At the conclusion of a press conference, President Obama broke precedence to answer the shouted question of reporters about the Trayvon Martin case. As expected the president’s comments have been both praised and condemned by various pundits. He had come under significant criticism for not responding much earlier to the shooting death of the seventeen year old African American. In a world with Twitter, Facebook, and all manner of instant social media, there is little patience for allowing time to investigate carefully before conclusions are made.
Like the president, leaders at all levels are frequently pressed for comment on controversial matters. It is particularly challenging when opposing views want a quick judgment on a divisive subject. At such moments we can only wish for the wisdom of Solomon. When two mothers with competing stories as to the death of one of their infants were brought before him, he cleverly devised a way to determine who was telling the truth. Unfortunately, such insight often seems to elude us. Far more often the process is much slower and more painful. In reality, in some situations the complete truth is never a certainty.
Ministry leaders are no different than other leaders in dealing with controversy. Christians have opposing views as much as non-Christians. How are leaders to react in such cases, especially ministry leaders?
First, leaders should not rush to judgment because the initial accounts of the incident or situation can wildly vary.
Often when hearing the account of the same incident or situation from two different people, it does not seem possible that they could be talking about the same thing. We seldom remember as accurately as we think we do. Communication experts tell us that we are all notorious for perceiving communication and events in a prejudiced manner. Spin is a reality of human communication. We highlight certain words that others say and often ascribe meaning that was not intended because of our own biases. To put it in theological terms, we are sinners who distort things to suit our own purposes. One of the most helpful Scriptures that I have found in working with this dilemma is Proverbs 18: 17, “The first to plead his case seems just until another comes and examines him.” A leader is best served by patiently considering all accounts. Inevitably, some discrepancies will emerge that will help point to the truth. There is also great value in the account of multiple witnesses that agree. The biblical admonition that truth is established in the mouth of two or three witnesses should always be kept in mind. (Matthew 18:16)
In July of 2009, President Obama weighed in on the arrest of black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates for disorderly conduct by a white police officer, Sergeant James Crowley. In a remark to the press, Obama called the police officer’s action “stupid.” The comment proved to a major political gaffe for the president. When further details came to light and controversy ensued, the president arranged for the parties to meet in the famous “Beer Summit” at the White House. Perhaps wishing not to have to do damage control this time around, the president waited more than three weeks to comment. In his remarks, the president urged restraint while the investigation is ongoing. Though leaders do not always have the luxury of waiting indefinitely, more time does allow for a clearer picture. Like the president, leaders should attempt to learn from previous mistakes. However, it is best to learn from the mistakes of others on the folly of premature and ill-conceived comments.
Second, when a leader must respond publicly, special care must be taken in what is said.
Long extended and especially unplanned remarks inevitably lead to stumbling. The writer of Proverbs noted that “when there are many words, transgression is unavoidable.” (Proverbs 10:19 NAS) Speaking off the cuff and getting into a verbal jousting match over emotionally charged events is seldom a winning strategy. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was widely criticized for his recent public verbal sparring with a former Navy SEAL. The longer the governor continued the less control he seemed to have. In the end, he resorted to name calling and came across looking very badly.
Public confrontation on heated topics cannot always be anticipated. For ministry leaders, it is not just at planned congregational or committee meetings that explosive issues can come up. At one church where I was the pastor, I once opened the door to my office to discover a crowd of parishioners who immediately confronted me over a difficult issue with one our church staff. I was caught off guard and did not respond as well as I might have if I had been prepared. When controversy is intense, it is wise to give some forethought to what you might say if unexpectedly confronted. Again, the writer of Proverbs helps us with the reminder that “like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances.” (Proverbs 25: 11). Few would think that President Obama delivered those remarks without having thought of a precise response well in advance of the reporters’ questions.
Finally, in times of deep divisiveness where great hurt has occurred, demonstrating pastoral compassion is an important quality for the leader to manifest.
In speaking to reporters, the president noted that Trayvon could have been his son. While some perceived this remark as genuine empathy for Trayvon’s family, others saw it as political exploitation. Perhaps the president would have been less criticized if he had mentioned the agony that the Zimmerman family is experiencing as well. Regardless, demonstrating true pastoral compassion should not be equated with an endorsement for either side of a controversy. Political calculations in such instances are complex. In ministry, it is likewise a tightrope walk to deal with toxic topics of hurt and anger, especially when the total picture is not available. Christian ministry leaders are not above being accused of being manipulative.
All leadership is a humbling task. Ministry leadership is even more so, especially when the constituency is sharply divided. It should put us on our knees praying for the patience to wait, the wisdom to have an apt word, and a pastoral heart for those who are hurting. These are not qualities that are always compatible with the instant expectations of a Twitter world. However, in the midst of heated controversy, they do offer our best opportunity to bring healing words rather than divisive ones. In both ministry and politics, there is far too much of the latter and not enough of the former.