Reactivity in Ministry3 min read

Surprise!! My church has a new (unwanted) drinking fountain!

Early in my ministry I remember coming in the main door of the church and noticing some plumbers taking out the church drinking fountain and replacing it with a new one. Was there anything wrong with the existing one? No. In fact, it was only five years old. Someone—and I didn’t know who—just decided that the church needed a new drinking fountain.

As I walked toward the plumbers, I felt angry. “Who authorized this?!” “Where did the money for this come from??!!” And “Why didn’t anyone bother to tell me this was happening???!!!” “How can we afford this????!!!!”

So I had a new, unwanted drinking fountain. Now what???

How do you deal with surprises? Surprises often trigger reactive responses. Reactive responses can include:

  • Aggression: We exhibit outbursts of anger, shouting, blaming, and attacking directed at the person(s).
  • Withdrawal: We internalize our anger and, instead of confronting others, we retreat in fear and avoidance of the person(s) with whom we need to speak. And, if we’re trying to convince ourselves we’re really good Christians, we’ll “pray” about it. More often than we care to admit, however, this kind of “praying about it” is just a stained-glass way of denying the fact that we are in withdrawal mode.
  • Triangulation: Instead of going directly to the person(s) who caused the problem, we go “sideways,” whining and complaining to others so that they will take our side.
  • Passivity: Because we want to be “nice” and not upset anybody, we just decide not to deal with the issue at all.

Surprises may also trigger reflective responses. Unlike reactive responses, reflective responses are measured, planned and intentional. Because healthy reflective responses are intentional,

  • They are based on our own and our church’s core values and ministry vision;
  • They prioritize people over programs; and
  • They are consistent with God’s Word and vision for us and His church.

How do you deal with the unwanted surprises in your ministry? Do you respond with impulsive reactivity or with intentional responsiveness?

I once had a volunteer, who was a professional engineer, leading our VBS ministry. Frustrated, she responded reactively. “Why can’t everyone just do their job? It’s simple!” she stammered. “If they can’t do it…and do it right, I’m going to quit!”

What Can You Do?

If you tend to be reactive and demonstrate some of the behaviors listed above, what can you do?

First, humbly recognize that your reactivity is hurting you, your family, and your ministry.

Second, prayerfully reflect on Jesus’ calm, non-reactive responses in His extremely difficult situations. For example, after the Feeding the 5,000, the crowds rejected Him. How did Jesus respond? He calmly turned to His only remaining disciples and asked, “Will you also leave?”

Preparing for the heat of battle, WWII Allied General MacArthur said,

“The enemy is in front of us! The enemy is behind us! The enemy is to the right and to
the left of us! They won’t get away this time!”

MacArthur’s response was not unhealthy, uncontrolled reactivity. Instead it was responsive. Most importantly, it was intentional. Why did he choose intentional responsiveness instead of impulsive reactivity? Because he knew the consequence of defeat and failure was too great.

Another great “general” of the cross, Dr. Martin Luther, prepared us for intentional responsiveness: “Though devils all the world should fill; all eager to devour us, we … tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us” (Lutheran Service Book 656, stanza 3).

Next time you get a new unwanted drinking fountain, how will you respond? With reactivity? Or, by God’s grace, with intentional responsiveness?

* For a more detailed discussion, see The Roots Of Reactivity.

Photo (c) SIphotography/iStock

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