I am learning that Constant Leaders (Care Givers, Enablers, and CEO’s) are among the angriest spiritual leaders today. Think about it. Clergy live in a world that is either indifferent to who they are or hostile to what they do. They are disrespected, often excluded, and find it hard to make real friends in other social sectors. And that’s just outside the church! Inside the church, clergy are not just under-appreciated and under-paid, but they are constantly criticized, often insulted, and sometimes abused by church members. They are blamed for church decline, faulted for not visiting enough or preaching well enough, and guilty of either attracting or failing to attract the youth (whichever is worse at the time.) Because clergy are usually nice people, they feel guilty at the drop of a hat (or in response to the next anonymous phone caller claiming to “represent” nameless people).
I am learning that all forms of anger shrink your heart. Anger holds your senses hostage. You become blind and deaf to all the opportunities to be spontaneously kind to the people around you, or daringly generous to estranged people on the periphery of your vision, because you are preoccupied by anger with someone or some issue. Anger exhausts you. You expend so much negative emotion that you literally have to rest, take a walk, or stare at the wall … removing yourself from participating in other experiences where you could be helpful.
When I speak of anger, I am not talking about “ordinary” anger. I am not talking about anger at the mistakes other people make, bad drivers, or the countless annoyances that everyone encounters every day. I am not even talking about anger brought on by fatigue when you snap at your spouse or holler at your children; or anger brought on by disappointment that a plan didn’t work, or a goal wasn’t accomplished. There are countless self-help books that will (rightly) coach you to breathe deeply, go for a walk, talk with a friend, and pray.
I am talking about rage. It’s usually repressed and hidden, and occasionally erupts inappropriately, and always diminishes your heart. Rage is the great enemy of the fruits of the Spirit. I am talking about three particular kinds of rage that I am learning are very common in the hearts of clergy. Indeed, “ordinary” anger is often just a symptom of a deeper disease of the heart which deep breathing, nature walks, friendly chats, and even prayer and bible reading cover up but do not overcome. For a time, our so-called “spiritual lives” create an illusion of health that is not really present. And the signs that this is so include artificial piety and increased isolation from other human beings.
Rage from chronic abuse and criticism
I am learning that clergy are among the most maltreated organizational leaders. The deeper problem, however, is not that they are mistreated. It is that they do not know how to handle it. Clergy may blame this on sinful people, selfish factions, dysfunctional systems, national or denominational policies, etc. But these are rarely within your power to change, and it is useless to rant and rave against them.
But you do not have to react to abusers or critics in the ways that they expect. Many abusers and critics want you to reciprocate their negativity because, in an odd way, it validates their own nasty behavior. It is in your power to change your perspective toward any person, and see them from a different angle or frame them in a different context. Imagine yourself face-to-face with your critic, but then imagine yourself stepping to the side and seeing your critic in a different way, and against a different background of circumstances. For example, instead of reacting directly to their criticism about your preaching or pastoral care, frame their antagonism in a different context, as an extension, perhaps, of their own anger at being fired from their job or forced into premature retirement, or their own guilt or declining health.
I’m not suggesting that this is easy. But we are creatures of habit, and with practice we can change our habit of reacting to the situation forced upon us, and build the habit of seeing the situation as it arises from a different perspective … from the side, as it were, instead of head on.
Sometimes the way to do this is through someone who has a positive relationship with both you and your antagonist. In demographic terminology, I call this “influence mapping”. In any conflict between two people or two groups, there is always someone or some group who bridges the gap and can help interpret the one for the other. In demographic research, you can often identify these “influencers” because they live in the same neighborhood as your critic, go to the same restaurants, or root for the same sports teams, even though their lifestyles are essentially different.
Clergy often have powerful imaginations, but the accumulation of anger makes them use it in negative ways. It’s a bit like being gifted with “the Force” but succumbing to the temptation to use it for the “dark side”. Outside you are a saint. Inside you are Darth Vader. Vengeful imagination becomes so powerful that you actually anticipate taking revenge for insults that have yet to happen! Or you never let go of vengeance and find it impossible to forgive! Or (worst of all) vengeful thoughts against unknown assailants emerge spontaneously out of nowhere even in times of good feeling!
Not surprisingly, vengeful imagination is especially stimulated by the low self-esteem, constant isolation, and feelings of entrapment often brought on by chronic abuse. Clergy often lack the courage to stand up for themselves in the fear of escalating conflict; and “cowardice” is embarrassing and difficult to share, leading to loneliness; and they feel trapped in a cycle fear and powerlessness that they cannot escape. All that rage is transferred from the real world to the world of imagination.
