Why Am I Angrier Than I Used to Be?
July 1, 2000
During a recent baptism, I paraphrased a passage of Scripture to fit the situation: "If anyone is in Christ, he or she (I was baptizing a young woman) is a new creature in Christ."
The next morning, I was going through the cards we use for guest registration, prayer requests, and miscellaneous information. Suddenly one of them nailed me, by name, for "daring to change the infallible, inerrant, unchangeable Word of God. When the Bible says 'he,' it means 'he' … to change it to fit your rampant feminist agenda is the worst kind of heresy."
Most days I would have tossed it in the trash with the hope that he buy a better laxative. But that particular Monday, that note really scorched me. I wasted an hour writing a scathing reply, even though the note was unsigned. (We've since adopted the policy of trashing unsigned critiques without reading them.)
At lunch I told a buddy about it, and he asked, "Why did that one make you so angry?"
"I don't know," I grumped. "I'm sick of stupid people and their stupid comments and their stupid inability to rejoice that someone made a public declaration of their faith. I'd like to show him a little heresy right across the jaw."
"Got a little anger problem there, don't you?" he asked.
"Of course not. It ticks me off that you'd even mention it."
Okay, I admitted he was right, and we talked it through. We both admitted that over the past few years, anger arrives a little quicker and stays a little longer than we like.
Petty issues that once would have received only a fleeting thought now get under our skins where they fester. Imaginary conversations with the objects of our anger get nasty or even violent.
What's up? Are most pastors angrier than they used to be, or are my friend and I just in need of a good therapist? I took a highly unscientific e-mail survey of 25 friends in ministry; 22 answered, and 20 said, "You're darned right I'm angrier than I used to be, and here's why." I'm sure the other two are in denial and will come around when they read this article.
The anger complex
All agree ministry is more complex than we ever bargained for. People's lives are more broken than even ten or fifteen years ago. The personal cost of doing ministry is higher than anyone ever dared tell us.
But the reasons for a growing anger go far beyond these realities. Here are some that my informal pastor-panel pointed to.
More responsibility, less support. We feel this awesome responsibility to transform a world increasingly hostile to the gospel, yet the people who are supposed to help us become the very obstacles we must overcome to reach that world. People with a casual or insulated faith and the incipient universalism of our day frustrate anyone called to do the work of an evangelist. We stand alone against the world, and the world appears to be winning by a big margin.
Accumulation of petty anger. When I was young, a neighboring family came down with a devastating illness. Several of the children died and the rest suffered permanent brain damage. What investigators discovered was that the father had found a truckload of discarded seed corn and fed it to the family hogs. The corn (not intended for animal feed) had been treated with something so bugs wouldn't eat it before it germinated. The hogs ate it, seemingly with no ill effects.
But when the family hogs became the family breakfast, the family was poisoned. It seems that many substances—pesticides and heavy metals like lead and mercury—do not pass through the digestive system, but remain in the body, always. In tiny doses, the effects are minimal. But over time, the effects are horrible.
That's what happens to many of us in ministry. Every day we ingest minute amounts of conflict and disrespect. No big deal, we think. Just blow it off. But we don't. Instead it gets buried in our liver and 20 years later, we go ballistic over some kid skateboarding in the parking lot and wonder, Where did that come from?
Dissonance between calling and reality. I came into ministry with a red-hot passion to change the world and revitalize the Church. Instead I found myself surrounded by hurting people who expected me to help them.
Conversely, some of my peers sensed their calling was to serve hurting people. They were totally unprepared for the expectations of some that they would lead a charge to change the world. Whatever our view of pastoral ministry, there will always be those who expect something much different from us.
While we weren't looking, someone raised the ante on what it takes to be a decent pastor. Whatever skills or gifts we don't possess are the very things people seem to want most from us. Nothing makes a person angrier than having the rules change in the middle of the game.
Midlife realizations. My pastor friend George Clark says, "Midlife is when the skepticism of youth collides with the cynicism of old age." By the time a pastor gets enough experience to be wise, he or she has also picked up enough battle wounds to be angry.
