Caring Enough to Confront

Recently I experienced a first in my many years of being a pastor's wife. Oh, I know that church members have been unhappy with my husband at times, for reasons ranging from the understandable to the ridiculous. And I am sure negative comments have been exchanged between parishioners in private. That's part of ministry. You simply can't please all the people all the time.

But this experience was entirely different: A parishioner confronted me in person, one-on-one, unexpectedly, with a complaint about my husband. Ooooooh. . . she was venomous! (And, as it happened, she was wrong in her accusation.) Although this particular individual tends to be unhappy, I had no warning of her impending attack, no time to plan a response. And yet, a response was unavoidable, because we met alone on a quiet staircase.

In the instant before I spoke, I realized I had three basic choices:

  1. Let it go, which would have given tacit approval to her unkindness and to the reign of terror that she had inflicted on many around her.
  2. Let her have it, which would have made me feel better for a few seconds yet much worse afterward.
  3. Let her know without excessive emotion that she was mistaken.

Though the particular complaint may not matter, for your understanding and curiosity, she was very put out (to say the least) that my husband had missed a musical program at church. What I explained to this woman was that the program was planned because my husband was going to be gone; that's why we had the program in the first place. He didn't run out of town to avoid it!

As is often the case, there was much, much more behind her complaint. She went on to say she was also mad at my husband for missing a musical event months earlier. To that complaint, I explained that the particular event took place during my husband's planned quarterly break — and that he had entirely missed his previous break due to a funeral. Surely she could see he needed some time off.

Oh, but the previous pastor — with whom this woman had apparently been angry for all of his 21 years of service — never came to choir programs either. I could see that this was a very old issue. I felt like saying loudly, "Get over it!" but managed to hold my tongue. Instead I pointed out that my husband is different from the previous pastor, and that it is unhelpful to compare the two.

So there you have it — a parishioner "loaded and cocked," seemingly just waiting for an opportunity to lash out. And there I was, her convenient prey.

I didn't like being put in a position of feeling the need to defend my husband. He can handle his own ministry-related problems. But while I'm not sure there really is a right way to handle such a situation, in this case standing up to this perpetual troublemaker and giving her the facts seemed the thing to do. I cared enough about my husband and our church community — and perhaps even this individual — to confront her at that moment.

Following this uncomfortable encounter, I was comforted by God's peace, confirming I had indeed done what was best in the given circumstances. But I was hurt, having lost a degree of naiveté and innocence (perhaps rather late, given my husband's years in the pastorate) through this experience. While I hope not to face this sort of situation again soon, it did make me think about being better prepared.

How I might respond in the future will depend first on a consideration of whether the complaint might be legitimate, then on an assessment of the person making the complaint:

  • Is the person chronically negative? Or is he or she having a bad day?
  • Is the person known to be entirely unreasonable? Or might a logical explanation be well received?

Depending on the complainer and the complaint, these will be my options (not including the ill-advised "blasting back with all I've got"):

  • Ignore it with an "I'm sorry you feel that way" and a kind suggestion that the person talk directly with the pastor [think "slow to speak" (James 1:19)].
  • Speak briefly with an "I'm not sure that's really the case. We can talk more about it if you like" [think "quick to listen" (James 1:19)].
  • Confront the complainer by recounting and reframing the facts, and perhaps with a challenge, such as "That's an attitude that could be destructive to the ministry of this church" [think "slow to anger" (James 1:19), along with "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15)].

Although you want your spouse to be treated fairly, the choice to confront should rarely be made, and only when you're not simply reacting by defensive reflex. But sometimes chronically mean and complaining people have been allowed, even encouraged, to be that way for years because others are afraid to speak up to them. Your direct words might help to break down a wall of hostility if you are brave enough to speak truthfully, not out of similar meanness, but out of conviction.

Defending your spouse shouldn't become a habit, and fortunately it's not something most of us are often required to do. But in those rare times and places, we should be courageous enough to risk, out of care for our spouse, our church — and our accuser.

I've not spoken with the disgruntled parishioner of my story again on the issue she raised, but I have been friendly to her. I hope that as a result of our encounter she will think before she speaks unkindly to others in the future, both within the church and without. For that result would be worth the discomfort of confrontation.

Article copyright © 2003, Karen Johnson Zurheide.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Karen Johnson Zurheide and her family live in Edmond, Okla.