Attitude Check

By Keith Miller | May 18, 2009

Keith, when I decided to become a parish priest I had no idea that some people consider ministers as “hired hands” and not colleagues, brothers or sisters on the adventure of living for Christ. My response to being treated as a lackey by some prominent church people is to want to bust them in the mouth. Did I get it wrong about the role and status of an ordained minister? D.M.

I don’t know what you should do, D.M., but I can certainly identify with the “bust them in the mouth” urge. I am a layman, and am not paid by a church, but I have degrees in Theology and Psychology and do counsel a lot of church people. Some years ago I had to make a serious attitude adjustment about my role as a servant/minister. It happened like this.

I was very busy trying to get what seemed like a thousand things done before leaving for a three-day speaking trip on the East Coast. There hadn’t been time to prepare my talks, so I was under a lot of pressure when a friend, a fine Christian woman, called. A couple she knew ws having marital problems. “They might call you,” she said, “because they could not agree on either a minister or a psychiatrist.” But my friend thought it crucial that I see them if at all possible.

It seems that the majority of people I’ve counseled with lately have had marital problems. Even though I was dead tired, I agreed to talk with them, hoping they wouldn’t call. But sure enough, at almost midnight the telephone rang. The man called me “Reverend” Miller (in what I thought was a condescending tone).

“Keith Miller,” I said with some definiteness. “I am a layman.”

“I’d like to make an appointment to see you,” he said without any details or preliminary remarks. Just when I started to ask who was calling, it occurred to me that he was the husband of the couple having troubles. He was, but he had the impatient and imperious tone of a power player totally insensitive to other people’s feelings, and I could see how his marriage might “have a few problems.” So realizing the man was under pressure and had probably put off calling all evening, I set the appointment for one o’clock the following day at our house.

I was a little irritated, since seeing them meant driving five miles from my writing hideout in the middle of the day. But I asked myself, “What kind of Christian are you if you can’t help another human being in trouble?” But I still felt angry that this guy had talked to me as if I were some sort of hired hand. I was only seeing him as a friend, with no intention of charging him as a counselor. So I prayed to be open to the man, and I was (at least consciously) ready to do that by the time I got home the next day at 12:30.

The telephone rang at 1:10 and the man said, “Something has come up, and I won’t be able to make it to your house.” I started to tell him he could just forget it, but then it occurred to me that he was slick enough that he might be avoiding the conference purposely. And from what my friend had said, this couple could be in serious trouble. So I agreed to see him the following day.

We had a good visit, but it was apparent that their marital problems were severe. By that time my schedule was really pressing. Not long after the husband left, his wife called, and after a long conversation, she asked for an appointment. Knowing how hard it is to wait when things seem to be closing in on you, I agreed to see her at 11:00 the following morning. (All of this was happening long before I learned about boundaries—and how Jesus set them.)

I rushed home at 10:55 to find that the woman had just called and left word: something had come up and she was not going to be able to come. I was furious! Three days had been fouled up by these people. They didn’t even have the courtesy to consider how much inconvenience I was going through for them. I wanted to call and tell them that one of their problems was “self-centeredness.” And further I wanted to inform them that I was very busy myself…and then it hit me: how important I must think I am if a thing like this can make me as mad as it did. Here were two people in the agony of struggling to keep their home together—with no telling what other complications—and I was incensed that they were treating me like a common servant…when that is what I claim I’ve committed my life to be: a servant to Christ and his suffering people. But my reaction told me that secretly I must want to be treated like a big-shot writer and counselor. That discovery eventually led me to a treatment center and the beginning of a whole new understanding of myself—and of what it might mean truly to want to be a servant.

So I don’t know what you need to do, D.M. But years ago when the question you asked first arose in my life, the search for an answer led me to have to face my denial about how much of my ministry has been about building a reputation as an outstanding Christian. And for me that was a very painful—but eventually transforming—discovery.

“For the self-flattery of our nature is very subtle and few can discern it. Secretly it pursues only its own ends, though meanwhile its outward conduct is such, that it seems to us we have but the single aim of pleasing God, though in actual fact this is not so. . . . So if a man does not watch himself well, he may begin some activity with the sole purpose of pleasing the Lord, but later, little by little, introduce into it a self-interest, which makes him find in it also a satisfaction of his own desires, and this to such an extent that the will of God becomes completely forgotten.”

Lorenzo Scupoli, Unseen Warfare

“In renunciation it is not the comforts, luxuries and pleasures that are hard to give up. Many could forego heavy meals, a full wardrobe, a fine house, et. cetera: it is the ego that they cannot forego. The self that is wrapped, suffocated in material things—which include social position, popularity, and power—is the only self they know and they will not abandon it for an illusory new self . . . which they may never attain.”

Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi, His Life and Message for the World

Forgive me, Lord, and help me not to look for the respect and acclaim of people but to be willing to die to my self-concern enough to accept them just as they are. And help D.M. and anyone else who may be struggling with what it means to be Your servant and minister to your other bruised and broken people. Thank you that you have helped me become more direct and to set better boundaries in contacts with controlling people with regard to their keeping appointments, if they want help. Amen.

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus in Mark 10: 42-45

Topics: Christian Living, Weekly Devotional | Comments Off on Attitude Check
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You were such a blessing to me 32 years ago. I often tell others of your impact on my life… I continue to thank the Lord Jesus for you and your ministry.
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