Our best years of ministry could be our fifties and sixties, but far too many good pastors that age are giving up the pain of parish work for leadership roles in parachurch or denominational ministries. Why?
Most of us never attain some unspoken goals. Perhaps it's the expectation of a comfortable income, or the dream of a particular size or style of church. The invitations from book publishers and conference planners still aren't coming, and the seminary still hasn't honored us as alumnus of the millennium.
Coming to terms with unrealized hopes is part of our maturation process. Often, when we scuttle our dreams, God gives us a better one.
Most pastors in America could quote from their own sermons the supposed solutions to inappropriate anger: Go easy on yourself. Find a hobby that helps you relax. Get more exercise. Get more sleep. Blahdy blahdy blah.
The fact that I don't have time for a hobby or get enough exercise or restful sleep is part of the reason I'm angry in the first place.
Unresolved anger is a spiritual problem that won't get better without a spiritual solution.
After reading the reflections of my colleagues in ministry, here's where the better wisdom seemed to be pointing.
Discover why I need to be busy all the time. When I overbook my life, I get stressed. When I get stressed, I get insomnia. When I get insomnia, I get cranky.
"So why not just work fewer hours?" some uninformed person might ask. Because I have to, that's why. Why? I hate digging too deep into motives. Too often I find they are only partly true at best, and at worst, irrational.
Because most days I enjoy the work of ministry. True. Because my staff colleagues are counting on me to help lead our church toward a preferable future. Mostly true. Because there's a whole lost world depending on me to save them. Really? And just what role does God play here? And because there are voices from my past, telling me "You're lazy," or "You'll never amount to anything." How sad is that, to live life today based on comments from 30 years ago?
It's not just being busy with ministry that gets to us. I found myself feeling resentful last Thursday night because I had to coach my daughter's basketball team. I love my daughter and her teammates, but that night I craved solitude more than anything.
And here's another stressor. I feel selfish for taking time away from my family to spend time alone. Even my quiet time alone with God feels like work when I get out of alignment.
Anger is a byproduct of a life with skewed priorities. Jesus modeled for us a rhythm of periodically retreating from both people and process long enough to recharge. In Mark 6:31, Jesus said to his weary disciples, "Come with me by yourself to a quiet place and get some rest."
When I first read that, I found myself thinking, I wish someone would say that to me. It took a while to realize that He did and does. When we're used to living life with the pedal to the metal, allowing ourselves to idle feels pretty uncomfortable. But it's necessary if we want to get a grip on our anger.
Practice what you preach about community. Give more than lip service to the necessity of community. Famed consultant Peter Drucker said once that the only two organizations that are really changing people are 12-step groups and the church. The common denominator behind the success of both is community.
Change happens when we allow others into our lives. We could whine all day about the difficulties of building trustworthy friendships with our parishioners. Other pastors in town may have viewed us as the competition, rather than allies, and rejected our attempts at friendship.
But let's just get over it. I'm sure glad that, as a single man, I didn't let a few rejections from women keep me from pursuing a relationship with the one who became my wife.
There are some people either in your church or in your community who are willing to like you in spite of your vocation. As hard as it may be to connect with others, we'll never get our anger under control alone. I can choose to seethe in solitude or to change in community.
Give up the occupation of people pleasing. A friend recently experienced in his ministry a rebirth of sorts. When I asked what had happened, he responded, "After a dozen years in ministry, I discovered it wasn't my job to make or keep people happy."
Pursuing purpose instead of popularity allows me to keep focused in spite of criticism. If people don't like me, it makes me sad (after all, what's not to like?), but it no longer angers me.
As long as my life is invested in pleasing God, as long as the ones who know me best love me most, I can deal with rejection from the masses.
Let go of unresolved hurts. Flashback to seminary: A buddy and I are both serving churches while finishing our final year. I've just received my first major shot to the gut from a parishioner. We're walking from the classrooms to the library, and I tell him the long, sad story of my hurt.
Before I can finish, he butts in. "If you think that's bad, listen to what happened to me."
