Friday, February 13, 2009

In the Hands of an Angry Pastor

Here's a post I drafted over a month ago. It looks pretty much done, so I thought I'd put it up...

One of the things that I'm learning in CPE is to work when I am angry. What I mean is, I have two tendencies - want to be aggressive when I'm angry, and in response to that, I've built another tendency, which is to become passive and do nothing. Neither of these is healthy nor tenable.

A couple days ago I got a chance to practice. I was in the middle of quite a tangle - an angry surgeon, an angry charge nurse, an angry unit manager, and a very frightened and angry patient. The situation was going nowhere; it was just getting worse. Everything was cycling around this particular patient, who was, in all honesty, quite a problem in her own right for a number of reasons; I could see that as it kept circling, it was escalating. It was like a textbook case from the conflict resolution curriculum I went through years ago through the American Friends Service Committee.

Except that everyone in the room but the patient had more authority than me. My first response was to be really frightened. I stood there for probably a minute or two, starting sentences and not finishing them, not really being listened to, not knowing what to do. The tipping point came when the surgeon lost the composure he had left and turned to me and called me out. He basically said, angry and sarcastic, "this is your job - if you don't solve it, then you don't love Jesus". He said a few other things and stormed out.

Man, that really pissed me off. So I started doing things. I started intervening. Everyone wanted out of this situation, but they were all caught in it. So I gave them ways out. When the surgeon came back to pick up his loud argument with the patient again, I said, among a few other things "This isn't helping either of you. You're a surgeon - you've got more important things to do. Go do them."

To my surprise, he did. He took the way out.

The whole 'incident' lasted around an hour or so before I could disentangle myself. I came back to the office and unloaded on my colleauges. We went out to lunch, and my blood was still boiling.

Later on that day, my supervisor asked for the story. Apparently the unit manager had come to him and said how well one of the chaplains had handled a situation on the floor she was managing. To my surprise, that was me. (At the time, I had the feeling I was just putting out fires and about one step from screaming at the patient myself).

In talking about this later (believe me, we talk about everything in CPE, over and over again) I realized that I perceived a choice - being angry, or being pastoral. When this was pointed out to me, I realized how tremendously stupid it was, and I also realized how overwhelming the message had been to me from my experience of my denomination and, frankly, of the Church in general.

The image of the pastor is Jesus delicately holding a wayward lamb, or Jesus hugging the children, or Jesus giving soft platitudes by the seaside. I have seen pastors be punished for showing anger, even when it is in healthy, constructive ways. Its ok to be angry at the Iraq war (for some of us) or angry about poverty or angry about abortion - but the message I've received very strongly is that you can only be angry about that outside, general, social stuff.

God help you if you are a pastor angry at your congregation, or your Session, or the Presbytery.

And I think of our 50% burnout rate among Protestant pastors. Which is similar to air traffic controllers or military snipers, by the way. And I think this is part of why. We don't allow pastors to be human beings. Human beings get pissed off. Sometimes they get pissed off and act out of it. And sometimes, as I'm learning, it is the anger, and maybe nothing else, that makes someone move, and claim power so that it can be used to maintain peace and right relations.

I know that this is also my issue - but I'm here working on it and sweating over it and getting all this uncomfortable (and sometimes encouraging) peer and supervisor feedback about it. But as a Church, what are we doing?


Aric Clark said...

Healthy expression of anger is like a healthy expression of sexual attraction - basically a good thing... BUT also a minefield because it is soo much easier to have an unhealthy expression of anger than a healthy one.

Anger is usually a cover for something else - a wounded ego, grief, fear etc... It can be healthy at times to show others your anger as a signal to them "hey! I've been hurt here!" Like shouting "ouch!" when someone steps on your toe. But it seems to me that if it goes beyond that you've probably gone too far. Once the person has been informed you probably ought to step back and deal with the actual cause of the anger, rather than pursue anymore expressions of anger.

There is possibly another kind of anger, which isn't a protective response, but rather a slow burning sense of frustration or injustice. THAT in some ways can serve as fuel for effective change, but I'd still be wary of it because a burning sense of injustice may or may not actually be right. You may feel it is an injustice that you don't earn 150k a year, but it probably isn't.

Doug Hagler said...

I think part of th e issue is that, if the anger isn't expressed in some way (or isn't allowed to be expressed - i.e. you are punished for the feeling itself) then you won't have a good check against things like a perceived injustice that isn't really unjust in most people's view.

For one of the theorists we've read, what anger does is it signals to you that you need to move but are stuck. It is the energy to move, to act toward some kind of change in your life, that just festers if it is not recognized and acted upon.

The problem for me, though, is that a pastor is not allowed to be angry in mainline church culture. Anger itself is viewed as a failure. And that's like viewing sexual attraction as a failure - absurd and damaging.

Aric Clark said...

I agree it's a problem that pastors aren't allowed to get angry. It fits right in with a host of other unrealistic expectations of pastors - they are supposed to be serene and pacific, wise, patient, knowledgable etc... anger is a problem because it apparently contradicts most of those things.

I think there are ways to subtly start to work around this. Similar to me choosing to drink, or occasionally cuss, around my congregation. The purpose is to subvert those mental images of a pastor just enough to get a crack of daylight in and allow for more genuine interaction. In the same way I think you could find appropriate symbolic times to demonstrate a small amount of anger in order to subvert that expectation - and then discuss it.

Humor is also a fabulous tool as always. Joke with your congregation in sermons and during fellowship about times you have "gotten angry" - normalize it and make it okay. If they're laughing about it then they will be more accepting.

Jodie said...

Really interesting post. You grabbed a surgeon by his ego and got him under control? Wow.

The worst pastors I have ever met are the ones that never show anger. Fact is, they always show anger.

But anger is just one emotion. The rules for emotions are all the same. You need to listen to them always, both yours and those of others, and you need to express them ethically as the situation demands.

Emotions are the most basic form of reasoning, I think. As children we sometimes learn to first ignore and repress them as part of the socialization process. We are told that we are feeling incorrectly, when the reality is we are expressing incorrectly. So we get confused and stifled.

Sometimes as adults we need to re-learn to feel and express them.

Feelings are not my strong suit. I have had to relearn them over many years. So I admire those who do naturally what has taken me lots of painful experiences to learn or recognize.

But I have found that my own emotions can be excellent indicators of how other people around me are going to behave. It's almost a form of telepathy.

(Sometimes it can be tricky to realize that what you are feeling is not yours at all. It really is telepathy!)

And I have found that the most effective communicators are those that can communicate on multiple planes, both intellectually and emotionally.

It is not the feeling of emotions that will get you in trouble. In fact, not feeling them is really like being deaf and blind. But sensing and expressing are two different things. The inappropriate or un-ethical use or expression of emotion will get you every time. Double edged knives. Use them, but use them with caution.

It seems like you may have the right instincts.

Caranam said...

I just found this blog of yours. I think you're dead on with the anger, though I would also add that pastors aren't allowed to have much of any emotions beyond benign good-naturedness.

As an associate I'm in the weird position where I have a little bit more leeway in my actions and emotions, but much less authority. I'm not sure how I feel about the compromise.

Nick.Larson said...

I really like "what anger does is it signals to you that you need to move but are stuck." I think that summoned up your situation in the hospital room. Everyone was stuck in that situation and your anger helped you to help them to move. Very interesting...