5 Ways to Avoid Having a Bitter Family in the Parsonage (Part 2 of 2)

Living in a church parsonage can be challenging at times. A pastor friend of mine wrote this two-part article about life in the parsonage and asked for my opinion, which I found to be challenging and helpful. The author did not want to publish the article with his or her name attached for several admirable reasons, so it is with great honor I share my friend’s thoughtful reflection on life in a parsonage. You can find part one of this two-part reflection here.IMG_1763b


In my previous post (When Pastor’s Vent Too Much in the Parsonage), I blogged about the potentially dangerous results of pastor’s venting about church problems in their homes. Sometimes this venting produces bitterness against the church in the hearts of the pastor, the spouse, and their children. If this bitterness festers in the family, they can end up demonizing members of their very own church family.

How might we prevent this from happening? How does a minister maintain open and honest communication with his/her family without subjecting them to this sort of temptation? I’d like to offer 5 ways to eliminate this demonization from the church parsonage.

First, the pastor needs to guard their family time… even when they’re spending time with family. Too easily, family time can become just another context for talking about the church. It’s okay to talk about the church and ministry, but there’s also lots of other great things to talk about! Pastoral families need to have fun together, laugh together, play together, etc. Sometimes the bitterness that develops toward the church is not the result of the pastor’s venting about problematic people, but the pastors neglect for his own family.

Second, I think it is important for the pastor’s life to be openly and honestly shared with his/her spouse. The answer to this potential problem is not to completely remove the church from the conversation. That being said, it is probably unwise for a pastor to share everything with his/her spouse. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to not burden your spouse with an ugly piece of information. A mature pastor, I think, learns what to share and what not to share.

Third, it is important for pastors to make sure that they speak positively about the people in their church in the presence of their families. Pastors tend not to vent at work. It could endanger job security! It becomes tempting to be positive at church by day and negative at home by night. It might be especially worthwhile to verbalize the good qualities of the more stress-inducing people in the church.

Fourth, I would encourage all pastors to actually deal with conflicts! Venting is the result of unresolved conflict. Sometimes there simply hasn’t been opportunity to resolve the conflict yet and the venting is might actually be a healthy way to prepare ourselves for that opportunity. But, if we’re being honest, a lot of times we simply avoid dealing with conflict. It’s easier to complain about a problematic person than to talk to the person about the problem. Don’t allow your avoidance of an issue to become an annoyance for your family.

Fifth, at risk of ending a list of spiritual-to-do’s in a very clichéd way, I’d beg you to pray. The reason prayer is nearly always mentioned in lists like this is because it makes a difference. Pray about your heart. Pray for your wife. Pray for your kids. Pray for the person that is stressing you out. Pray for their family too. Pray for your whole church. Pray until you are genuinely in love with that person again. Love, done rightly, is even more contagious than complaint.

In closing, there’s one more issue I’d like to briefly address. What if I see evidence of this phenomenon (the demonizing of church members) in the life of a colleague or his/her family? How might I confront the situation in a way that keeps me from being demonized myself? Most of the same advice applies. Pray for that pastoral colleague and his/her family. Confront them in love. Interrupt negative venting with reminders of positive truths. Don’t add fuel to the fire by sharing every negative thing you come across with every other minister. And spend time together in life (not just ministry) so that your relationship allows for all of this advice to be applied. By all means, beware of the temptation to demonize a fellow-pastor over his/her habit of demonizing parishioners.

This post was written by an anonymous guest writer.

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY).

When Pastors Vent Too Much in the Parsonage (Part 1 of 2)

Living in a church parsonage can be challenging at times. A pastor friend of mine wrote this two-part article about life in the parsonage and asked for my opinion, which I found to be challenging and helpful. The author did not want to publish the article with his or her name attached for several admirable reasons, so it is with great honor I share my friend’s thoughtful reflection on life in a parsonage. I will post the second half of tIMG_6190bhis reflection next week.


This blog is about a very real phenomenon that I fear happens in many parsonages and pastor’s homes across North America. It damages many lives and destroys some local churches. The scariest part, though, is that it can all happen somewhat innocently.

Let me start by saying that pastoring a church is an awesome privilege that can also be seriously stressful. Pastors are people. They can get frustrated just like ‘normal’ people get frustrated. They sometimes need to vent those frustrations just like everyone else does. This venting may take place among colleagues, but it often happens at home.

Imagine a pastor going through a particularly frustrating time at his church. At the end of the day, he vents his frustration to his wife. She hears about how parishioner #1 popped-in to the office for what turned out to be a 2-hour visit to talk about nothing in particular in the midst of a very busy ministry schedule. She hears about how parishioner #2 is upset that her 2nd cousin didn’t get visited by the pastor in the hospital. She hears about how parishioner #3 had the nerve to disagree with her husband at the monthly board meeting.

All of these things are clearly weighing on her husband. They’re stressing him out. She’s concerned not only for his sanity, but his health. And, truth be told, she’s concerned about her future. She doesn’t want to move again. It’s unfair that these church-people can ruin a perfectly good evening at the parsonage. The kids soak this in this stressful atmosphere.

It’s very tempting, if this sort of cycle persists, for the pastor’s spouse (and possibly children) to begin to demonize these ‘problem-parishioners.’ While, most likely, the pastor was just (somewhat innocently) venting… the pastor’s spouse & children (motivated by love for their husband & father) defend him by making these members out to be the enemy.

All of this is understandable. Pastors need to vent and venting at home is often a good place to find sympathy. The spouse and children of the pastor love him dearly and hate anything (or anyone) that seems to be getting in the way of his happiness. There’s not necessarily any ill-will in this scenario, but the results can get ugly in a lot of different ways.

The supposed sources of the stress are real people too. And sometimes they start getting dirty looks from the spouse. The church, as a whole, might start to be viewed very negatively by the pastor’s children. The pastor himself can start to feel like his venting is validated and begin to demonize the people too. Very quickly, in some cases, the local church members are given labels as angels or demons.