But you can do something about it. First, you can legitimately “talk back” in public. In response to a slur at a church meeting, you can say aloud that you find the comment offensive, thus giving voice to what others in the meeting already sense. You can … and should … hold people accountable to the fruits of the spirit expected of all Christians. Second, instead of competing with other clergy for status, or merely complaining with other clergy about others, you can share you fear factors aloud. Break the silence, and other clergy will identify with you, and together you can strengthen one another.
Third, you can choose integrity above safety. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that can happen? Get in the habit of periodically, intentionally, visualizing the worst that might happen if you risk safety for integrity (loss of job or income, loss of career advancement, loss of status or popularity, loss of friendships, and so on). Visualize how you will suffer … and how you will survive. When the time comes to say “no” to entrapment, you will be stronger and resolute.
Rage against glass ceilings, artificial limitations, bureaucracies and fate
Many clergy have unconsciously been absorbed into the secular culture of success. They have a sense of entitlement. They deserve a better and bigger church, promotions, salary increases, greater recognition, and the next step up the career ladder. In past decades, this was the hidden promise of ordination and certification. This is particularly bitter, of course, for women and cultural minorities, but today equally bitter for white males who feel victimized by affirmative action.
But you can choose to react differently to circumstances over which you have no power. This can be done by setting internal goals rather than external goals. Instead of saying “I will raise $100,000 in our next stewardship program” (which is conditional on many factors beyond your control), say “I will try to be the best motivational speaker and model of generosity that I can be.” Instead of saying “I will pastor a big church in ten years, and be elected bishop in twenty”, say instead, “I will never become something I am not in order to obtain something I desire”.
Often, the routine practice of self-denial is helpful to defeat this rage against “the system”. We often think of fasting, but I think the best things to deny ourselves periodically are often the very things you use to repress your anger. Instead of resorting to dining out and comfort food, go wash dishes in the soup kitchen for the homeless. Instead of another round of golf, go pick up litter from the streets and dog-droppings in the park. Instead of retreating to your office to read, go help the custodian wax the floors. These disciplines of periodic self-denial help you appreciate what you already have, and inure yourself to hard times and inevitable disappointments.
Rage against injustice
It may seem strange that I should speak against this. Most clergy feel they have a moral obligation to rage against injustice. But struggling for justice, and raging against injustice, are two different things. The one leads to accountability; the other just leads to confrontation. And I find that clergy often feel they have a moral obligation to be confrontational. They often describe it as being “prophetic”.
But confrontation is a form of addiction. It feels good at the time, but eventually kills you. And just look how it is polarizing society today! All confrontational behavior is bad, because in the end it defeats the purpose of accountability. We deceive ourselves into thinking that bad behavior is best overcome by more bad behavior, but in fact it just escalates more bad behavior. Accountability emerges from humility to moral principles; confrontation emerges from self-righteousness about political policies; and I am learning that many clergy do not know the difference.
Rage against injustice is a wildfire the spreads in one’s mind and lifestyle. It expands to include more and more people. It spreads from confrontation over major things, to confrontation over minor things, to confrontation as the “behavior default” of clergy that leads to dogmatism. Extreme liberals can be just as exclusive, stubborn, and belligerent as extreme conservatives (and vice versa). Today we are living in a time of chronic confrontation. And it diminishes your heart for others.
But you can do something about it. First, you can sharpen your sense of humor and irony, and use laughter to reduce confrontation. You can laugh at yourself, as well as at others, and absurd situations. The more you rage, the less you laugh; and the more you laugh, the less you rage. Second, you can learn the art of “significant conversation”. In part, you can increase your vocabulary and your powers of persuasion, sharpen your capacity to be silent and listen, and choose dialogue.
But I am also learning that clergy often need to face the kernel of truth in the other person’s argument. In every confrontation, there is always some accusation that hits close to home, but which we deny. Part of our rage is the resentment that we are more vulnerable than we let on. When we acknowledge the truth, even when it hurts, then rage begins to dissipate, and reason takes over. Consider the advice of Jesus: don’t try to take the speck out of another’s eye until you take the log from your own eye.
My point is that rage diminishes the heart. Clergy may rage in one or more ways, but rage makes us myopic, insensitive, and unkind. It blocks the indwelling spirit, so that the fruits of love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control are replaced by hate, intolerance, unkindness, hardness, and confrontation. Suddenly we are incapable of joy. We are only capable of anger.
The church and the public picture clergy (or want to picture clergy) as standing in the garden next to the Tree of Life, holding out an apple, and offering comfort and compassion to others. But if you could look into the heart of many clergy, you might see they are standing beside a steaming volcano that is ready to erupt, holding a hot rock that is searing their own finger tips, but which they cannot let go. What is needed is for the Holy Spirit to reach around their shoulders, take the rock from their hands, crush it into ash, and blow it away. Then they can return to where they should be … beside the Tree of Life … with a heart that is expanding to include everyone within their reach.