The team member who is your biggest headache

“…a thorn in the flesh was given to me …lest I be exalted above measure” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

They’re standard equipment, these “thorns in the flesh.” Burrs under the saddle.  Pains in the, well, you know.  They come with the territory.

I’m reading Jack “Dusty” Kleiss’ memoirs of his service in the Second World War.  “Never Call Me a Hero: A legendary American Dive-Bomber Pilot Remembers The Battle of Midway” is the lengthy title.  I recommend it highly.

As a student of the Second World War, I must have read a dozen or more of such books, memoirs of veterans of this greatest of all conflicts.  In spite of the title, Kleiss deserves the recognition and accolades of a hero as much as anyone ever has.  Again and again he risked his life flying planes of all kinds throughout the Pacific in the war against Japan.  He kept good records, his team did great research, giving us details on the days he served, the planes they flew and the men he served under alongside, which included Admirals Kimmel, Halsey, and Nimitz.

All is good, except for one guy who keeps popping up throughout the story.

Lt. Clarence Dickinson was his thorn in the flesh.

Jack “Dusty” Kleiss’ interactions with this colleague reminds us of something similar that happens to pastors of churches.  Pastors can be mightily used of God to build great churches and reach large numbers of people, but throughout their lives there will almost always be one or two people who were thorns in their side, who did many things well and right, but who persisted in making life difficult for the people around them.

For Kleiss in the Pacific war, that burr-under-the-saddle colleague was named Clarence Dickinson.  Both Dickinson and Kleiss were graduates of the Naval Academy, both were dive-bomber pilots, they had gone through pilot training together at Pensacola, and both were heavily decorated. But–well, here are instances throughout the book.  Come to your own conclusions….

— Just after graduating from the Academy, “I had received temporary duty in New York City, where I had friends.  When Dickinson heard about my assignment, he insisted on going in my place, based on seniority.  Dickinson took my spot on the plane leaving to New York, and I was left, bag in hand, on the ground.”  (p. 105).

–Dickinson had “a high-pitched squeaky voice to explain all his forthright opinions to everyone.  He was prone to heated outbursts.  For instance, during our training in Hawaii, Dickinson lost favor with the maintenance crew when he nearly crashed his plane after lapsing into a panic.”  (p. 105)

–“On September 21, 1941, Dickinson nearly killed me.” A film crew was getting footage of planes in action and the dive bombers were flying in tight formation toward the camera, with Dickinson in the lead and Dusty Kleiss just behind him.  “Dickinson was supposed to dive and, once clear of the formation, open his wing canisters, releasing hydrofluoric acid into the air, which gave the illusion that his plane had been shot down and was on fire.  After that, I was supposed to take over the squadron and engage the fictitious enemy.”  What happened was that Dickinson opened his tanks of acid before diving, spraying the corrosive chemicals all over Kleiss’ plane just behind him.  The acid peeled off the paint and coated the cockpit windshield, then a toxic fog was sucked into the plane blinding Kleiss and burning him.  Without his goggles, Kleiss would have lost his eyesight.  His clothing melted and he was severely burned.  During his nine-day stay in the hospital, Dickinson never apologized for the incident.  He ran by the hospital one day to say, “I’m sorry it happened.”  Nothing more.  Kleiss threw him out of the room. (p. 106-109).

–When one plane bombed a Japanese submarine, the U-boat did not sink but was immobilized and dead in the water.  “The next day, Clarence Dickinson piloted his dive-bomber out to that location and finished it off.”  For that, both pilots were given the Navy Cross, a decoration for extraordinary heroism in combat one step below the Medal of Honor.  Kleiss writes, “While I fully acknowledge my prejudice against Dickinson, I stand by my belief that it cheapened (the other award) for the Navy to give Dickinson the same award” (p. 122).

