Tuesday, June 5, 2007

When Leaders Lose Their Cool

I was watching the Atlanta Braves play the Chicago Cubs on Saturday. It had been a tough series for the Cubbies. They had not been playing well. To make things worse, on Friday, pitcher Carlos Zambrano and catcher Michael Barrett had gotten into a fight in the dugout that they continued in the clubhouse. Tensions were running high. When an umpire’s call on a close play went against the Cubs, manager Lou Piniella charged out of the dugout, kicked dirt on the umpire, and threw his Cubs cap on the ground and kicked it a couple of times. According to Major League Baseball officials, he made contact with the umpire, so he has been suspended for four games.

I’ve seen some of the best at arguing with umpires and getting themselves thrown out of games. Leo “The Lip” Durocher and Billy Martin were very entertaining when they got upset at the men in blue. Bobby Cox, the longtime manager of my beloved Braves, will soon set a major league record for most times being ejected from a game. He says he’s not all that proud of it. Most of the time, though, he’s sticking up for his players, and I guess that’s a good thing.

Never, though, have I seen antics like those perpetrated last Friday night by Phillip Wellman, the manager of the Atlanta Braves’ AA affiliate the Mississippi Braves. In a game against the Lookouts in Chattanooga, he launched into theatrics that would make a seasoned thespian proud. He got down on his hands and knees, covered home plate with dirt, and drew a larger home plate in the dirt. He crawled, soldier-style, toward the pitcher’s mound, grabbed the resin bag, and tossed it toward the home plate umpire as if it was a hand grenade. He took the second and third base bags with him when he left the field. It’s entertaining stuff; the video is all over the internet. Even though it’s entertaining, one has to question such behavior. After all, as former New York Mets General Manager and current ESPN baseball commentator Steve Phillips said, a minor league manager is responsible for teaching young players how to be professionals and how to play the game the right way. Throwing a childish tantrum is hardly setting a good example. It is appropriate that the Braves have suspended Wellman for three games; the Southern League may hand down other penalties.

It’s not a good thing when leaders lose their cool. I have usually been able to keep my emotions in check when I am in my pastoral role. There have been times, though, when I let my temper get away from me.

The church that I served as pastor during my seminary days was in tobacco growing country in Northern Kentucky. I had announced my resignation so that I could devote more time to writing my Ph.D. dissertation. As fate would have it, our monthly church conference fell on my last Sunday. We held the conferences immediately following the Sunday morning service because that was the only time we had enough people there to constitute a quorum. The Southern Baptist Convention had just concluded and at that convention a resolution had been adopted against tobacco. When we got to new business, one of our tobacco farmers made a motion that our church stop contributing to the Cooperative Program, the unified giving plan of the denomination that supports missionaries, seminaries, and various agencies. He said, “I don’t see why we should support them when they’re trying to hurt us.” Even though I was the moderator, I spoke against the motion; we weren’t running over with parliamentary experts so nobody stopped me. “Now, let’s not overreact,” I said. “Remember that a resolution has no binding effect on the churches” (I’m not sure I could honestly say that now, but that’s another story), I said. “We don’t need to cut off our support just because you’re mad,” I said. I should have referred the motion to a committee so that the next pastor could deal with it (that would have been Christian of me, wouldn’t it?) but I wasn’t thinking clearly. So we voted. A handful of people voted “yes,” a smaller handful voted “no,” and about half the congregation abstained. And I got mad. “I won’t be pastor for even one service of a church that doesn’t support the Cooperative Program,” I said, “so consider my tenure as your pastor over as of the benediction.” That showed them. That evening’s service was to be my last one, anyway.

Given that the portion of my tithe that my church sends on to the SBC through the CP now supports a good many efforts that I’m not too enamored of, there is irony in my story. Nonetheless, that’s how I felt then and I did in fact let my temper get the best of me. I suppose that I was standing up in the only way that I could think of for a principle that was at the time very important to me, but now, twenty-three years later, I’m not happy with the way that I left. My brother’s motion was unnecessary, but he had his reasons, and my relationship with him was in the long run more important than our disagreement over that issue.

Then there was the time when, in a meeting of just a few people at which we were discussing a contentious issue, I felt that one of the people in the conversation was presenting a very limited vision of what it was to be a church that was engaged in Christ-like ministry. Before I knew what was happening, I realized that I was pounding my (thankfully) empty Diet Coke (thankfully) plastic bottle on the table while I expressed my view of exactly how we should exhibit the love of Jesus in our daily lives. Again, the irony is not lost on me.

I guess that I should be grateful that after thirty years of ministry I can think of only those two instances where I lost my cool.

Not that I haven’t been tempted at other times. It might even be fun.

I can see me now, kicking dust from the carpet onto the shoes of some wayward usher, tossing my hymnal hand grenade-style toward a snoozing parishioner, and turning the tables over at the potluck supper to express my displeasure at our members’ gluttony.

I can also see me in the unemployment line.

No, we leaders, especially we church leaders, should not give vent to our anger in such ways; we bear inadequate witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ when we do. Still, maybe it would be good if our members saw, understood, and accepted that we are human, too. Sometimes I am disappointed. Sometimes I am discouraged. Sometimes I am irritated. And sometimes I am angry.

I need to express those emotions in healthy ways. I need to be mature enough to show how it’s done. And my beloved parishioners need to be mature enough not to be surprised to learn that their gentle pastor does in fact—I hope you’re sitting down—have feelings.


Alycelee said...

Fine post.
About the humanity and approchability of pastors: I agree that being able to see this in my pastor has surely cemented our relationship AND unity.
My pastor is 2 decades younger than my husband and I and after serving with him in our church for over 16 years, I'm thrilled to say we have thanked God for continually changing us and are blessed to have seen God make adjustments in our pastor.
While we don't agree on every little jot and tittle, we are indeed in unity. For this-I thank God.

Mike Ruffin said...


Thanks for the comment. I'm glad that you paid my blog a visit. It inspired me to visit your blog, which I will now be doing regularly. The situation you describe in your church is cause for thanksgiving. Blessings to you.