One sure way to cripple your ministry is to speak to your congregation harshly, either in or out of the pulpit.
Don’t confuse harshness with boldness. One can speak softly and gently and still be bold. To be bold, according to Merriam-Webster, is to be “fearless before danger” – a virtue when communicating biblical truth. But the voice of the bold may be calm, the words measured, and the tone devoid of the harshness that pushes people away.
William Plumer reminds us that
Harshness is not fidelity. There are hardly any maxims more false or mischievous than these: “There is no good done unless opposition is aroused,” [or] ’”One’s fidelity may be tested by the enmity he awakens against himself and the doctrine he preaches.The hostility of the natural heart against God and his word and people should never be wantonly or needlessly provoked. It is strong and active enough at all times to evince its deadly nature without our needlessly provoking it.*
Some of us pride ourselves in “telling it like it is.” But as someone has said, that ordinarily means “telling it like I think it is.” Bluntness may tell more about the character of the messenger than the veracity of his message. Often bluntness is accompanied by an unwillingness to listen.
In trying circumstances, the minister carries himself with humility. Without humility, we may speak the truth, but we speak it without love and run the risk of reducing our ministry to nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13:1-3). If our words are not seasoned with grace, we convey a self-righteousness that tarnishes the gospel we profess.
Others find satisfaction in being direct, getting to the point, with no frills or unnecessary words. But what is accomplished if a minister’s manner drives people away?
A mature minister measures carefully how his words will affect his listener. He takes into account tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, and timing. When difficult truths must be said, he never wants his love for the listener left in doubt.
Two venues especially tempt ministers to harshness: the pulpit and social media.
In the pulpit, the minister – if he is not careful – can vent his frustrations. Circumstances in the congregation upset him.The congregation has failed to meet his expectations. So, he harangues rather than entreats, scolds rather than encourages. He doesn’t intend to, but he pushes his congregation away, and, in the process, sets before his church family a poor example of how to communicate biblical truth.
The reason why the pulpit tempts ministers to harsh speech is easy to grasp: quite appropriately, during the sermon, the congregation does not speak back to the minister. After all, the minister is God’s herald, tasked by the Lord to read and expound his infallible word, and to that word preached the congregation must listen. The sermon is not a conversation, but the declaration of Christian truth. That said, the minister abuses the pulpit when he uses his time before the congregation to beat them up – saying things publicly that he does not have the courage or wisdom to say privately in one-on-one conversations.
Because social media is impersonal, many of the safeguards that restrain harsh words are removed. Absent are the face-to-face conversations and ties of affection that bind people together in a healthy family and community. The medium gives no room for non-verbal cues communicated by face, tone of voice, and posture, all of which, in face-to-face encounters, can communicate warmth, sympathy, and understanding. So, before you click to post, ask yourself: Are my words “good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace” to the reader (Ephesians 4:29).
There are some ministers who are quite gifted in using the internet to address issues of public controversy, just as for decades television and radio have been used with benefit. But I think the number of such men is comparatively small. For most of us, we need to focus our attention on our church and community, the people God has sent us to live with. Serve them sacrificially; be there for them in times of trial and distress; learn the skills of a peacemaker. As far as it is possible, earn the respect of church and community.
When you must speak hard truths, speak with firmness and with a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). Let your love, sincerity, and integrity be unquestioned. Let your words be without self-righteousness. Instead, full of sympathy, convey that you speak as one sinner to another, a fellow struggler on the arduous path of Christian discipleship. Then, by God’s grace, the bonds of affection established during your ministry will sustain you through the many times when your relationships will be tested. Even when your words are not well received or rejected, you will want people to know that the door to your study and your heart remains open.
* Wm. S. Plumer, Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans with an Introduction on the Life, Times, Writings and Character of Paul (New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1870), 460.