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Dealing with Anger

By Published On: March 17, 20170 Comments on Dealing with Anger


As we know from church conflicts, anger can destabilize a system.

When an angry voice erupts at a gathering, some other voices get angry, too, either because they share the angry person’s anger or because they find the anger repellant and having to deal with it makes them angry.

Some people go into hiding. They physically turn away from the angry voice, they leave the room, they go into their own interior safe space, or they try to make the room safe again by talking about other things.

These two responses never work. Anger ratcheting higher and higher just paralyzes the group. Anger evaded and denied merely enrages the angry person and shrouds the entire gathering in the gloom of denial.

Clergy are taught to be a “non-anxious presence,” calm in the face of conflict, sensible in the face of irrationalism, true to themselves even as the angry try to provoke them. Actually living into that teaching requires almost superhuman patience and serenity.

Churches have tended to take one of two avenues in dealing with anger, whatever its source.

One avenue is “authoritarian.” The pastor says, in effect, “I am in change here, and what I say goes. If you can’t follow me, then leave. It’s dangerous out there. Some people are out to get us.” Energy that could go into expressing personal anger goes into the rituals of following the authoritarian leader and destroying the perceived enemy and into punishing non-followers. The preacher tends to take strong and doctrinaire positions, often sounding angry himself. The person who is being, say, treated poorly at work can channel his anger into the preacher’s anger, especially when the preacher names an enemy.

The other avenue is “niceness.” Leaders say, in effect, “We don’t deal with such things here. We don’t talk about our divorces or our bosses or our financial stress. We leave our emotions at the door and step into a safe ‘pastel world’ where things are decent and in order.” In this system, suppressed anger comes out as passive-aggressive behavior and internal conflicts that have nothing to do with naming or resolving actual anger. The person who is being treated poorly at work puts on a mask of politeness and then sabotages the system.

The healthy church deals with anger in a confident, respectful and transparent manner. Leaders recognize that anger is a secondary emotion, generally a safe cover for some deeper emotion that the angry person is unwilling to name. Fear, for example, as well as greed, lust, and self-loathing.

Some of the angriest anti-gay people, for example, turn out to be closeted gays themselves who are filled with self-loathing. Some angry church battles over gender roles haven’t been about misogyny, though they were treated that way, but about fear of change, fear of loss, fear of dying.

The healthy church looks into the anger and seeks to heal the underlying cause, first by addressing it openly. I watched the Episcopal Church tear itself to shreds over gender-role change, when the deeper emotion was fear of modernity and loss of place. Waging a prim battle of dueling scriptures over women’s “place” never got close to those deeper fears.

Because people kept talking past each other, they got frustrated with each other and resorted to demonizing the opposition. A more respectful approach could have named the depths and dealt with them as worthy issues.

As it is, conflicts are destabilizing our congregations. We see an epidemic of leadership conflicts. We also see battles over music, youth presence, political preferences, and tenure. The way forward is to wade resolutely into these conflicts, one at a time, and thus, over time, teach constituents better anger-resolution skills.

To do this wading-in, leaders need to work as one to discern deep issues, not presenting beefs, and to avoid contributing to the destabilization of the church system. When I see congregations paralyzed in angry conflict, it is usually the leadership group (clergy and laity) who are failing to do their jobs.

Working in harmony means far more than being nice to each other. It means trusting each other, adopting high personal standards of honesty and transparency, and not stooping to the one false lure of becoming combatants or the other false lure of conflict avoidance.

People will always bring their issues to church. And more often than not, they will do so in unhelpful ways. The job of leaders isn’t to do the same, but to lead. Nothing can better in congregations until leaders embrace the hard work of leading: discernment, self-control, respect, harmony, and healing.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.


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