Dealing with Anger
There are three root causes of anger that I've faced in my years as a pastor. Leaders need to embrace one, understand the second and disarm the third.
“Why do people get so angry with me?” Many a pastor has asked himself that. If you haven’t experienced it yet, it’s only a matter of time! Let's look at three common issues together.
“Who sinned?” asked the disciples as they tried to figure it out. But the Lord explained that it is far more mysterious than they had conceived “…neither this man, nor his parents sinned” (John 9:1-3). There is so much that is a mystery about particular pain. We want someone or something to blame. People will be cross with you if you provide a facile explanation. Or if you don't provide many words of hope at all.
Grinding pain and deep sorrow can also lead people to blame their nearest and dearest – which may include you as their pastor. You may have had to deliver bad news personally, and then experienced a ‘shoot the messenger’ reaction. Pain may also uncover who their heart has really been relying on, and they may be cross with you simply because you ‘represent God to them’; and then they feel guilty that they have at times blamed him, and you.
Deep disappointments in life – relationships, health, work, and especially in family life can surface as anger towards you. Add in a few misunderstandings and muddied waters, and inflamed tempers are expressed. Even though a believer will know, "Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:20) and, "the tongue sets the whole course of life on fire" (James 3:6), sometimes people don’t seem to be able to stop themselves.
You may have to soak up anger until the rawness has subsided. That you love them even as all this happens will be a therapy to them. It is the cost you pay for helping messed-up sinners in a broken world. You will be enabled to pay that price if you remember that it doesn’t compare with what the Lord paid to help you.
But if anger becomes sustained bitterness and resentment, it will call for a courageous pastoral intervention so that it does not grow and cause damage to many others. A failure to deal with this will ruin the church. (Eph 4:30-32; Heb 12:15). Knowing when one kind of anger crosses over to another is not easy.
Pain anger – embrace it.
Linked to that, C. S. Lewis had a brilliant, if painfully learnt, insight. When his wife Joy died, he wrote, A Grief Observed. In that book he acknowledged that grief caused him deep sorrow, but he admitted he was unprepared for the depth of anger he felt when the object of his deep affection was gone. As he experienced grief first-hand he came to see that any change is a grief reaction. You lose something you love or treasure, and its absence leads both to sorrow at missing it, and anger that it has been taken away.
Church life consists of things which don't change – “the faith once and for all delivered” (Jude 3) – and things that change all the time. The congregation grows, ages, and loses members. The music styles change, as do clothing styles. Bible versions change and buildings change. People and the gifts and talents they use change. The list could go on.
Some changes don’t seem to make much of a difference to how people feel and respond, but many do. As people lose a bit of their past and come to terms with a changing present and an unknown future, they can't help but grieve. They will feel more than a little sad that it has gone, but they also may feel (very) angry that it had to go and they were forced to move forward.
Young people, of course, feel this less – they do not have so much past to lose. Indeed they often get excited about change. Older people on the other hand…!
Here’s the problem. Leaders are often the change agents. They seek to keep the church faithful to the Lord's mission in a fast-paced world. Sometimes they face the dilemma of either pleasing the Lord and upsetting people or pleasing people and failing in the responsibility the Lord has given to them. People may not appreciate the reason why change is necessary.
So, two pieces of advice:
- Try to give wise, persuasive, gospel-related reasons for why ‘We can't stay here’, and what has to change so that ‘We can get to there’. Build your case for why the gospel requires a courageous step of faith.
- Don't get phased by sorrow and anger. Express your understanding, compassion, and sympathy; and celebrate the great and good things of the past even as you move forward.
For example when we moved buildings, we had a never-to-be-forgotten time when we thanked God for his provision. In particular we held an ‘open mic’ session when anyone could tell memorable stories of what had happened to them while the church had met in that building.
A special laminated group photo of the congregation was given to everyone as a memento of the last day in that building. Then we boldly moved on to what God had in store for us somewhere else.
Change anger – understand it.
Dodgy sex, dodgy money, and dodgy power are the three great temptations of the world (see Heb 12:16; 13:4-7). Christians often pick up on the misuse of sex and money. But many are suckers when it comes to matters of power. Disputes about power can bring out the worst in us.
Power may be linked to a role. Someone may have served the church very faithfully. But the church has developed, grown, and moved on. Yet the person still wants to retain their role, and wield the power that goes with it. Seasoned pastors will tell you one of the biggest problems they face is not in getting someone to fill a vacancy, but to give up a role and to let another person develop their gifts.
I suspect too many of us base our significance on what we do in church. So passing on our role becomes very hard. We get used to the decision-making power our role brings, we enjoy being part of the ‘information circuit’ in the church, or we just like the sense of being recognised for doing a worthwhile job. Learning to give that up is a challenge. To make room for someone more gifted can be very difficult.
Be aware that leaders can have even worse power problems – see what John had to say about Diotrephes in 3 John 9-10. Keeping ourselves as servant leaders is vital as we set the flock an example of how to handle power in our own role. We must talk openly about how hard all this is so that we all become better prepared to face it as it surfaces in each of our lives.
Finally there is the naked power grab. When someone says, “I want my way/I am not going to let you get your way… or else!”, you know that anger is not far from the surface of a veiled threat of that kind.
So what can you do? Here are three thoughts:
- Always listen, and listen well to those who disagree with you; it is often surprisingly disarming. You also want to get to the kernel of truth in any criticism.
- If the change you are advocating is biblically required, and is missionally necessary, then be true to your convictions as a leadership team. Your job is not to preside over a group of people where there is an uneasy truce, but to lead the church to accomplish Jesus’ mission.
- While they may get angry with you, remember these words from Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Tim 2:24-26).
Power anger – disarm it.
So there are three areas of church life in which you will have to learn different kinds of ‘anger management’. I’d advise you to embrace pain anger; to understand change anger; and to disarm power anger.