I am a married pastor. I have pastor’s kids. I don’t want my wife, my children, or my own heart to stop loving and/or start demonizing the people in the church. Right? But how do I best protect them from this temptation without holding back from them what’s truly going on in my heart?

In my next post, I’d like to offer 5 key suggestions.

This post was written by an anonymous guest writer.

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY).

Minor Leagues & Second Fiddle: What I Learned from Jhonas Enroth of the Buffalo Sabres About Paying Your Dues

Tonight the Buffalo Sabres (my favorite team in the National Hockey League), will start their 2014-15 season in Buffalo with Jhonas Enroth entering his first full season as the Sabres’ starting netminder. Head coach Ted Nolan said, when Enroth showed up after the offseason, “He had that determined look of ‘You’re going to give me this job.’ The way he performed and the way he played, he certainly earned it.”[i]

Minor Leagues

I saw Jhonas Enroth play in the minors several years ago with the Portland Pirates in Portland, Maine (the Buffalo Sabres’ minor league affiliate at the time). I was hoping to see Enroth play, but because he had been called up to start for Buffalo on Wednesday night that week (and Thursday was Thanksgiving), I didn’t expect to see Enroth in net on Friday night. But there he was.

That night I just kept thinking about how hard it must be to get excited to play in the minor leagues again 48 hours after starting a game in the NHL. Wednesday night, in a Buffalo arena that seats 18,690 people, he played against Pittsburgh Penguins superstars Syndey Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (neither of them scored on Enroth that night, by the way). 48 hours later he was back in goal for Portland playing against minor leaguers in an arena that seats only 6,733 people. I wondered to myself, “How do you get excited for this game after playing in that game.” How do you get excited for this game in front of a small crowd in a small arena so soon after sharing the ice with the best players in the top league in hockey? As I watched Enroth play well whether he was playing in the minor leagues or against future hall of famers, I became a Jhonas Enroth fan.

Second Fiddle

After that season, Enroth got his permanent call up to the NHL … to back up Ryan Miller for the past three years. For three seasons in Buffalo, Enroth played second fiddle. As backup, he played an average of 22 games per season (compared to 54 games per seasons as a starter in the minor leagues). At times Enroth struggled in his backup role, and at times he had streaks of genius (including a 9-game winning streak) where some of us in Buffalo seriously questioned whether he should replace Miller (a Buffalo legend). At one stretch he had a 14-month winless streak,[ii] due in large part to his limited playing time behind Miller. And no one was cheering for him more during that stretch than me.

Leonard Bernstein was once asked which instrument was the most difficult to play. He thought for a moment and then replied, “The second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm—that’s a problem. And if we have no second fiddle, we have no harmony.”

Meanwhile, I wondered whether it was better to be the backup goalie in the big leagues, or the starter in the minor leagues. Given the choice for myself, I wasn’t always sure which I would choose.

Paying Your Dues

All of this is part of why I’m an Enroth fan: most of us have to pay our dues by playing in the minor league or by playing second fiddle before we will ever get our day in the sun. No shortcuts, no moving to the head of the line, no special treatment: paying your dues to get where you want to be. I am a Jhonas Enroth fan because I’ve watched him pay his dues, and now that it’s his time to shine, I hope he burns brightly.

Every day I watch college students who are paying their dues taking classes and studying for exams, putting in the work that is preparing them bit by bit. I am a Buffalo Sabres fan, and as a sports fan (especially a fan of Buffalo sports) I’ve learned to remain somewhat detached from the players who play for my teams. But I’m a fan of Jhonas Enroth because he is an athlete who paid his dues, took his turn playing second fiddle, and put in his time in the minor leagues.

Tonight, I’ll be cheering for Buffalo, but I’ll also be cheering for Jhonas Enroth.

Let’s go Buffalo.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, Director of Ministry Resources
at Houghton College (Houghton, NY), and a Commissioned Ministry Coach.

[i] http://sabres.nhl.com/club/news.htm?id=733414&navid=DL|BUF|home

  1. [ii] (http://www.rantsports.com/nhl/2013/03/14/buffalo-sabres-tuesday-win-was-a-big-one-for-jhonas-enroth/)

10 Ways to Keep the Pastor You Love

“Being a pastor was SO much easier than what I’m doing now,” said no former pastor ever. Not one.IMG_9464c Instead, I meet pastors every month who say to me, “I thought I knew what this would be like, but being a pastor is so much harder than I expected, and most people have no idea.”

I am not writing this for pastors. This would be a very different article if pastors were my intended audience, but I am writing this for lay people, board members, district superintendents, and anyone who loves his or her pastor.

Here are ten simple things you and your church can do to help your pastor feel fulfilled and appreciated in pastoral work, and to try to hold on to your beloved pastor.

  1. Think Twice Before Criticizing

Someone is always mad at your pastor about something. Seriously. You cannot please all of the people all of the time, but having some people mad at them all of the time is the harsh reality many pastors live with. And it can wear a good pastor out. There are angry emails, scathing remarks in the church foyer, and people who will snub you in public once they have left your church.

On the night I was ordained, Dr. Earle Wilson said to us, “If you fail, you’ll be criticized. If you succeed, you may be even more criticized.” Some studies have shown that 40% of pastors experience significant conflict with someone in their church at least once every month. In my years as a pastor, I cannot think of a time when at least one person wasn’t angry at me about something. Many pastors have said it’s a death by a thousand cuts. To say “pastors just need to have thick skin” is both flippant and it fails to take into account how stress makes a person more likely to suffer from depression, more susceptible to temptation, and also makes a person more vulnerable to illness. Every time someone chooses to leave your church, or complains about a sermon, or ignores you out in the community, or sends an anonymous letter, or feels the need to “speak my mind,” it takes a little bit of the air out of your pastor’s tires. Every week I meet with pastors who carry wounds from years of serving cranky Christians, and I look in the eyes of good pastors whose souls bear the cumulative damage of the relentless criticism and anger vented toward pastors. I can assure you that having a callused pastor is much worse than having a pastor who takes criticism and attacks personally.

