In 1956, when I was a young pastor in the Pacific Northwest Conference, the late Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. I had been appointed to the New Westminster church on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and Kathleen and I had crossed the continent from Kentucky immediately after my graduation from Asbury Seminary. Our personal belongings and four little children were packed into our turquoise colored Plymouth and a large spring-less trailer joggled along behind us every mile of the way.
Before Superintendent Burbank entered the ministry he was a logger. He had an outdoors ruggedness about him. He was not a seminary trained man; back then, seminary training for ministers was less common and more difficult to attain than now. Many pastors of earlier eras got whatever theological training they received by means of serious correspondence courses they were expected to wade through.
But he was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense, something he learned or polished, as I understand, while in the logging business in the Okanagan Valley of Washington State.
During one of my first conversations with him he shared a bit of wisdom. He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending their fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding or even an unintended interpersonal rift developed, such pastors seem to have a knack for restoring trusting relationships.
Others, he went on, leave the gap unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with another family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the misunderstandings accumulate sufficiently to destroy the trust of the congregation as a whole. A wall develops and the minister loses the trust of the congregation and he must move on.
Rev. Burbank didn’t say exactly how to recover healthy relationships. Nor did he mention what to do if a pastor’s efforts to keep fences mended are rejected. That is another aspect of the issue, and there are such situations. To take his counsel a step further, here are a couple more suggestions.
First, the greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is pride – that dangerous quality within us that makes us tend to over-rate our worth or abilities. Pride is a point of vulnerability with all of us, Christian or not. When something is said or done from either side that injures our self esteem the rift is in danger of opening. Before repair can even be attempted pride must be acknowledged and brought to heel.
Second, once a rift happens, anger tends to follow and it invariably only clouds issues. So, no correction should be attempted until anger has been faced and dissipated. Most of us have learned this lesson by unhappy experience. In the face of breakdown of relationship and accompanying anger, only the indwelling Spirit of Christ can save us from further anger-prompted division.
Third, wise pastors will know that once in awhile, a relationship may grow cool or may even seem beyond repair. This may be due to disagreement on a particular issue. Or it may arise when a parishioner seems to have a fixed point of view about some circumstance. In these sorts of cases, when honest efforts have been made to restore relationship and fellowship—without success—ministers should labor on. As all pastors learn, in a busy growing pastorate there will be those who do not agree with the minister on issues. After honest efforts have been made to seek corrected and restored fellowship — without success — ministers should go on with their work diligently, all the while treating objectors with civility and grace. Only humility can keep the door open to the other person permanently. And it can only be hoped that the minister’s continued faithful service to the congregation will bear fruit and that eventually hearts will melt and be reconciled.
Ministers are much more likely to stay afloat in troubled waters and navigate through rocky relationships if they remember that their ultimate accountability for their efforts is to God. Their hope is that God may be pleased, since it is to him they will finally answer. Just remembering this makes them more careful to avoid missteps.
Mending fences is not only a challenge to ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril in our fallen world. It would be hard to find someone of mature years who does not have a measure of pain over damaged relationships and even unresolved relationship issues at this point. So ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.
Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank died in the pulpit while doing what he loved — preaching the gospel. I am just one of many who profited from his ministerial leadership and wise counsel. His insight regarding mending fences was a lifelong gift, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.
Photo credit: Josh Liba (via flickr.com)