Trouble in the pulpit: The angry pastor

“Now, in the last days, difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self…boastful, arrogant, revilers…ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited…. Avoid such men as these.” (II Timothy 3:1-5)

Veteran Christian workers get this a lot. People tell you of a conversation with you from years ago in which you spoke words that changed their lives.  You were God’s gift to them that day, or, just as likely you infuriated them and they have not been able to get past it.

The problem is you don’t remember any of it.

My daily e-mail brought two such messages, one of each kind. A young minister was thanking me and an older pastor was venting. The conversations had occurred some ten years earlier.  I remembered neither.

The older pastor told of the time he sat in my office, seeking guidance for entering the ministry. According to him, I had asked what kind of church position he was interested in.  That was the harmless little question that had ticked him off and fueled his anger for a full decade.

“I was morally outraged by the question,” he said.

The issue,  he said, was doing God’s will, not what he was interested in.

Morally outraged.  That’s what he said.

I could not have been more surprised than if my question had given him a sudden craving for chocolate ice cream.  One seems to have little to do with the other.

We never know what is going to set someone off.

Unresolved anger is a scary thing. One never knows when it’s going to rear its ugly head, who it’s going to victimize, and what price the perpetrator may be forced to pay as a result of the damage he causes.

A minister harboring unresolved anger is a ticking time bomb capable of doing a lot of damage to a great many people. What’s worse, it will all be done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The angry pastor will poison his relationships with staff members, with the deacons, with anyone coming to him with a plea for help, and particularly with anyone bringing a criticism to him.

I put this question to a group of ministers: “What does an angry pastor do?”  As they talked, I took notes…

–Angry pastors take their aggression out on their staff.

–They drive people away from the church.

–Their preaching is harsh and graceless. They become “clubbers” from the pulpit, clobbering people with the Word.

–They become vindictive, unforgiving, interested in payback.

–The pulpit becomes a place to vent, to accuse, to belittle, to defend.

–He is harsh to his wife and stern and unloving to his family.

–He blames others for his failings.

–He beats the sheep instead of feeding them.

–He becomes bitter and sarcastic. “All sarcasm is rooted in anger.”

–He crushes the hearts and spirits of the congregation.

A good pastoral counselor can be such a person’s best friend.  We said a “good” one, please notice.  The last thing an angry minister needs is a passive non-directive counselor who will nod and repeat back his own statements. He must have someone who will look him in the eye, call a spade a spade, and hold him accountable for his misbehavior.

This kind of counseling can be painful, may be expensive, and could require numerous sessions over many months. Furthermore, it takes a severe toll on the counselor himself. An hour with an angry person completely drains the counselor.

Typically, the bitter minister will not be going for counseling, however. The problem is everyone else, not him.  The world needs to change, not him. Woe to the poor soul who ventures to suggest he get counseling for his problem.

When a pastor (we’re talking about any minister) admits to his anger problem and seeks out a pastoral counselor, he has taken a major step in the right direction. But to say he’s “halfway there” would be simplistic. Not by a long shot.  He has a long road ahead, but the people who love him most and believe in him strongest will cheer him on and will be there to celebrate with him at the end.

At a gathering of pastors from across denominational lines in our city, various ministers were sharing prayer concerns. An African-American woman said, “I am the pastor of Phillips Memorial United Methodist Church. We are in trouble. In recent days we have learned that our church is built over a toxic land fill. The poisons in the soil are endangering everyone. We are going to have to relocate our entire church. Please pray for us.”

Since I was pastoring a congregation that had ruptured a few years earlier, leaving a lot of members unhappy and quite a few angry, I made notes of her words.  My church, I realized, was built on a toxic land fill.  Anger was destroying the church.

Anger will poison a congregation as surely as the worst toxins in the soil.

It’s bad enough when church members bring active, unresolved anger into the congregation. And it’s worse when the hosts of this disease are leaders of the church. But when the mad men are the pastors, all bets are off.

From then on, it’s all downhill.

A search committee chairman called to get my opinion on a certain pastor in my area.  Among the things I was able to tell him was this: In spite of a difficult pastorate where my friend was now serving, he had retained his joy in the Lord and a healthy perspective on ministry. He was angry at no one, and loves them all.

That’s the kind of person I want as my pastor.

It’s the kind of pastor I want to be.

One more thing…

A friend suggested that Dr. Wayne Oates, longtime seminary professor in Louisville and widely acclaimed teacher of counselors, had something special to say on this subject in his book Behind the Mask, published in 1987. The following are notes attributed to Dr. Oates….

–The angry pastor wants people to fear him. He is anti-social. Prides himself on his bluntness. Intimidation is his first tool of choice in relationships. He loves a good fight. His motto is “I don’t get angry; I get even.” He’s vindictive and people fear him, are afraid to confront him or cross him.

–Manipulation and coercion become his tools of conquest. Everything is about him.

–The question everyone asks is “How do we deal with him?”  Answer:

a) Tell him ‘no’ firmly and solidly. Don’t give in.

b) Refuse to be frightened by him.  Keep telling yourself he cannot hurt you.

c) Use gentle humor with him. Gentleness is the believer’s great strength, a lesson this bully has never learned.


5 thoughts on “Trouble in the pulpit: The angry pastor

  1. Hello Pastor Joe
    Grace and peace my Brother
    Whenever I can access your blog, and obviously I learn a lot from your messages.
    With your permission, I would like to translate to Portuguese and send to my pastors friends here in São Paulo, Brazil.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and wisdom with us

    God Bless !!

    Pastor Elias Marcelino
    Shalom Baptist Chruch, São Paulo – Brazil

  2. I am not a Minister but I read the entire article. I have also dealt with the public for much of my life as a police officer. As I read the article, it occurred to me that it applies to every husband and father. To be candid I recognized myself to some degree. In my case I have a wife, a companion who is gift from God. Like the counselor you describe, she has been strong, calm, understanding and above all, loving. After 57 years, she is still my best counselor and best friend.
    I enjoyed the article; if only it were read by every man.

  3. Some men who preach consider their anger to be not only appropriate, but necessary, to get their points across. Such men seem to be in love with their own words, and seem also to not take into account just whom they are preaching to. Anger has its use – very sparingly, and, a pastor’s anger should not be aimed at the congregation, nor its individual members. Since we who are in the Lord are redeemed, the use of anger towards those in Christ is inappropriate – as we do not await God’s wrath. But a lot of men don’t know this. Some men use the pulpit to preach to the unredeemed – which is entirely inappropriate. Some preachers seem to feel that anger gives their words more weight – these are men who are unprepared for the task of preaching. I left a church with an angry, sarcastic pastor who abused the pulpit by preaching to the redeemed in Christ as if they were outside of Christ, each week, and re-evangelizing those in Christ, each week. He could not be corrected.. I think some men feel that gentleness is weakness, and they don’t know how to be gentle, nor care to learn. I left a church with an angry pastor 20 years ago, saying good-bye to many friends, but the man was ruining my faith in Christ. I have never regretted my decision to leave that church. Thank you for your very good thoughts and good advice; I will direct others to this article.

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