Margaret Marcuson: When Should a Pastor Duck?

There’s a time to take a stand--but there’s also a time to get out of the way. When should you duck?

Here are three times to duck:

When someone is asking you to fix a relationship or solve a problem which is not yours to solve.

This is a classic triangle. One mistake I see pastors making is this: they get involved in fights which are not theirs.

Remember that you are not responsible for other people’s relationships, even though they want you to be.

I got a great line recently from Israel Galindo at the Leadership in Ministry workshop in Boston: “That must be very difficult for you.” It pushes the responsibility right back on the person who is trying to give it to you.

When someone offers up a barrage of complaints.

Hear this: You don’t have to answer them point by point, in person, or in email or via text. Some anxious people send a dissertation to their pastor. You don’t have to read it all. Really.

If you are getting regular emails, especially lengthy ones, from one or two individuals, you don’t have to respond in detail. Sometimes you don’t have to respond at all. If you do answer, make it a neutral response.

In some cases, you don’t even have to read them. Advanced class: Don’t even open them. This is not about the content of the email, but the emotional process of this individual’s part in the church system. You can still relate to them pastorally, but don’t engage in a back and forth on the issue at hand. You will never convince them of your perspective, so don’t even try.

When there is pushback about a needed change, you may need to duck some of the flak.

(Sometimes #2 is part of this.) If you stay calm and don’t get defensive, chances are it will calm down. It’s part of the inevitable resistance.

Note: it can be systemic pushback even if it’s not “about” the change. For example, if you are making changes in worship, something might pop up in the youth program or an outreach ministry. In any case, don’t get too distracted by the content of the issue.

This doesn’t mean you can duck every unpleasant conversation. Here’s the tricky part. Many pastors are conflict-averse and avoid difficult conversations. We want to hide every time someone doesn’t like what we do. True confession: This is my own default position. Leadership requires hard conversations, especially when we are moving forward with key initiatives. It means doing the hard work of listening carefully to people who have a different perspective on the church and its future.

When is it a thoughtful decision to duck a triangulating move or a flood of criticism, and when is it simple avoidance? You may need an outside perspective--a thoughtful colleague outside the church or a coach to help you discern, if your own anxiety is high.

However, I know this: It’s not a good use of your energy to try to solve other people’s problems or fix their relationships or make unhappy people happy. Let them work it out.

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