He wasn’t expecting this to happen. No class in seminary prepared him for such an encounter. Let me set the scene.
He was twenty-six years old and a few months into his first pastorate. We would describe him as “still wet behind the ears.” Despite his inexperience, during a meeting with the Christian education board, he voiced a minor disagreement with a man thirty years his senior—a man, incidentally, who was quite knowledgeable of the Scriptures and had served his church faithfully for many years.
Once the meeting adjourned, the unthinkable happened. As the young pastor walked back into his study, the longtime member followed slowly behind him. After he shut the door, the first words out of his mouth were, “Don’t you ever . . .” You might be surprised as to how that “godly man” who served his church so faithfully proceeded to talk to the young, freshly ordained pastor. I’ll let him tell you. Here’s how he described it:
“For the next couple of minutes he let me know that I had no calling from God and was a disgrace as a pastor, and that as a man I was only worthy of disrespect. Dipping into the rated-R movie dictionary, he chose words to let me know that if I ever crossed him again (by which he meant, disagree), I’d be done as a pastor (a threat he later tried to keep). My heart raced. Anxiety flooded my veins. ‘A soft answer turns away wrath’ I remembered (Prov. 15:1). So, I tried, and it didn’t. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. . . . He scowled down closer within head-butting range, raised his tense finger, and threatened, ‘I’ll be watching you to see if you mean it.’”
How do you think you would have responded? What would you do? If you’re within your first five years of ministry, and you’ve been spared such a moment, perhaps pray in advance that God will grace you with self-control to respond humbly and with love to such a person.
I wonder: In the midst of all your hours studying theology, church history, and ethics, are you spending time bathing yourself in the loving presence of our dear Savior? Are you regularly confessing sin and asking him to forgive you and transform you? Do you prayerfully read the gospels, marveling at Jesus’ interaction with people—how he always loved them, spoke the truth to them, and cared for their souls? Truly, this is a wondrous sight to behold.
But back to the young pastor dealing with an unruly church leader. (Don’t glide too easily past the fact that this is a recognized leader in the church.) Are you prepared for this? While I’m sure moments like this are rare in life and ministry, they do happen. It’s for this reason seasoned pastor David Hansen says, “Pastors are like football quarterbacks: they need to be able to take a hard shot from their opponents and get up smiling.”
But how do you get up smiling? How do we prepare ourselves for dealing with this kind of scenario? How do we deal with confrontation as younger pastors? I can think of three ways:
- Cultivate a consistent prayer life. I have found that as I live a life of prayer, constantly reminding myself that every second is lived before the face of God, I become less irritable, less inclined to respond too quickly to anyone’s comments. Instead, I am praying as I’m listening, asking God to help me know what to say—or if he wants me to say anything at all. You might be asking: “That’s all well and good, but the circumstances you’re describing above deals with someone who is visibly angry with you. Isn’t it more difficult in those moments?” Sure it is. But as we pray for the Holy Spirit to control us at all times, I’ve found that you lose the desire to respond angrily. Instead words like Proverbs 19:11 flash across the screen of your mind: “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” Again, how do we cultivate this kind of disposition? Ben Patterson gets it right: “It is the fruit of the time we have spent with the Savior, the utterly unique and unparalleled thing that happens to us when we are simply in his presence.”
- Cultivate a calming presence. Have you ever been around someone who oozed calmness, who consistently lived with the mind of Christ, whose soul always seemed to be at rest? I’ve only experienced this on a few occasions. When I have, I’ve routinely felt calmer after the conversation was over. If you haven’t experienced this in person, take a moment and cast your mind on Psalm 131. This Psalm portrays a man who is calm and quiet on the inside. Serenity drips from David’s pen and his tranquility spills over into the lives of his readers. Notice how he cultivated this inner quiet: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me” (v. 1). He cultivates quiet by renouncing his pride and refusing to try to control the uncontrollable. Listen, you are not in control. You are not in control of your own life and you are not in control of others’ lives. This means you can’t control other people. Here’s how this applies to dealing with difficult people in the church: Difficult people will consume large amounts of space in your brain; this, in turn, will drain you mentally, and zap you emotionally. So here’s what you need to pray: Pray that your emotional life would not be controlled by the sin you see in others. And pray that God will fill you with peace, joy, and calmness on in the inside.
- Cultivate courage. Coasting through ministry is a temptation all pastors face. We want others to like us; we want all peoples’ approval. As someone once said, to avoid offending people, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. Think about it: Why did the longtime member in the story above get upset with the young, twenty-six year old pastor? Because the young pastor dared to voice a disagreement with him! If you challenge the status quo, expect others to push back, seeking to hold on to “the way we’ve always done things.” So, cultivate courage, brother pastor. One way to do this is to read Christian biography. John Piper writes, “God ordains that we gaze on his glory, dimly mirrored in the ministry of his flawed servants.” I agree. Read the biographies of men like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, and Spurgeon. Let this kindle your passion for God, humble your heart, and lift your voices in praise.
 This is a slightly embellished scene adapted from Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 47-48. Please note: Although I’ve embellished some of the details of the setting, the words voiced by the man in the story are direct quotes.
 David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without All the Answers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2012), 92.
 Ben Patterson, Deepening Your Conversation with God: Learning to Love to Pray (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2001), 52.
 Barbara Miller Juliani, ed. The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 54.
 John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000), 17.