Uh, Pastor… Being Right Is Not an Excuse to Be Mean

angrySome 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?

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(Angry Graffiti photo from Thomas Angermann • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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11 thoughts on “Uh, Pastor… Being Right Is Not an Excuse to Be Mean”

  1. Gary W. Davis

    Probably my favorite thing you’ve written. I think there is a hidden message in the way we have formulated our leadership structures in the Church that lends itself to this kind of behavior being more and more prevalent and more and more excusable and ignored. And when it happens in a big visible way (ie. Mark Driscoll) those on the outside see and rightfully call us to task for it.

    We’ve spent a lot of time and energy using corporate reasoning and structures in the organization and implementation of our leadership culture. It is inherently a “top” down, and title based. It is centered on the application of power and discipline, and tends easily towards a domineering demeanor.

    Even if we don’t mean it, like in your case. You weren’t speaking or acting that way out of a malicious nature, or any intent towards harming them, but it is normal course in the business world for someone in a place of power to wield it. Simply put, since we organize much of what we do around those kinds of models, then it makes sense that we would behave in those sorts of ways.

    We lost touch with Jesus who came to “serve”. Who believed that power comes from below, not from above. That it is in being low, being the last, that we wield the true power of the Gospel.

    We’ve become addicted to “leading” when what we are called to do is “follow”.

    1. I agree completely, Gary. The other day I was having a conversation with a few pastors, when one of them said “sometimes in our leadership models, we forget that Jesus wants us to be servant leaders”, to which I responded, “sometimes without the word ‘leaders’ at all”. (There may be a future blog post in that).

  2. Karl, good to see this blog today after talking with you about the same thing yesterday. I really appreciate you sharing your life, your church and your ministry with the rest of us. Hope to stay in touch.

  3. You said the following scripture is “is written specifically to church leaders”. It is written to all of God’s people. Read the rest of the sentence and notice everyone is included. Even in the previous sentence Paul has switched from the 5 giftees to “we” and “all”.

    Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

    There is a power person here and it’s Jesus.

    1. Actually Tim, I think a strong case can be made that Paul was purposeful (probably a better word choice for me than “specifically”) about giving that command in a passage on church leadership. But we are definitely in agreement that it’s not exclusively for church leaders and that the only “power person”, as you put it, should be Jesus.

      1. As I read “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, ” “we” means everyone is to grow up to be a leader. What is left out from “in every way into him…” that would leave someone perceived as God’s plan for them to be a non-leader? “Each part” is to “make the body grow”. It takes leaders to “make the body grow. I’m curious as to what the text says about leadership that would exclude some. Everything in this text is describing an organic relationship (life powered by the creator, and reproductively spreading to all parts).

        1. Tim, I think you and I are in probably in complete agreement on this. You ask, “I’m curious as to what the text says about leadership that would exclude some.” My answer – no one is excluded. I said so in my post with, “Certainly, the responsibility to speak kindly isn’t just for church leaders, it’s for anyone who follows Jesus.” and in my comment with, “we are definitely in agreement that it’s not exclusively for church leaders.”

          My only point – perhaps clumsily stated by me – is that the command comes within the context of teaching about leadership, (which you seem to agree with when you wrote ” “we” means everyone is to grow up to be a leader.” I completely agree with that.) implying that we should exercise even greater care to speak the truth in love as our influence grows.

          By the way, when I speak of leaders in the church I don’t just mean those who hold titles or positions, but anyone who practices a leadership gift – which should be every member of the body at various times.

          1. Thanks for your clarification on your view of believers relationship. Eph 4 has been used (twisted in my view) since the reformation to create a dichotomy between equippers and non-equippers, leaders and lay folk, clergy and laity such that one man dominates the personal expression of truth in strict one-way communication during the worship hour, and in other elements like decision making and vision building. It is very easy for the majority of believers to willingly play the role of the submissive and largely dumb sheep and encourage the leader to play the dominant Bible expert role with no reproduction, example setting, or spiritual mutuality between the two. When there is an occasional sheep that objects, there is usually a relationship power eruption. Both sides of the dichotomy are left unskilled in two way communication or any sense of mutuality with each other.

  4. I’ve been on the wrong side of such words. Seen it several times too. Often it seems like the speaker is tearing down the other person in an attempt to build themselves up. When something needs to be said I’ve found it helpful to talk it over with my elders and err on the side of grace. After all Jesus has extended a ton, okay several tons to me.

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