The sins of ministry: Anger

Anger is not necessarily wrong. Righteous anger, directed against some form of evil, may well be Christian love in operation. Not to be angry about injustice and exploitation in this world would not at all be virtuous. A lack of anger could be a sign of our lack of love and concern for others. There is a rightful place for feeling angry, as Jesus in the Cleansing of the Temple clearly showed.

Indeed, God himself can be angry – according to the Apostle Paul:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth (Rom 1.18)

This is not about God ‘getting into a paddy’, but about God being justifiably angry with those who fail to honour him, and who as a result go on to flout his holy laws and end up ruining the lives of many others. Luther called this righteous anger of God, “an anger of love, that wishes no one any evil, one that is friendly to the person, but hostile to sin”.

Ian Stackhouse maintains that this anger on behalf of others (as distinct from anger on our own behalf), “drives our creativity, and often clarifies our thinking”. He quotes Martin Luther:

I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temperaments depart.

But all too often our anger is unrighteous and egocentric, and has more to do with bruised self-esteem or a failure to get our way, rather than to do with God’s way. According to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount such selfish anger runs the risk of not only destroying others, but also of destroying ourselves too: “If you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment”.

But is anger an occupational hazard for ministers? The American psychiatrist AD Hart said: “Pastors are among the angriest people I work with”. Henri Nouwen perceptively pointed out that anger is very much

“… a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church, and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart”.

But not all ministerial anger is ‘frozen’. A survey of British pastors revealed that only 7% had never “preached aggressively”: 4% admitted to often preaching aggressively; 45% to sometimes preaching aggressively; and 44% rarely preaching aggressively. Although relatively few admitted to losing their temper with the church or in a service or losing their temper with an individual in a service, some 40% admitted that there had been times when they had lost their temper with the church in a church meeting, while 41% admitted that there had been times when they had lost their temper with an individual in a church meeting. Even more ministers admitted to having lost their temper in one-to-one encounters: 16% sometimes, and 45% rarely. The survey did not reveal the degree to which these expressions of anger were ‘righteous’. It could be argued that sometimes emotion needs to be expressed if feelings are to be conveyed; and that the process of healing can be helped rather than hindered by the occasional expression of feelings. On the other hand, such feelings need to be discharged appropriately, both in terms of ‘how’ and ‘with whom’.

How should pastors deal with their anger? The Psalmist urges us to “ponder” our anger (Psalm 4.4). Why have we reacted in this way? What has been upset? Our own self-esteem? Our personal preferences? Has something unconsciously hooked into our past and gained a power which it ought never to have had? The first step in dealing with anger is recognising it for what it is. A second step is recognising the difference between feeling angry and acting out anger destructively: pastors need to think through what might be an appropriate response rather than simply letting rip. As the popular maxim has it, “when angry count ten before speaking; when very angry, count 100 and don’t speak”. For, as Peter Brain rightly says:

When I simply respond because of my angry feelings, there is every chance that as my feelings of anger increase, other emotions needing attention will be added, and the basic problem will remain unattended to.

A third step might then be to find a ‘safe’ place with, for instance, a supervisor or counsellor, where the roots of the anger might be explored – for only as past anger is dealt with is true freedom gained.

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