We've kept in touch since, talking once or twice a year. It startled me to discover that though more than a decade has passed, the first thought that comes to mind when I hear his voice was his unwillingness to listen that day. I was disappointed to realize that I had never consciously forgiven him.
Forgiveness is the harder road, and one that must be taken intentionally. Living our lives on cruise control will only take us down the Interstate of bitterness. I must consciously forgive even the slightest of slights if I am to maintain good emotional health.
When to see a professional
Sometimes anger builds to such a toxic level that we are unable to purge ourselves of it without help from a counselor.
When do I call for some help?
1. When I feel the need to react with violence. In this day of disgruntled postal workers and disenfranchised students who take guns to school, it's really amazing that we haven't read in the papers about some abusive congregation who pushed their pastor to the edge of retaliatory violence.
But untold thousands of pastors have played out fantasies of verbal, even physical violence. We've all heard the jokes about naming your golf balls, then teeing off with all the strength you can muster, sending elder Johnson into the deep woods. These strong reactions are evidence of strong anger—anger that may not go away even after that ball is buried in the pine needles.
2. When I want to forsake my call. How many of your best friends from seminary have called it quits? For me, the answer is "too many." With only one, maybe two exceptions, their decisions to leave ministry were in some way related to anger. A contentious church. Self-loathing over their imperfections. An angry spouse who said, "I'm sick of church life and getting out, with or without you."
Walking away from ministry is a decision no one should make without wise counsel from someone who is equipped to help you get to the root of the issue(s).
3. When anger poisons my best relationships. It was one of those days. A parishioner didn't show up for our 6 a.m. breakfast meeting after he'd insisted we meet as soon as possible. Then an early morning phone call made it apparent that the chair of our properties committee had lied to me about the cost and timeline of some much needed repairs. An anonymous letter not only criticized my last sermon, but also my motives and devotion to God. The computer was doing things it was not supposed to. This was all before noon.
When I got home for a quick bite of lunch, a tricycle blocked my side of the driveway. Guess who got the brunt of my smoldering anger? A sweet, little four-year-old who came running out of the house to greet her daddy. The intensity of my outburst was a wake-up-call for me. I started driving halfway across the state every other Monday to see a counselor.
At first I insisted the problem was "them." He hung in there long enough to convince me that the building rage within me was my problem. In the long run, the ones who stood the greatest chance of being hurt by it were not "them."
Once I accepted the problem as my own, that put me in control to do something about it. As I enter the middle years of this race called ministry, I struggle to throw off some ugly souvenirs of anger I picked up along the way.
I'm more committed than ever to finishing this race with my faith, character, and family intact. I refuse to allow anger to rob me of experiencing joy along the way. And I reject the notion that change is too hard, or that it's optional.
With the help of my small group, my family, and the Holy Spirit who resides within me, I'm hopeful that I'll finish the race having set aside the anger that has hindered me thus far.
Ed Rowell is senior pastor of Tri-Lakes Chapel in Monument, CO, and a former editor for Leadership Journal and Preaching Today.
How I'm redirecting my anger
The following comes from a subscriber of our free Church Leaders e-newsletter (see www.leadershipjournal.net) responding to a devotional on anger.
One result of premature losses in my life (including, at age 11, my mother) was a deep and abiding anger, coupled with fear of future rejection and loss. I have had to deal with my anger directed at spouse and children. The question of how to unlearn anger biblically is relevant to me.
Might I suggest the following process, derived both from painful experience and from (I believe) biblical directive:
- Dealing with your anger at the time of high emotion is almost impossible if a process of handling it has not been developed earlier in the coolness of thoughtful and prayerful analysis.
- Developing a mindset of positive alternatives does wonders. (What does Colossians 3:1 say? "Set your heart on things above, not on earthly things … ") On a recent trip home with extensive delays culminating in a bus ride from another airport delaying my arrival home further—cause for anger—God helped me use the time on the bus to reflect and think of his glory. That turned the darkness of a bus into a prayer room. I am learning God can substitute his best in our circumstances.
Raleigh, North Carolina
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