Do you love your pastor? Think twice before criticizing, and if you are going to be critical about something, make sure it’s for good reasons (and be calm and kind as you do so). Assume that your pastors’ critics are taking shots at them, even if you don’t see it or hear about it.

  1. Housing: Be the Best Landlord in Town.

If you provide a parsonage, be the best landlord in town. I facilitated a Clergy Tax Event last year where we were talking about how to determine the “Fair Rental Value” of the parsonage, and one person in the group asked, “Do you take into account the fact that no one else would actually want to live there?”

As a rule of thumb, keep the parsonage nicer than is necessary. Never let “good enough” be the standard. Most pastors I know are shy about asking for work to be done on the parsonage, but if you want to keep the pastor you love, you won’t wait for the pastor to ask for work to be done on the parsonage. The parsonage is your pastor’s home, but it is the church’s house. You cannot control everything that happens in the life of the church, but you can make sure your pastor has a comfortable home – a haven to which your pastor can retreat at the end of every day.

Of course, pastors who own their own homes tend to have longer pastorates than those who live in parsonages. Homeownership provides the chance for a family to live where they want in a house that suits their needs, and a mortgage has a way of “encouraging” people stay in one place longer. If you have a pastor you love, be an advocate for helping them move from a parsonage into their own home.

  1. Care for the Pastor’s Family, and for your Pastor as a Person

In some ways, caring for the pastor’s home is a big way of carrying for his family (see point #9), but it can go beyond that. Whenever I hear that a colleague is leaving a church, I always pray that their spouse and children get to hear how much their spouse or parent has meant to the congregation as pastor. When I left my last church, I was so touched by the number of people who said they were going to miss watching my kids grow up, and the people who gave gifts to my children. The gifts and cards people gave my children meant twice as much as the ones they gave me. One family gave my kids money for college every year on their birthdays, and became like surrogate grandparents for our children. It makes it harder to entertain leaving when people in the congregation have truly become like family to you … and especially to your children and spouse (I’ll write more about this in my next post).

  1. Vacation Time & Weekends Off

Most full-time pastors work 6-7 days per week (yes, I know of a few lazy full-time pastors who work 4-5 days per week, but those are the exception, not the rule). So if a pastor has a 6-day workweek and only gets 2 weeks off per year, the pastor will work 302 days per year. By comparison, a person working a 5-day work week with 2 weeks off who will work 250 days per year. That is an extra 52 workdays per year for your pastor! If you give that same pastor 4 weeks of vacation, the pastor will still work 38 more days than the person who has a 5-day workweek and two weeks of vacation!

I am a big proponent of hardworking pastors getting AT LEAST three or four weeks of vacation not because they deserve MORE time off than their lay people, but because even with “more” vacation time they will still work more days per year than the average lay person.

  1. Salary: Give Your Pastor Raises

Finances are always a factor, and every pastor would be able to work for free in an ideal world, but you can’t afford to do your job for free, and neither can your pastor. People often have the idea that a pastor ought to make sacrifices for the sake of the ministry, and therefore they ought to make less than they deserve. Many pastors, likewise, know the financial needs of the church better than their lay leaders, and will decline raises or even voluntarily take pay cuts for the sake of the ministry. Even if the pastor declines the raise, it is important for morale that you are generous in what you offer. A cost of living increase (at the least) should be offered as standard operating procedure every year for your pastor.

As I was writing this, I realized something: the only way I ever received anything more than a cost of living increase in my years as a pastor was by moving to a new ministry. I never thought of it that way until now, and I never went looking for those moves, but they always found me. Again, I’m not writing this as career advice to pastors, but as a word of advice to congregations who want to keep the pastor they love: if you don’t give your pastor a raise, someone else will.

What can you do when there isn’t money in the budget for a raise? In the current financial climate, many workplaces and institutions have experienced years when raises weren’t an option, or even years when painful cuts were necessary. Your pastor will understand better than anyone (and sometimes before anyone else) if a raise isn’t possibly because of the budget. I have heard of churches who told their pastoral staff, “There isn’t room in the budget for a raise this year, so instead we are giving everyone an extra week off this year.”

Pastors enter the ministry for the call, not for the money. Pastors pay the same price for milk, gas, and coffee as anyone else, though. Make it happen, somehow, someway, and be creative if you must. If you don’t give your pastor a raise when it is deserved, eventually someone else will.

  1. Give Your Pastor Tools To Get the Job Done

Your pastor’s reimbursement account is not part of the pastor’s compensation: it is the tools the pastor needs to get the job done. Reimburse the pastor’s ministry mileage, provide a pastoral expense account, and a budget for buying books. An adequate computer, office space, books, mileage, and reimbursed expenses is not a luxury – it is the tools your pastor needs to be effective. Don’t ask your pastor to make bricks without straw.

  1. You Want Your Pastor to Be Flexible, so Give Your Pastor Flexibility

Take in to account how much of a pastor’s ministry conflicts with family life on weekends, evenings, and holidays. Free your pastor up to attend school functions, and to use the flexibility of the pastorate to be there for family during “normal work hours” because weekends and holidays are so often crowded by ministry responsibilities.. The old saying fits some pastors who are “invisible for six days and incomprehensible on the seventh,” but most of my friends who are pastors work too hard, not too little. Flexibility is a free benefit your church can afford to give your pastor.

  1. Be Dependable

When a pastor leaves a church, the hardest people to leave are the dependable ones. Make it hard for your pastor to think about leaving by your actions: be dependable, be consistent in your attendance, and be the type of person of whom your pastor can say, “We’re building with people like that.” When workers are not dependable, and members are sporadic in their attendance, it doesn’t take much for the grass to look greener somewhere else. Do you have a pastor you love? Then be there, and be dependable.

