I think it’s only appropriate to write a follow-up to my last post, “How to Destroy Your Pastor.” I do this partially because I highly doubt that I will write anything as popular, so I want to ride its wave as far as I can. But it’s also because the account I shared does not cover the full story. That particular experience went on to affect subsequent interactions I had with other parishioners, and so it seems disingenuous of me not to share about those conversations as well.
The conversation I’m thinking of took place in my office. A parishioner had made an appointment to see me, to talk about something that I had shared in a recent sermon. I feared the worst: that she was going to take this opportunity to pick my sermon to pieces. So I braced myself. But in truth, I did more than brace myself. I hardened my heart. I was afraid that she, too, was coming to criticize me, to tear me apart, piece by piece. And I was not going to let that happen, not this time. So in order to emotionally protect myself, I shut her out before she even walked through the door.
She did indeed tell me how she was having a hard time with something that I had shared in my sermon. I all but rolled my eyes at her. Here was yet another parishioner who felt free to call me to account because my sermon was not as perfect as it should have been, or because it did not cater to her exact set of needs. She must have sensed my naked irritation, because she started stumbling over her words and getting red in the face.
Serves her right, I thought self-righteously. Not so easy to dole out criticism when your target is sitting right in front of you.
But the more she shared, the more I realized that she had not come to criticize my sermon. She had come to express her love for the church. She explained to me that she had never really enjoyed church before, and so felt little inclination to make any investment in the church, not to mention her own spiritual life. This was the first place where she felt a real connection with both Jesus as well as with his body, and the first church that she loved enough to make an appointment with the pastor and to ask tough questions. It was not an easy thing for her to take this step. She blurted all this out to me, and then lapsed into an awkward kind of silence, staring at the dingy carpet at her feet.
Ashamed, my heart sank. I had completely failed to recognize that this woman’s visit was not a sign of her displeasure with me or with the church, but because this was the first time she loved a church enough to care. It was actually a sign of her enthusiasm and commitment, a sign which had been all but ignored by her own pastor. Unlike my earlier experience, this woman was not speaking to me as an enemy, but as a brother in Christ and as her pastor. But because I had been treated as an enemy so recently, I assumed that she was trying to do the same. Yes, I was only trying to protect myself, but it was still an unfair and ultimately incorrect assumption. With disappointment written so clearly on her face, I knew that I had to make things right.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being such a terrible and rude listener. I’ve had a hard week—or, more exactly, a hard season of life. I’m so glad that you love the church enough to bring up your thoughts and concerns; that really is so special to me,” I said. “I hope that nothing I’ve done has made you lose any of your enthusiasm for this church. If I have, please forgive me.”
She brightened up somewhat and graciously told that she didn’t know what I was talking about. It was nice of her to lie on my behalf. I’m happy to say that we were able to patch up our relationship after that conversation, and I consider her to this day a dear sister in Christ and a wonderful encouragement to me as a pastor. But I learned something important in that conversation: Some people are trying to destroy pastors, it’s true. But some people are not. And you have to give every individual an opportunity to prove that they are the latter and not the former.
It is difficult to treat every individual fairly, especially after we experience deep trauma. Such encounters wound us emotionally, and it is only natural that we should erect some kind of defense in order to prevent us from getting further wounded in the future. And one of the ways we tend to protect ourselves is through prejudgment, assuming the worst of people before they have done anything to earn our mistrust. It is an effective means to guard our hearts.
But it is also a way that we can inadvertently pass on our pain to others who have done nothing to deserve it. In this way, pastors who have been hurt can go on to hurt their parishioners, treating them with unearned suspicion and even hostility, leaving their charges bewildered and wounded. As hard as it is following a particularly damaging experience, it is vital that we treat each person we meet with an open and gracious heart.
There is no better model of this than Christ himself. Jesus had a difficult and antagonistic relationship with the Pharisees and other teachers of the law, and rightly so. Many of them wanted to trap Jesus on some point of the law, arrest him, and kill him. He had every right to be skeptical of these men and their motivations.
But despite how so many Pharisees treated him, Jesus did not treat all teachers of the law the same, as a generic and monolithic group. He treated them as individuals. He met secretly with Nicodemus, who goes on to defend Jesus against the Sanhedrin in John 7 and even helps Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’ burial. In fact, John 19 says that Nicodemus brings with him 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes, a quantity fit for a king. And in Mark 12, in response to the remarkably insightful comment of a Pharisee, Jesus pays him high praise, saying that this man is not far from the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ mentality should be the mentality of pastors (and people) everywhere. Yes, it is true that some will try to wound you, even destroy you. We must be aware of this reality, and actively work to dismantle it in our churches. I can testify from firsthand experience that some do have this attitude. But not everyone. And every time God places a soul in my path or in my care, I have to actively reject prejudgment and be prepared to view him with the same grace that Christ himself offered me.
Some might choose to violate this good faith and attack me, it's true. But to judge a person by my past hurts, even though I might do so out of great pain and with the best of intentions, is still to judge her. And that is a role that God alone should play. My role is to love people as Christ loved me.