Investing your money on a treadmill is a good idea. Investing your money on a punching bag is a practical idea. I’m sure there are those that would argue that one form of exercise is better than the other. Of course, it is much more fun to tape a picture of someone on a punching bag rather than tape one on a treadmill for obvious reasons. Sometimes it is nice to exercise your right to let off some steam on someone’s smiling and unknowing face without the bloody consequences or trips to the police station. But before you run to the Christmas wrap box for the Scotch tape remember that chances are your last family Christmas photo is possibly taped up somewhere too maybe even on your neighbors dartboard with little holes where your smiling eyes once were.
Over the last few weeks I’ve received a number of emails from sweet minister’s wives asking for advice when dealing with difficult people within the church. Typically in these scenarios the minister’s spouse is approached by a church member and verbally accosted, questioned or even criticized for things out of his/her control. Sadly, this is a common experience for ministering families. Situations like this usually occur when the aggravated and assaulting personality is 1) too cowardly to confront the minister directly or 2) a confrontational person. In worst case scenarios these situations lead to the minister’s spouse becoming a punching bag on any and all ministry related issues.
I thought I’d put my general advice that I offer regarding these scenarios on my blog. I assume after several emails that this problem happens to every ministering family at least once in their career. My guess is it happens more than once. I’m sure that most of this advice is applicable for everyone in a difficult relationship not just ministry related situations. On a daily basis, everyone deals with some kind of relational conflict.
When I’m approached by someone who either wants to complain about my husband or my husband’s ministry this is what I do…
Step one: With as much love as possible, and I’m not being sarcastic here, I let them know that I am not the minister. Sometimes, dependent upon the individual, I throw in a joke about missing a paycheck from the church or in the very least needing a huge raise for my efforts. Be careful with the jokes though. Some folks will take you literally and that will begin a host of other issues and questions about your theology. The mission here is to send them to the source of their frustration. The Bible teaches us to go directly to the person within the conflict. It does not say to go to the person’s spouse or best friend. Gently usher them to the minister and do not discuss the situation further.
Step two: If the person is really attacking your husband or family do not be too timid to let them know how inappropriate it is to criticize someone’s spouse. Sometimes I ask them, then and there, how they deal with situations when their spouse is criticized. A warning though, often negative personalities will pick on anyone even their own mother. So, verbally abusing their spouse may seem the norm in their household. Be assertive. Let them know you love your spouse, that you are proud of your spouse and that you will not tolerate or listen to hateful criticism. Then walk away. If you stand there and take it do not be surprised when they come to you the very next week for more figurative gut-punches.
Step three: When I make a mistake or if I am responsible for a bad situation, I own up to it and apologize. Playing the blame game and pinning it on your husband or someone else in the congregation only exacerbates a poor communication system. Be the first to take responsibility, and be a good example of holding yourself accountable. We have far too many folks who are not held accountable for their behavior or their neglected responsibilities within congregations. Be the first to be responsible for your actions. Own up to your mistakes.
Step four: Remember that someone’s opinion is not a reflection of who you are. Nor is someone’s opinion a reflection of your spouse or his/her ministry. Just because someone may choose to be dissatisfied or even grumpy doesn’t mean you must own their frustrations. If you take on everyone’s issues your shoulders will be weighted down, and trust me burn-out from ministry comes on fast when you choose to carry the burden of everyone’s frustrations.
Step four and a half: Often we forget that individuals respond to you based on outside influences that you may know nothing about. Previous bad experiences with other ministers or even difficult home situations affect the way each person communicates with you. Sometimes people develop a bad attitude toward ministers and their wives because there are deeper spiritual problems at work. How we handle our relationships with difficult people may affect their future relationship with other church members and even their spiritual relationship with God. Remember that the anger may not be coming from their frustration with you. It may come from somewhere else.
Step five (aka the step that trumps all other steps): Pray for them and I don’t mean to pray that lighting strikes them from above to fry them into charred piles of dust. Pray that God works in the relationship. Pray that you can clearly understand their perspective. Pray that God will give you the wisdom to be lovingly assertive. Even if they are the thorn in your side every day you see them, pray for them. Even if you have to pause before you get out of your car and face them, pray for them. Prayer changes your heart and God will give you the strength to be wisely assertive when it is the right time. Do not ever underestimate God’s healing power in relationships. He is the great healer after all and He wants all his children to get along even the particularly surly ones.
Finally, it is important to remember that not everyone gets along. We are all made differently with different talents and different opinions. This is a good thing not a bad thing. I always try to remember to learn something from each person that I come in contact. God made all of us to add special purposes to the world and to His church. He made each one of us to act in a special way so that congregations function properly and can accomplish God’s purposes. Each person has a place in God’s kingdom.
My encouragement to you, sweet friends, is this: do not be someone’s punching bag, but when you are, because it may happen, be a blessing to that person. Bless them with tender words, a listening ear, and prayer… lots and lots of prayer. Be the first good experience someone has in a difficult situation.