In 1956, I was appointed pastor of a church in New Westminster, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia. Kathleen and I packed our belongings and four children into our turquoise Plymouth hitched to a springless trailer and drove all the way from Kentucky to our new assignment.
The Reverend C. W. Burbank was my conference superintendent. He was not a seminary-trained man; back then, many pastors got their theological training through substantial correspondence courses. He was an urgent preacher, well respected by his peers, and a man of down-to-earth common sense — derived, I was told, from his earlier years 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. (It was intended for pastors, but seems to me applicable to everyone, especially in these days of strife.) He explained that some ministers are more skilled at mending fences than others. He meant that when a misunderstanding developed such pastors seemed to have a knack for promptly restoring trusting relationships.
Others, he said, leave the rift unaddressed and allow it to take on a certain permanence. If this happens with one family, and then another, Rev. Burbank explained, the sum of the misunderstandings destroys the trust of the congregation as a whole. This can end a pastor’s ministry in that church.
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. Sadly, there are such situations.
Here are some practical relationship-mending comments for pastors to consider:
The greatest hindrance to correcting wounded relationships is a universal problem: pride that makes us overrate our worth or abilities. Wounded pride must be acknowledged, managed, and even repented before repair is possible.
Once a rift happens, anger destroys relationships. Anger must be faced and dissipated. Often only the indwelling Spirit of Christ, and the spirit of humility He gives, can save us from anger’s destruction. It may help to meditate on James 1:19: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
Wise pastors will know that, once in a while, a relationship may seem beyond repair despite their earnest attempts at restoration. Agreement may not be possible regarding a policy or board majority decision. In these cases, ministers should labor on in the hope that their continued faithful service will bear fruit and melt hearts.
We are much more likely to navigate rocky relationships if we remember that ultimate accountability is to God. The first impulse should be to please Him, since it is to Him all will finally answer.
Mending fences is not just a challenge for ministers. Broken relationships are a universal peril. Ministers and laymen alike need strength and grace to help in the arduous task of living openly and charitably — insofar as possible — with all. Praying for increased sensitivity to the opinions and needs of others for Christ’s sake is the starting point.
Many years after our conversation, Rev. Burbank’s counsel to keep fences mended remains current. His advice has been a lifelong gift to me, not always exercised to the greatest effectiveness, but always treasured.
Photo credit: Ivan Radic (via flickr.com)