  1. Send Compliments Over Your Pastor’s Head

Your pastor probably reports to a board, elders, a bishop, or a district superintendent, so make sure you tell them that you love your pastor. And do it now, before those types of people ask you what you think. The chronic complainers will not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head with their criticisms, so you should not hesitate to go over your pastor’s head when you have a pastor you love. It will be refreshing to everyone involved.

  1. Send Specific, Handwritten Notes to say, “Thanks.”

In an age of tweets and text messages, a hand-written note is a lost art, and a rare treasure. Here’s a little secret: many pastors have a file of handwritten notes they’ve received over the years. A handwritten note is most likely the sort of thing your pastor will not quickly discard. Express your appreciation in writing and it will stand out.

Research has shown that possibly the greatest predictor of career satisfaction for pastoral ministry is for pastors to know that they are making a difference. Don’t be vague when you say thanks. Be specific. Don’t just say, “Thanks for all you do.” Say thanks for things your pastor does, or characteristics your pastor has, and ways your pastor does things.

Did you learn something you didn’t know during your pastor’s message, or find yourself thinking about it days later, or did God speak to you in a powerful way through a message? Then tell your pastor what it was, specifically. Tell your pastor, “That sermon helped me understand ….” or even, “That story your shared in your sermon really helped me see ….”

Other examples are:

  • “Thank you for taking time away from your family to be with ours in a difficult time.”
  • “I know that situation was difficult, and I appreciate the way you handled it.”
  • “I can tell you put a lot of time and preparation into your messages, and I just wanted you to know that it shows.”

Pastors are willing to endure a lot if they know they are making a difference. So show them. Tell them. I have never once heard a pastor say, “My congregation expresses too much appreciation to me.” Write it out with pen on paper and put it in the mail.

My Point

I spend an average of almost 30 hours per week with pastors and ministry leaders. Believe me or not, but if any of these ten things seems like “too much,” or if you neglect these ten things, I guarantee the pastor you love will leave sooner or later. On the other hand, I don’t know of any pastor who would casually leave a church that does these ten things consistently.

What do you think?

What did I miss? Anything you would add or take away from this list?

© Steve Dunmire 2014
Photograph also © Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

Serving in Obscurity

Every church I ever served had an inferiority complex when I arrived. One was dealing with the fallout of a recent church split. The next church greeted me by asking, “What did you do to get sent here? We retire more people than social security!” In my third church, I followed a difficult case where my predecessor was removed by the denomination for a personal indiscretion. Not one of those situations was healthy when I started on day one, all were deeply wounded, and I knew serving those churches meant serving in so-called obscurity. In a small town, in a suburban neighborhood, or in the ghetto, any one of us can find ourselves operating in obscurity where we feel overlooked, forgotten, insignificant, and unimportant. I have many friends who serve in so-called obscurity, and I spent many years there myself.

That’s why I love Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory was appointed by his older brother to a small, out of the way town hardly anyone had heard of. Nyssa. Gregory was not thrilled. Serving in obscurity, in an out-of-the-way place was not the kind of career Gregory had in mind. He protested, but his older brother revealed that this was an intentional appointment. His brother had chosen obscurity for him on purpose, explaining that he didn’t want Gregory to gain notoriety by serving in a prominent location, but to bestow distinction on that obscure place by the way he conducted himself there.

Time in obscurity might be a prerequisite for significant responsibility for some leaders. Obscurity is a lifetime calling for some. Though a place appears unimportant at first glance, it can be the ideal conditions to hear the voice of God, and can be the crucible where God can refine our character.

So do you find yourself in an out-of-the-way place, where you’re sure that no one really notices what you’re doing, or that you’re really not making a difference? Don’t distinguish yourself based on where you serve, but distinguish your place by how you serve there.

Oh, and you can meet a lot of wonderful people in those out-of-the-way places.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little
can also be trusted with much,
and whoever is dishonest with very little
will also be dishonest with much.”
Luke 16:10, NIV

© Steve Dunmire 2014
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

6 Trustworthy Sayings for Pastors

The first church my wife Tammy and I served in a lead role was a struggling inner city congregation on the East Side of Buffalo, NY. We faced many challenges, but those challenged were counterbalanced by the mentoring influence of Art & June Carlson. The Carlsons oversaw that congregation as well as many other urban ministries in the city of Buffalo at the time. The Carlsons shared the benefit of their forty years of ministry experience with us by telling stories of highs and lows, by giving us advice on what’s most important in ministry, by asking the right questions, and by listening to us. Their mentoring changed us forever, and one of the enduring memories I have of them is hearing their oft-repeated trustworthy sayings for ministry. We heard them often during those years, and it was some of the best advice I ever received as a pastor. Here are the ones I remember most.

 1. There are two types of problems: “people problems” and “no-people problems.”

When you’re working with any group of people there will be headaches, interpersonal conflict, fights, gossip, etc. Those are “people problems.” Yet the only thing worse than “people problems” is “no-people problems.” When no one shows up, attendance is low, giving is low, and there are no volunteers to deploy. That’s a much bigger problem.

Art would remind us that it’s a problem if no people are showing up, but when people do show up they bring problems with them. So he always said, “‘People problems’ are better than ‘no-people problems.’” When the ministry was growing, he’d say, “No more ‘no-people problems,’ but you know what’s coming next, don’t’ you?”

As any pastor knows, if you handle the “people problems” poorly, pretty soon you’ll be dealing with “no-people problems.”

2. There are three rules: 1) Love the people, 2) Love the people, and 3) Love the people.

Some days it is harder than others to love people as a pastor. On difficult days Art would often smile at me and say, “Well, you know the three rules, right?”

