Dr. Timothy Tennent: Laying Down the Burden of Accumulated Grievances
Occasionally a wise person gives unwise advice. I remember my first full time ministerial appointment was in the North Georgia conference of the United Methodist church. The minister I followed had been there five years, from 1979 to 1984. Since it was my first appointment I was needing as much guidance as I could get on the “lay of the land.” He agreed to meet with me before I officially started so he could give me some advice, and I could gain from his experience. He chatted on about various traditions and procedures and all the normal kind of nuts and bolts of ministerial life. He told me where the hospitals and nursing homes were, and who the shut-ins were, and so forth. Everything was going well when, quite suddenly, he sat up in his chair and motioned for me to draw close because he had something important to tell me – and warn me about. He said, “I need to tell you about the dirty laundry.” He went on to mention two ladies and one man from the church. He said that lady X (I will, of course, not mention any names) was just an all-around “pain-in-the-neck” and would oppose any new idea I had. She had lived alone for many years, he went on, and had nothing better to do with her time than to oppose the pastor. The other, lady Y, was not so much a complainer, as a fear monger. He told me that she saw the dark lining in every cloud. If you gave her lemonade, she would find a way to turn it back into lemons. Even her cat was named Sourpuss. Finally, Mr Z, my pastor friend went on to tell me, was such a tightwad that when he took a dollar bill out of his wallet, George Washington’s eyes blinked at the light. Any new idea was met with “we can’t afford it.” He told me to steer as far from them as I could. “Avoid those three,” he told me, “and you will do fine here.” Those were his final words to me. I’m not “making this up.” This really happened to me.
I didn’t follow his advice. The reason is that it is based on the false dictum: “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” As pastors, we know better, even though we struggle with living it out. We are called to be ministers of reconciliation. Shortly after I moved to my new appointment I went to visit all three of these parishioners. (It may have been driven more by curiosity than my noble character). Without going into all the details, let me say that lady X and lady Y were two of the finest members I had and were always a great encouragement to me. I got to know them both quite well over the next six years, and I eventually gleaned that early on, they had a little disagreement with the pastor, and it went unresolved and the whole thing just grew and grew until it was a cancerous growth in the life of the church. I was learning a big lesson in the very first few months of my life as a pastor. I learned that you never avoid people. That is almost always poor advice. If anything crops up which makes you feel awkward towards someone, then go and talk to them face to face and get it all cleared up. It is always good to say “I am sorry if I did anything to hurt your feelings” or “I am sorry if anything I said or did created any misunderstanding.” It is amazing how powerful a force it is when someone opens a conversation with “I am sorry.” You may not think you have done anything wrong. That is not the point. The point is that you enter into their frame of reference and you are empathizing with their experience in a given situation. I have now been in ministry for almost forty years. I have learned that being right – or proving that I am right – is not nearly as important as learning to allow God to shape my life and live in reconciliation with all those around me. I have learned that sometimes I write in a way which is far more forceful than my personality would normally allow and I have had to restrain myself when I get a “pen in my hand.”
Mr. Z, as it turned out, was about like my friend described him. He did not want the church to ever spend money. As Paul said about the Cretans, “this testimony was true.” During those years the church was growing by leaps and bounds. Before we knew it, we were needing new Sunday School rooms and a new kitchen and we even built a new parsonage. I decided to keep Mr. Z on several of the key committees during this growth period. He always voted “No” because, as he quite predictably said, “we can’t afford it.” But, I kept him at the table. It actually gave courage to all the fainthearted because they knew that Mr. Z would restrain any project which was not linked to a well thought out financial plan. I grew to love Mr. Z, even though he always voted “No.” My warmest memory of Mr. Z was when we voted to undergo a building project which would dramatically increase the size of our sanctuary. It was a bold and expensive project. We spent months preparing for the big church meeting. The day came when the District Superintendent came to our church for the church wide meeting and the vote to accept or reject this building expansion. The entire church voted “yes” except for Mr. Z. But, to our amazement, he did not vote “No.” He didn’t vote “Yes” either. When the D.S. called for “abstentions” Mr. Z raised his hand. The D.S. was flabbergasted when the church broke out in spontaneous applause. But for those of us who knew Mr. Z, his “abstention” was the most thunderous support we could have imagined and everyone instantly broke into joy and applause.
As we start our new Fall schedules, we cannot help but think of people in our circle with whom things are just not right. It may be festering sores based on relational dynamics, politics, response or lack of response to COVID-19, or just different views of what should unfold in the life of the church. One of the burdens we carry as leaders is known as the burden of accumulated grievances. It means that the little grievances or offenses throughout our time at a church can build up over time and, eventually, crush us and end up sending us to a new appointment. Once there, the process starts all over again. But, there is a better way. Keep all your relationships up to date. “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). Be quick to forgive and put things behind you, because there are few wounds deeper than that which a church can sometimes inflict on a pastor. Do you need to take care of some kingdom business before the sun sets?