Managing Your Enemies
When I was studying the Psalms in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. V, was exploring the topic of the imprecatory psalms, which are the ones that include some pretty nasty things that the psalmist hopes will happen to his enemies.
One of my favorites is Psalm 58:10: “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.” Touching, isn't it?
Dr. V gave his explanation as to how to interpret these psalms (namely that this reflects God's attitude towards injustice), and then offered his insights into the concept of the enemy. “You will learn very soon in ministry that you'll find enemies everywhere you go. And you'll even find your fair share of them inside the church.”
It didn't take me very long in my first youth ministry job to discover what Dr. V was talking about. I managed to get an angry phone call from a parent before I'd even taken the reins of the ministry. Before my first summer was over, it was clear that a couple of people in the church were not in my corner and probably wouldn't ever be.
Sometimes you offend them, intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes you completely drop the ball and deserve to be chastised. Other times it'll feel like junior high all over again—people simply decide they don't like you and there's nothing you can do about it.
Part of the package of being a pastor includes having people disagree with you. My father likens the rigors of pastoring to being a small-town basketball coach. Everyone has an opinion about how things should be done and wonders why you can't do it the right way (which coincidentally is also their way). So the question is: how will we respond?
We could take the example of the psalms and pray righteous prayers about bathing our feet in their blood.
Or maybe there's a better way.
You're bound to have run-ins with parents. If you're naturally a defensive person, perhaps you should practice these phrases in your mirror at home: “I'm very sorry;” “I apologize for how I upset you;” “I'll do everything in my power to see to it that this never happens again.” To some degree, the business adage that “the customer is always right” applies here—an upset parent cannot be dismissed. Parents must be handled with care and a great deal of active listening.
Be grateful if they're complaining to you. At least they're telling you about their concerns and not spreading their anger among other parents. Besides, they are the parents; we're not. They still know what's best for their children; we're partnering with them. So listening well, even when their concerns might be unfounded, will get us far. We can feel free to correct any inaccurate information they pass along, but we should do it in a way that shows them respect.
There are few more painful experiences than when some of your own students decide you're not worth their time anymore. On a couple of occasions, I've felt the harsh sting of students who removed themselves from the ministry because I'd offended them or, worse, because of a misunderstanding that they were unwilling to sort through. As far as it depends on us, we must live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). So we must do everything in our power to reconcile the broken relationship.
If a student is unwilling to respond, we must be the adults. We can't take it personally, and we have to understand that they are, after all, still teenagers; we should continue to love them as God does.
Get Your Senior Pastor in the Loop
Practically speaking, when you know someone is angry with you, it behooves you to lay out all the facts to your senior pastor before someone else does. When they know your side of the story first, and they trust you, pastors are more likely to defend you when appropriate. Very few senior pastors enjoy surprises. The more they know, the better they'll be able to see whether this is a legitimate complaint or a church member who has it in for you.
Hold On to the Good
I'm convinced that God can use our enemies to keep us honest and humble. Every time I receive criticism, my first reaction is to get defensive and point out the reasons why the criticizer is wrong. Once I get past the defensiveness, I try to think as objectively as possible about the situation and ask, “What do I need to learn from this situation?” Even when offended parties are completely off base, there's almost always something I can learn from them.
The reality is that sometimes I'm a jerk. All of us can be jerks occasionally, and there are times when we need to own up to it. Recently, two people I trust (unbeknownst to each other) pointed out the same character fault they'd observed in me. One of them also brought a list of five or six other people who shared the opinion. It was painful, and I immediately started looking for reasons why their criticisms were inappropriate and unfounded, but the timing of the conversations necessitated a closer look at myself. I decided to take the criticism and learn from it. I don't know a single person who enjoys being criticized, whether it's from a friend or an enemy. But learning from criticism is crucial for our growth.
Move Closer to Your Enemies
Our first response is to avoid our enemies. We avoid eye contact with them in the foyer and brace ourselves when we see them coming our way. A pastor who's been in ministry for a number of years had this to say about looking backÑhe wishes he had moved closer to, rather than away from, his enemies. He realizes that avoiding our enemies is the easy way out.
We all want to be around people who like us, but they don't have the capacity to help us grow the way our enemies do.
It's the same thing with feedback on sermons. Who learns from, “Nice job today, pastor,” and “Great message, man”? I'd rather have one honest, thorough, and critical evaluation than 20 responses full of general praise. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). If iron isn't around other iron, it never gets sharper. Iron hitting iron is a strong and potentially painful act, but the outcome is a sharp knife and a useful tool.
Forgive Easily and Forget Quickly
John Wesley had such a successful ministry partly because he had a terrible memory. In other words, he didn't hold grudges and forgave quickly. We should be the same way. We should expect sinful people to act sinfully, even when their sins involve tearing us apart. And we should be quick to forgive whenever possible.
It'll be very tempting to slander people who've treated you poorly. Ask God to give you a holy heart for these people. Share your grievances with God first, and if necessary, with one or two trusted friends who can help you process through them.
Sure, praying Psalm 109:9 may be biblical (“May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow”), but it's not terribly productive. I suppose Jesus said it best—Love your enemies.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.