 3. If it doesn’t do anything for you, it won’t do anything for them.

Art believed that a sermon must move the preacher if it is worth preaching. If it doesn’t mean anything to you, or move you as the preacher, you can hardly expect it to mean anything to those who hear you, let alone move them to action. He believed passion and conviction were the key ingredients for effective preaching. Almost every time I prepare to preach or teach, these words ring in my ears.

4. These people need a lift, not a load.

Art told me once that these words were inscribed on the pulpit in one of the churches he served, and that he had to see them every Sunday when he preached (my guess is that this is a paraphrase of Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them,” NIV). So many Sundays as a pastor I have looked out over church pews and realized that the people need a lift, not a load.

5. You need to put fresh wood in the fire.

When a couple serves in ministry together, it is easy for the marriage to suffer. Art often cautioned us about the consequences of taking the marriage relationship for granted. During high-intensity seasons of ministry he would urge us to go out to dinner together, or to make sure we were paying attention to our relationship. He would say, “You need to keep fresh wood in the fire to keep it burning.”

6. You need to sing.

The Carlsons described that inner city congregation we were serving as “a hornet’s nest,” and they were right. June Carlson was listening to us one day as we were expressing our discouragement at the problems we were facing. Frankly, we were probably on the verge of quitting, and were desperate for a solution – or to be delivered. She interrupted us to say, “You need to sing.” Then, she described how she would sing a song of praise throughout the day during a difficult season to ward off discouragement. Ajith Fernando says, “Usually in times of distress … our hearts remain engulfed by the problems. Songs help truth travel down to the heart, and the use of music, the language of the heart, helps speed that process.” I have found that, in the trials and struggles of daily life, one of the most undervalued tools we have in our arsenal is our ability to sing in the dark. Singing in the dark is an antiseptic for anxiety. “You need to sing,” she said, and she was right. It was some of the best advice I have ever received.

© Steve Dunmire 2014
Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

How I Learned to Love Difficult People: 10 Painful Lessons

Someday if I write my memoirs from my years of pastoral ministry, I would like the title of the book to be, “How I Learned to Love Difficult People.” I was warned that, as a pastor, I would have to deal with difficult people, but I was not prepared for how venomous they could be at times. I have been on the receiving end of their vindictive anonymous letters, their berating phone calls, their accusing rants, and watched too many of them literally storm out of the churches I have served (not to mention their passive aggressive behavior, sarcastic remarks, cutting jokes, and backhanded compliments).

If I ever get around to writing that book, I think these will be some of the chapters.

1. Sometimes difficult people are the ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking.
Sometimes (not always) difficult people are the people who say to your face what others will only mutter under their breath. Difficult people are sometimes the only ones who have the nerve to say what everyone else is thinking. They can be downright ruthless when they say it, but difficult people can be the pastoral equivalent of when a physician orders blood work for a patient: difficult people can be a very efficient way to find out what is going on in the bloodstream.

Some people say there is a nugget of truth in every criticism, but that’s nonsense. Sometimes difficult people are rude but right, but sometimes they are rude and wrong. I once had a board member who consistently brought me any complaint he heard within the church even if he didn’t agree with the complaint. It was sometimes amusing when he’d bring to me conflicting complaints and expect me to find a way to make both people happy. His first priority for the church was that everyone be a “satisfied customer.” I, on the other hand, was not willing to let the church be held hostage by difficult people. It is an unrealistic goal to expect that every complaint in a church can be quelled. Sometimes the drums are not too loud. Sometimes a program is not a good use of church resources. The same room that is too cold for one person can be too warm for another person. The same policy that is too strict for one person can be too lenient for the next.

While difficult people are not always an effective way to assess organizational health, one way I have learned to love difficult people is by viewing their criticisms as a way of finding out what is going on in the “bloodstream” of the church when it is appropriate.

2. Difficult people are my most reliable indicator that I am doing something right.
I love difficult people because they serve as signposts to me: when difficult people start making life difficult, it is one of the most reliable indicators that I am doing something right.

I have never done anything important without being flanked by difficult people on all sides. There is a common strand running through every major turning point of ministry, every unquestionable breakthrough, every visible success, every time I could point to measurable results, or even every time I was received some level of recognition. The common element in each of those things is the pestering presence of difficult people who opposed me every step along the way.

I actually started to get excited when one woman in my last pastorate would come to pick a fight with me because her fights with me always came right before a major growth spurt, a major breakthrough, or some great news of some kind or another. The correlation between her rants and the ministry breakthroughs simply became too obvious to ignore.

In my case, I love people difficult people because they are one of the most reliable indicators I have been able to find to tell me that I am doing something right.

3. Difficult people help us develop thick skin.
Dealing with difficult people is one of the most effective ways to develop the thick skin a pastor needs in order to be fit for ministry. There may be no other substitute. Dealing with difficult people is to our souls what weight training is to our bodies: it makes us resilient and strong.

We all say we shouldn’t take it personally, but difficult people often make it personal. The criticism and complaints are often really about the responsibilities of our position rather than us, but just as the difficult people rarely make the distinction, we also struggle to make the distinction. Difficult people often make sure to make it personal. The very point of their anonymous letters, as useless and unhealthy as they are, is to make the issue personal (for us, not for them). Most difficult people I know resort to ad hominem attacks sooner or later, attacking the messenger when they run out of ways to attack the message.

I have learned to love difficult people because they make me stronger.

4. Difficult people are like carnival mirrors.
Paul Tripp once said in an interview, “I like the metaphor in Scripture of the word of God being this perfect mirror that I look into and see myself as I actually am. What we tend to look into is carnival mirrors. They show me me, but they show me me with distortion, like the carnival mirror at the fair. I see myself, but there is distortion. This identity thing in ministry is one of those carnival mirrors. Here is where you see something that is a normal human struggle intensified by ministry.” He was talking about pastors seeking their self-worth and identity by what they do, and I believe this is an area where difficult people are a blessing. Difficult people and critics in our lives can be like carnival mirrors who show us ourselves but they portray an exaggerated and distorted version of ourselves. We recognize immediately that the distorted image is not who we are because it is so exaggerated and this can provide for us the opportunity to look at our lives and see ourselves as we really are.

