Being Right is NOT an Excuse for Being Mean

As pastors, we don’t even need to be angry for our words – even true words – to hurt people unnecessarily.

Some pastors seem to delight in being hard and mean.

We’re in a spiritual battle! they’ll say.

Jesus used a whip and turned over tables! they’ll remind us.

OK. Yes, Jesus did that. Towards religious leaders.

But to the average person seeking help and truth? He was almost universally meek and gentle – a friend of sinners. So kind and nice that it got him in trouble at times.

Pastors have a lot of power in the church and in people’s lives. Many would argue that we often have more power than we should – and I would fully agree with that. But that is reality. A reality we need to take into account then we’re dealing with people.

In addition, there seems to be a group of pastors who are perpetually angry. They can quote chapter-and-verse for everyone else’s sins, but they’re not so good at remembering James 1:20 which reminds us that “…man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.

As pastors, we don’t even need to be angry for our words – even true words – to hurt people unnecessarily.

Here’s an example.

Never Embarrass Someone

I had a meeting several years ago in which I spoke harshly to a church member. Appropriately for the situation, I thought, but harshly. Afterwards, a leader in the church who had sat in on the meeting approached me and suggested I apologize to the person I’d been severe with.

“Why?” I asked. “They were in the wrong and wouldn’t listen to reason. They even rolled their eyes at one point! I had to raise the emotional level to get through to them. Anyone else would have done the same thing in that situation.”

“Yes, you’re right”, the church leader said. “I saw the eye-roll too. And I was very upset at how disrespectfully they were talking to you. But you’re not just anyone else. You’re their pastor. Those words in that tone from a friend, teacher or boss would have given the situation the impact it needed. But those words in that tone from their pastor was devastating. You have a deeply wounded church member right now.”

They were right. So I followed this wise suggestion. I apologized.

And, as it turns out, the person I’d been harsh with was feeling completely demoralized. Not by my words and tone, but by the fact that those words in that tone had come from their pastor. 

I had embarrassed them. And, as my friend Dave Jacobs recently tweeted “It’s a terrible thing to feel embarrassed, therefore, as much as it depends on you, never embarrass someone.

Some of us, in our need to win an argument, are pushing people away from the truth of the Gospel.

Better to lose an argument and win the person than win the argument and lose the person.

Certainly Paul had something like this in mind when he encouraged fellow believers who disagree, “Why not rather be wronged?” (1 Corinthians 6:7) than to allow such disagreements to escalate.

With Great Power…

Since that day, I have made a special point to be gentle in my words and tone. Especially when I’m wearing my pastor shoes. But I also remember that those shoes never really come off. Not even with other pastors. Not even on Facebook.

Certainly, the responsibility to speak kindly isn’t just for church leaders, it’s for anyone who follows Jesus.

But it’s not a coincidence that the scriptural command to speak the truth in love is written specifically to church leaders (Ephesians 4:11-15).

Truth and love. Both matter. Like the left and right wings of a plane.

When spiritual leaders throw around harsh words and finger-pointing, even if it is to condemn sins that justly need to be condemned, we need to realize that those words carry more weight than we think. Even (especially?) when it feels like they’re not getting through.

Being right is not an excuse to be mean.

And being in church leadership means we should take even greater care with our words and their tone.

With great power comes great responsibility.

 

So what do you think? What will you do to remember to speak the truth in love?

Karl Vaters
Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.