–On board the aircraft carrier Enterprise, Kleiss and his fellow fliers watched as five Japanese bombers charged at the ship.  Inside, the team opened a port cover for a better view of the action.  But Clarence Dickinson hit the deck and hid behind a row of chairs, screaming, “My God! Here they come!”  Kleiss says, “He was the only member of (the group) to take cover.”  “We all laughed at him and took turns at the porthole, narrating events just to make him more nervous…. I was still angry at him because he had not apologized for the movie fracas back in September, the incident that nearly killed me.  It was soothing for me to see Dickinson in a comical moment of weakness.” (p. 145)

–Kleiss was stunned just months after all this to read a book Dickinson wrote of his experiences in the war.  Titled, “I Fly for Vengeance,” Kleiss was flabbergasted.  “I was shocked it see it bearing the brazen title, ‘I Fly for Vengeance!’  Would you believe it, that’s the name of his book!”  He notes that Dickinson fails to mention in the book how he cowered under the chairs when the Japanese bombed his ship.  (p. 145)

Well, maybe Kleiss was being too hard on him.  He wondered. “Maybe I shouldn’t be so vindictive.  When we tell war stories, we veterans unconsciously leave out all the details that embarrass us.  I wonder what I’ve unconsciously left out now (in this book).”  (p, 146)

We pastors know the feeling, don’t we?

You work hard and give your best, trying to get your church on a healthy footing, trying to reach the unchurched, preach the Gospel, and minister to the hurting.  In all of this, you are trying to capture a greater vision for the church and inspire your leadership team with the same goals.  But one member is not on the same page as you.  He seems to have his own agenda.  He can be counted on to bring up the negatives in any situation.  He frequently votes ‘nay’ on recommendations.  And yet, he has a large group of friends and followers in the church.

I said to one pastor, “Are  you afraid of him?”  He said, “I’m not afraid of him but I am afraid of the damage he could do if I were to fire him.”

I once heard John Bisagno–the mmensely talented and magnetic pastor of Houston’s First Baptist church for several decades–say that in all the years of his ministry there, one deacon fought him on everything he ever attempted.  I was surprised. Surely, most of us would have figured, a pastor as charismatic and powerful as Dr. Bisagno would make short work of a persistent nay-sayer on the leadership team.  But he didn’t.  The man stayed on.

Moses had his thorns in the flesh.  Burrs under the saddle.  Chronic complainers. And so will you and I.

A few questions….

Why does God allow them?  Paul said “lest I should be exalted above measure.”  He had had the vision of the ages, it appears, a glimpse of Heaven itself.  The Clarence Dickinsons keep us grounded.  Not everyone thinks we are the best thing since sliced bread.

Why do we tolerate them?  Kleiss tolerated Dickinson because he had no power over the man, being of equal rank.  And it does appear that Dickinson was an effective dive-bomber pilot. We put up with a lot from colleagues who are able to “get the job done” in other ways.

Do we think we are better than anyone else?  If others have such nattering nabobs of negativism–to use Spiro Agnew’s famous phrase–why shouldn’t we?  Isaac Watts asked, “Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed the bloody seas?”  (From his Am I a Soldier of the Cross?)

My story….

June 1997.  In my seventh year at that church, I finally had had enough.  In the Sunday morning sermon, I told the congregation about the little group that was meeting regularly to undercut my ministry and to find ways to oust me.  I said, “I need that group to know, I’m not going anywhere! God sent me here and I plan to stay until He says otherwise!”  The congregation burst into applause.

Then, I added, “But I do need to say two things to that group.  One, God is using your opposition to make me prepare well and give my best so you’ll have nothing to use against me.  The friction is making me sharper.  And second, one day you will stand before a Holy God and give account for what you are doing to the servant He has sent to His church.  And I would not be in your shoes for anything in the world!”

Over the years, not a single member of the little group ever apologized or attempted a reconciliation.  I attended their funerals, since I remained at the church for another 19 years, the last 12 as a pewsitting member.  Sitting in the rear of the funeral home, I prayed.  “Father, I forgive him.  Please do not hold that against him, for Jesus’ sake.”

I figure I’m going to need mercy when I stand before Him, and want to show mercy now.  That’s Matthew 5:7.

So, servant of God, labor on.  Be faithful.  And if someone is constantly barking at your heels, thank God for the honor they do you, pray that you will be patient with them and love them for Jesus’s sake.  Then, consign them to the Father and go forward.




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