Difficult people have forced me to face up to my own insecurities, and my need to be liked. They force us to choose the need to be firm on some issues over our need for acceptance. Their criticism strikes at the lie that the Enemy has planted in our hearts: “This is who you really are, and all the nice things people say is just them being polite.”

Pastors will make tough decisions, sometimes on a daily basis, and some ministries will cave to a participant who throws a temper tantrum. We must have a conviction that if we do the right thing it does not mean that everyone will respond appropriately, and just because someone responds inappropriately it does not mean we did the wrong thing. Leaders need to define their priorities, and who they are before the difficult people ever show their faces.

5. Difficult people make us clarify what we’re doing.
Sometimes difficult people help us to clarify what we are doing and saying. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I was required to have a Research Reflection Team. The four people I met with on that team would often ask me, “I think you are you saying this … is that what you mean to say?” Sometimes I would answer them, “No, that’s not what I’m trying to say at all!” Then I would look at the page and realize that it was, in fact, what I had written. Without their input and watchful eyes I would not have seen that what I meant to write and what I actually wrote were not the same thing.

One more way I have learned to love difficult people is that, just as one string being out of tune on a guitar can force us to retune all six strings, one difficult person in a church can prompt us to clarify everything we do. They force us to make things clearer and more precise because of their complaints and sometimes in anticipation of their complaints. In this way, difficult people make our ministry better because they force us to be clear and precise about what we want to do, and how we are going to do it.

6. When difficult people attack, other people sometimes increase their support
A pastor needs meaningful friendships in order to endure. In my case, some of my most meaningful partnerships and friendships in the ministry have been forged in response to the difficult people in a church. At times I have seen people become much more vocal supporters of me as a pastor because they have seen a critic’s harsh attack. Some people can become motivated to be more supportive once they have seen difficult people on full display. The experience will motivate them to shield their pastor from the difficult people.

Those teams then can also help the pastor live to fight another day. I once had a couple who had been harassing me for months, threatening me, working against me behind my back, and turning people against me. This couple was holding the church hostage with their behavior, and I knew that to take them on by myself would be pastoral suicide. Only a few people knew just how bad it had become, and eventually those few friends and supporters in ministry were the very people who helped bring the situation to a head, and allowed me to not only survive the situation but to actually emerge stronger. Two of the most well-respected people in the church, a man and woman who were unquestionably above reproach, came to me saying, “You don’t have to do this alone. We will help you fight this battle.” When the angry couple finally had a public eruption and left the church, these supporters were the first to speak in my defense, and they even took some of the heat for me. These friendships not only helped me survive the firestorm, but they made some difficult days of ministry a lot less lonely.

Another way I have learned to love difficult people is that, by being difficult, they can help some of the wonderful people rise up and become proactive in their support of the leader they love. I am grateful to have several significant friendships that were forged in direct response to difficult people.

7. Difficult people make me a better boss and a better subordinate.
Difficult people have helped me to see how important it is to recognize good work, to applaud hard work, and to express appreciation. They also help me to see that not every opinion needs to be expressed. I have found that often that the people in my churches who have worked the most with difficult people (i.e., the small business owners, people who lead or teach in one form or another, or who work in customer service) are often the best at expressing appreciation. I do not believe that is a coincidence.

On the whole, I would like to believe that I am less critical of those who serve above me because of my experiences with difficult people.

8. I pray harder when there are difficult people in my life.
I wish this was not true but it is. In that way, if difficult people drive me to my knees in prayer, then I know they are a great gift. A.W. Tozer writes, “Whoever defends himself will have himself for his defense, and he will have no other. But let him come defenseless before the Lord and he will have for his defender no less than God Himself.” Difficult people drive me nuts, so they drive me to my knees in prayer, and that is one of the reasons I have learned to love difficult people.

9. Difficult people are not an obstacle to conquer
I once heard someone give a sermon about Eliab, David’s older brother, who burned with anger against David when he was asking the men about Goliath (1 Samuel 17:28). The pastor said:

Right there David faced a great challenge: was he going to fight with the critic, or keep his eye on the goal? Every champion has to make a decision sooner or later in that arena. Anybody who sets out to do something great for God will have people ridiculing him, challenging him, and criticizing him, and he can make a choice: either keep going as God has directed him, or stop and do battle with the critic. David could have fought with his brother but he never would have gotten to Goliath. There is always somebody around to tell you “You can’t do it,” isn’t there? There is always somebody around who doesn’t have the courage to do it themselves, and they want to make sure you don’t have the courage to do it either.

Critics are neither an indicator of success nor failure, so I have chosen in advance to battle giants, not critics. I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is an option. I have learned to love difficult people because otherwise I could easily become focused on conquering the difficult people in my life simply for the sake of conquering them. It is my job to keep my eye on the prize, so I will not waiver in my resolve because of difficult people. I do not want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over his critics; I want to be remembered as the man who triumphed over giants.

10. I am someone’s difficult person.
I know that I have been a difficult person in someone’s life. Sometimes I appear difficult to another person because of a disagreement, or because we disagreed about some social or political issue. Sometimes it is just because of a personality conflict, and sometimes it comes with being a person in leadership. But I have learned to love difficult people because loving them is a way I can do unto others what I would have them to do me.

