An Allergy to Irritants

An Allergy to Irritants
By Dave Feltman

I was born with allergies; the usual dust, ragweed, hay fever, just about any living thing that grows outside kind of allergies. Symptoms include itchy eyes, a runny nose, stuffed sinuses, and general skin rashes. To help combat these symptoms I take pills, use nasal sprays, and receive shots as often as once a week. You could say that I am an expert with things that cause irritation.

In ministry, there are irritants all around us, and they usually have names. The following names have been changed to protect the innocent, although I’m sure the personalities exist somewhere around you.

Consider Uncle Jerry. He’s the armchair quarterback of your ministry. He’s not involved, but can tell you from where he sits in his pew what you are doing wrong. From, “The music is too loud,” to the ever popular, “What happened to the music from the good ole days?” Uncle Jerry is full of criticism and unsolicited advice. It’s not that he thinks you are a bad person, you’re just not doing it the way he would.

One Sunday after the morning service Uncle Jerry stopped me in the hall to give me his weekly report. Despite planning an alternate escape route, I was spotted and cornered, so I had to grin and bear it. “That was a good hymn this morning,” Uncle Jerry commented. Could this be a compliment? “But you left out verse three. That’s the whole reason for singing the song. And that alto didn’t get two of the notes right during the chorus. A real shame, I tell you.” And so he did tell me, every week for four years.

Then there’s Lori, a recent addition to the choir. She’s single and currently unemployed, but she loves to sing and is making friends. After the first rehearsal, she asks how she did, what she could do better, and what did she need to do for next week. Fairly normal for a first night, until she comes back six consecutive weeks with the same questions. And apparently that wasn’t enough. I soon began receiving several phone calls a week at home with questions, questions, questions. One night, the question was about choreography. Lori had a “better idea” and wanted to know if we could use it instead. I was relieved to have an answer. I said, “That is a decision between the choreography director and myself, but I will discuss it with her.” That seemed to satisfy Lori, I thought. The next week, the choreography director stopped me before rehearsal. “You have got to tell Lori to quit calling me! It is almost every night with a different question, comment or idea. She’s driving me crazy!”

Add to Uncle Jerry and Lori a church leader, Deacon Sam. While he’s a good man, you never seem to be able to connect with him. You try to start conversations, but it’s like speaking a foreign language to each other. Every decision, every choice, every opinion just seems to be the opposite of Deacon Sam. After months of research toward buying a new piano for the sanctuary, running it through four separate committees, and receiving the approval of the staff and board, a decision was made. We would buy the six foot
grand. Pleased and relieved that the process was finished, I looked at Deacon Sam and said, “I’m glad that’s over. I can’t wait to have it delivered.” Feeling like we may finally have some common ground, he replied to me, “I think a nine foot grand would have been better,” and walked away.

Irritants are all around us, and they usually have names. So the question is, “What do we do?” If we do nothing, your spiritual eyes will become watery and you won’t be able to see clearly. You’ll spend the majority of your time attending to your own rashes rather than focusing on the needs of others. You’re life will be a constant headache due to the pressure. You’ll become spiritually stuffed, itchy and scratchy.

The medical community’s stance on irritations is very clear: avoid them. Do everything in your power to remove them from your life. However, the Bible tells us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) And rather than avoid those we don’t get along with, we should, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2) Once we love and accept them, here are a few options to ease the irritations.

Try to change ourselves.

If there is friction between two people, then there are rough edges on both sides. And it is my opinion that we must first look at ourselves to make sure that we are not the problem. Matthew 7:3-5 tells us, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Uncle Jerry may have some valid points, and I may not like hearing them. But I need to examine my own failures before I exploit his.

Try to help the other person change.

Sometimes people just don’t realize that they are doing anything wrong. If we can approach them in love and speak the truth, then they can adjust their behavior. “These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts.” (Zechariah 8:16) It could be as simple as saying, “Lori, if you have ideas, write them down and ask me at rehearsal rather than calling me every time you think of something new.”

Work to understand their motivation.

This option is about being a leader and being an effective communicator. It’s about being compassionate and strong at the same time. It’s about being good for someone rather than being good to them. It’s about understanding rather than telling. “I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things have I given willingly and with honest intent.” (1 Chronicles 29:17) When we consider their heart, we see past the details of the situation and understand the intent. Deacon Sam was easy to communicate with when you understand that his motivation was “whatever is best for the church.” He had no personal agenda, just the concern that his church be effective and makes wise choices.

With each kind of irritation, there is a remedy. As leaders, it is our responsibility to keep a healing salve on every irritation, whatever their name may be.

This article ‘An Allergy to Irritants’ by Dave Feltman is excerpted from Worship Magazine, June 2004.