By Rev. L. Althouse
January 29, 2006
Background Scripture: 1 Timothy 5. Devotional Reading: Matthew 23:23-28.
In a recent issue of The Christian Century, a Bishop tells of a pastor who came to him with tears in his eyes, saying “Bishop, I can’t go where you’re asking me to go. This move could destroy my marriage. My daughter is a high school senior. I can’t do this.”
The Bishop’s reply: “Were you at the service of ordination Sunday night? Remember, you promised God that you would go where I sent you. It’s a heck of a way to run a railroad… but it’s our way and we pray it’s God’s way, too… Start packing.”
Unquestionably, he has the power to make that kind of decision. Perhaps, too, he was right in judging that, out of maybe a couple of hundred pastors in his charge, only this man could meet this parish’s need. And conceivably this move could not have waited one more year so that the daughter could graduate with her class.
Even if all of the above were true - and I doubt it - his response was incredibly rude. Surely, no bishop would want one of his pastors to speak to a lay person that way. When several readers wrote critical letters to the Century about the Bishop’s handling of this situation, he attacked his critics with another burst of arrogance.
I have been in the church long enough to know that most of the wounds received within the congregation are spiritual rather than physical. The power to use words to injure others has been demonstrated all too frequently by clergy and laity alike. It’s not true that “Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” The damage done by harsh words may last longer and do more harm.
In my early years in the ministry there was in our system a fair amount of unnecessary insensitivity. I am glad that pastors are no longer just moved from church to church like pawns on a chessboard, but are part of a consultative process that attempts to meet the needs of congregations, pastors and clergy officials.
I remember that some 40 to 50 years ago Conference Sunday was often the most gut-wrenching day of the year: pastors waiting anxiously for the reading of pastoral appointments, their wives sobbing in the assembly when at last they learned their fate. I recall a parishioner who, as his pastor was leaving for annual conference, loved to taunt him with the suggestion that maybe he wouldn’t be returning to that parish. I also remember a pastor who arrogantly announced to his congregation that he had decided to give them ‘another chance’ and would return for another year as their pastor.
The power of words
Although your church may be organized differently, I doubt that harsh words are limited to any particular type of church. We cannot escape conflict in our congregations (it can be positive as well as negative) but we can keep conflict from becoming bitter and thereby destructive to the unity to which God calls us.
In our premarital workshops, my wife and I tell prospective brides and grooms that they can handle conflict in their marriage without destroying it by using “I” statements instead of “You” statements.
Focus on telling someone how what they do or not do causes you (“I”) to think and feel, rather than attacking the other person with how wrong they (“You”) are. When we attack another person, we put them on the defensive and there is little chance to work out a conflict.
So, I’ve gotten no further than the first two verses of 1 Timothy 5: “Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity.” (5:1,2)
But these are 30 words that can make a lot of difference.
Published in the January 25, 2006 issue of Farm World.