And now, a confession.
This whole post has been a bit disingenuous because I don’t really love difficult people. Not yet, anyway. That’s why I hope that someday I’m able to title my memoirs, “How I Learned to Love Difficult People.” In the meantime, though, difficult people drive me crazy, and it is still a work in process.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

The Way of the Cross by F. Dana Brown


In January, our family lost an amazing couple. Majors Dana & Ruth Brown were my wife’s grandparents (great-grandparents to my children, and my grandparents by marriage). After 67 years of marriage, they died just two days apart. Dana was a prayer warrior, had a great sense of humor, and loved studying scripture and theology. He loved the Lord with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Ruth was strong without being overpowering, straightforward but not impolite, inquisitive but not intrusive, and holy but never being holier than thou. She lived her life with her heart to God and her hand to mankind.

After Dana was already a World War II veteran, after he had already spent a year and a half in a hospital recovering from wounds he received in conflict (for which he later earned a Purple Heart), and after he and Ruth had already established a family, a career, and a living, the Lord took hold of their lives. At the center of their lives was a calling, and they served as Salvation Army Officers (ordained ministers) for thirty years before retiring in 1986.

On January 20, 2014, we conducted a celebration of life service for both of them together. It was fitting that we remembered them together, not apart, but it was a difficult day for all of us. As the family gathered in Maine to remember them, we came across these words, written by the family patriarch, hanging on a wall in their home. It is simply entitled, “The Way of the Cross.” We are grateful for the legacy handed down from one generation to another expressed in these words.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

There is a way that seems right to a man, but it leads to a dead-end of death.

Christians have been introduced to a better way – The Way of the Cross. It is God’s way of holiness for us who are being saved by it. We recognize the Cross as the very power of God.

We bid farewell to the way of the world and go by the way of the Cross where we have a better hope established on better promises.

The way of the Cross leads to paths of righteousness and fellowship with God where we enjoy a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ unto an inheritance of a permanent house in Heaven made by God. It is beyond the reach of change and decay and is reserved in Heaven for you – the people of the Way.

The Way of the Cross leads home!!

– Major F. Dana Brown (1921-2014), culled from Scripture and Song

5 Rules For Joke-Telling Leaders

A sense of humor is an essential trait for leaders, but your sense of humor can quickly turn from an asset to a liability if you are careless. Like any form of communication, people will sometimes hear what they want to hear, not what you are actually saying, so humor is always a risk. As a follow-up to last week’s post on why humor is serious business for leaders, here are my five rules for leaders to keep in mind when it comes to humor.

(1) No Sarcasm
If raunchy jokes are the low-hanging rotten fruit of humor, then sarcasm is the razor blade: it has a sharp edge which makes it highly effective but damaging. Sarcasm is usually the truth wrapped up in a thinly disguised joke that stings. Sarcasm can be a telltale sign of an insecure person, and is only useful for building walls and hurting people, not helpful for building relationships. Many of us love sarcasm, but a sarcastic person is no fun to be around. Sarcasm is not becoming of a leader since, at its heart, it is a form of mockery, and leaders should not be mockers as a general rule. If sarcasm is your guilty pleasure, then it is a habit you must quit for your leadership health.

(2) No Victims
In response to my post last week about why humor is essential for leaders, one friend told me how Proverbs 26:18-19 guides how he thinks about using humor as a pastor:

Like a maniac shooting
flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives their neighbor
and says, “I was only joking!”

A lot of harm has been done by people who were “only joking.” Playful kidding is okay, but sometimes it can cross the line. If you are a leader or in any position of authority, even kidding can come off more harshly than you intended it. The fact is, there are probably only a small number of people whom you can tease safely. One day I overheard two faculty members talking on a day when the network had crashed on campus. One prof said to the other, “I’m probably the only one who can still teach around here today because I don’t depend on all the technology.” His counterpart answered, “Well, the jury’s out as to whether what you’re doing actually qualifies as teaching.” As peers, they can joke like that, but as a leader, it is rare that you can tease someone like that. Why? Because you are NOT their peer. An executive official once told me how someone accused him of yelling in a meeting. He said, “I was so confused because I never even raised my voice, but then I realized it was because of my position. Even when I speak quietly, my position makes my voice seem louder.” Your position as a leader gives you a louder voice, and can give your teasing a sharper edge, as well.

My rule of thumb is always to make sure that the punch line either has no victim or that I am my own victim. When I think of times when I have gotten into trouble with humor as a pastor it is usually either someone misinterpreting a joke (probably not my fault), or when I’ve broken the rule of victimless humor – even if I just intended it as playful kidding (definitely my fault).

A note about leader’s families:
Bill Cosby once said, “We spoke to God about the children, and we were afraid to ask God for specific things. We thought that it might be too much. So we said to God ‘Please give us a healthy child’ and left it at that, not knowing that God is a generous God, but also has a sense of humor. And if you leave that much open for God, some wonderful jokes are going to come about.”

It is humiliating to anyone to be laughed at when you are being serious. Humor is dangerous in that way. There is nothing so degrading as telling someone about an idea you have and having them laugh at you. Something I’m working hard at with my kids, as a parent, is that I only laugh at them when they’re in on the joke, and never laughing at them when they’re the punch line. I tell a lot of stories about my kids, and I try really hard to make sure that the only funny stories I tell about my kids are ones where they are in on the joke, and not ones where I’m laughing at them. In addition, it is my rule that before I ever share a story about my family in public, I always ask their permission first.

Make sure that when you tell humorous stories about your family that they are in on the joke, not victims of it.

(3) No Problem with Self-Deprecating Humor
As a leader, it is disarming when you poke fun at yourself. It shows you don’t take yourself too seriously. However, this can be a defense mechanism, or a way of making fun of yourself for something before someone else has the chance. When you poke fun at yourself, is it a sore area (weight, hair loss, or some other physical attribute)? If so, others might pick up on it and perceive it (valid or not) as insecurity.

