But I usually find myself trying to smooth out the situation, trying to get them to see the error of their ways quietly and softly, or sighing to myself and cleaning up their messes after they have left the meeting. Some of that, I am sure, comes from not wanting the meeting to break down into pointless shouting, out of the desire to keep people engaged, in order that they might see the grace of God at work. Some of it—especially when it is anger at things that are being done to me—comes from the knowledge that, if I am to respond in anger, I will not be able to count on support from my classis if things get pushed to that point. Some of it comes from the sure and certain knowledge that, if classis doesn’t back me up, and maybe if they do, I will have to follow through on my anger by leaving, and my family isn’t ready for me to leave. And some of it, no doubt, comes from the Sunday School lessons drummed into my head—back when Sunday School was often where we encouraged docile behavior in children whether it was Biblical or not—that Jesus never got angry, and I should want to be like Jesus.
Even as a big, grown up minister with nearly three decades of pastoral work under my belt, I find it hard to overcome that Sunday School training. But I do know better now, intellectually: Jesus started a riot in the Temple; Jesus called his enemies names and publicly berated his closest disciples at times; Jesus killed a fig tree by yelling at it because he was stressed one morning and didn’t get the breakfast he wanted.
I always imagine that, after that tree died, the twelve decided they would walk twenty paces behind their Teacher for the rest of the day, and someone would keep a hand clamped over Peter’s mouth so that he didn’t say anything stupid.
There is a place in the Church for righteous anger. If we really love each other, we will really make each other angry from time to time. And, if we really love each other, we will be willing to share that anger in love.
But I am not particularly good at that, and I suspect I am not alone. I think a lot of what I go through is common to all ministers; it is a hazard of the profession, and of the appropriate and inappropriate impulses that come with our pastoral sensibilities. On the other hand, I also find it much easier for me to hold on to that righteous anger in defense of others, when it doesn’t serve my own self-interest. When I am standing up for somebody else, I can push much harder, and be much less willing to take “no” for an answer, but much more willing to overturn the tables.
Here comes the great strength and the awesome responsibility of our Reformed tradition and Presbyterian order. We are all called to look out for each other, to call each other to account for what we do and what we don’t do, including how pastors treat congregations and how congregations treat pastors. Consistories and congregations that mistreat their pastors, often blithely and unknowingly, are not only abusing the servant of God (whom they promised to treat as they would treat Christ—and, alas, perhaps they are) who has been sent to them, they are also, by extension, injuring and abusing that pastor’s family. Unfortunately, classes often suffer from the terminable disease of wanting everybody to like them, which can get even worse as it reaches denominational levels, until we are quite willing to sacrifice ministers and their families to save the church. Even a passing acquaintance with our polity shows the flaw in that argument.
No, we have to stand up for each other in those places where we cannot stand up for ourselves. We need to stand up for what is right and what is wrong, and all of our office bearers need to know that, when they speak out of righteous anger, telling people they are wrong as firmly as Jesus would, they will have support. While we don’t want to be looking to cause trouble or to bully people, we need to feel free to love one another enough to be honest with each other.
As for me, I confess to my nature, and how it can be a weakness in my work, and I call on all my sisters and brothers in Christ to help me where I am weak.