(4) No Retelling Someone Else’s Self-Deprecating Humor:
Just because someone makes a joke about him or her self, it doesn’t mean you can make that joke. When you recycle someone else’s self-deprecating humor, you break rule #2 (no victims), and it’s just bad form on the whole. A lot of public speakers will say, “Obviously I’m not starving – just look at me!” and it usually gets a polite chuckle, but if someone else said, “Obviously you’re not starving – just look at you!” it has a very different tone.

(5) No Missing The Comedy of Everyday Life
My friend Dan at the college where I work is seriously one of the funniest people I know. In a very serious conversation he will often derail us with his jokes, but I can never remember him being mean. At all. Ever. He just has an incredible (and I mean incredible) knack for seeing the humor in everyday stuff. Even if you are not in a laughing mood, he can get you laughing just by pointing out absurdities all around us.

The takeaway:
Humor is always up to interpretation, so there will always be people who do not understand your sense of humor, or think you’re saying something you are not. You can’t worry about all of that, because it is your duty as a leader to understand that just because you’re laughing doesn’t mean everyone else is. C.S. Lewis said, joy is the serious business of heaven, and I believe one of the closest things to hell on earth is a humorless leader, one who can’t take a joke, or one who uses humor as a weapon.

Keep it safe.
Keep it clean.
Keep it friendly.
Keep it light.
No sharp edges.

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

3 Reasons Why Humor is No Laughing Matter for Leaders

C.S. Lewis said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven,”[1] and I think humor is no laughing matter for leaders. In honor of April Fools’ Day, here are three reasons why humor is one of the most underestimated devices in a leader’s toolbox.

1. Humor is Good for Morale

You have probably sat in tense meetings where the only laughter is nervous laughter, and likewise you have probably sat in meetings where the laughter is easy and comfortable. There is a time and place for serious meetings, but humor makes showing up for work more enjoyable. The first time I met many of my current colleagues in my position at Houghton College was attending a staff retreat two months before my official start date. My new colleagues laughed together so much it caught me off-guard, and convinced me that I was going to love my new job. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (NIV), and it is perhaps especially true when working with employees and volunteers. Make your environment a place where people have fun, and they’ll gladly work themselves to exhaustion.

Our college president, Dr. Shirley Mullen (a strong leader and gifted scholar who has earned two Ph.D.’s and was featured on the cover of Christianity Today magazine) took part in an incredible phone prank last spring. The video of the prank was posted and re-posted by folks at Houghton College who said things like, “This is why I love working at Houghton.” Need I say more?

Humor is good for morale, which is probably one of the main reasons why so many comedians have had unhappy childhoods, and 80-85% came from poor families. Humor is a coping mechanism for otherwise unhappy people. Winston Churchill said, “Famous men are usually the result of an unhappy childhood,” so it is my parents’ fault that I’m not famous.

2. Humor is Disarming

Before you are ever going to be able to make some people change you first need to be able to make them laugh. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and an engaging sense of humor isn’t what you do instead of saying something important. A sense of humor helps take the edge off of a hard message. Nothing is quite so disarming for a person who is skeptical about your message than making them laugh.

There are people who can tell jokes and one-liners and keep you in stitches, and there are those rare people who are just plain funny. I think most people do not expect their pastors or anyone else to be incredibly eloquent all the time, but they will extend you a lot of grace if you just help them laugh. A leader who doesn’t have a good sense of humor (whether he or she doesn’t have a sense of humor or has an inappropriate sense of humor) had better be really strong in other areas to compensate for it.

A good sense of humor, like a good question, is always disarming. There was a certain teacher who always answered people’s questions with questions of his own. Finally one day someone asked him, “Sir, why do you always answer questions with a question?” He answered, “Why not?”[2]

3. The One Enthroned in Heaven Laughs

Psalm 2:4 says “The one enthroned in heaven laughs” at the nations who conspire, plot, and band together against the Lord’s anointed. Many of us picture God in heaven scowling, or any other number of ways, but have you ever pictured God in heaven laughing? At the very end of his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton says that Christ, who “fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall” seems to be hiding something from us. He says the stoics concealed their tears, but not Jesus. He says that diplomats pride themselves in constraining their anger, but not Jesus – he turned over tables at the temple. Chesterton writes, “There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”[3] Mirth is an old fashioned word for laughter, humor, hilarity, or fun.

Have you ever thought of a sense of humor as being a godly characteristic? The fact of the matters is that there is so much humor in the Bible, but we are just too serious to even notice half of it. Consider these examples:

  • I cannot help but chuckle every time I read about the transfiguration when Peter blurts out an idea to Jesus about putting up tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. My favorite part is when scripture adds the comment, “He did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (Mark 9:5-6, NIV).
  • Another favorite example of mine is King Xerxes’ conversation with Haman about “the man the king delights to honor” whom Haman assumes is himself, but is actually Mordecai, the man Haman is plotting to have impaled by the king (Esther 5:9-6:14).
  • Lastly, I don’t know if Jesus was trying to be funny in this example or not, but I laugh out loud every time I read Mark 1:37-38 where Jesus had gone out to a solitary place to pray, “and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else…”

Do you think a humorless teacher could have attracted all of those crowds? If you don’t find yourself chuckling once in a while when you notice humor in the Bible I guarantee you’re doing it wrong.

A Word of Caution

Humor is a big deal for leaders in many different settings, but humor is always a risk. Some of the most biting comments people have ever made in my life have been put-downs wrapped in a “joke.” Like any form of communication, people will sometimes hear what they want to hear, not what you are actually saying, so next week I’ll follow this post up with a post entitled, “5 Rules for Joke-Telling Leaders.”

© Steve Dunmire 2014

Dr. Steve Dunmire is an ordained pastor, a commissioned ministry coach, and Director of the Office of Ministry Resources at Houghton College (Houghton, NY). He is also the director and an instructor of Houghton’s “Equipping for Ministry” program offering non-degree courses for ordination & personal enrichment.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm (Orlando:Harcourt, Orlando, 1963, 1964), 93.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 38.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1908), 310-311.