When People Throw Stones:
Protecting Your Marriage and Family
By Don and Jodi Detrick
Sunday, December 9, 2007, dawned cold and crisp, like most December mornings in Colorado. But unlike most December Sundays, shots rang out as a gunman aimed at worshipers leaving the morning service at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Frightened parishioners, gripped with terror, suddenly turned from lunch plans and fellowship to survival tactics and barricades. As the drama ensued, the gunman took two young lives and wounded three others. A female security guard bravely intervened to end the massacre by wounding the shooter, who then took his own life.
Earlier in the day, the same gunman unleashed a torrent of bullets in a dormitory at Faith Bible Chapel in nearby Arvada, killing two Youth With a Mission students and wounding two others. What had motivated Matthew Murray to such violence?
Murray’s parents had home schooled him and raised him in a Christian atmosphere. A few years earlier, nevertheless, Youth With a Mission had dismissed 24-year old Murray. Embittered, he had recently sent hate mail to the Arvada campus. For Murray, the wounds ran deep. His perceived offenses and unresolved pain turned to resentment, bitterness, hatred, rage, and ultimately the revenge he unbridled against innocent victims on that cold December Sunday.
In the wake of the New Life shootings, many churches are taking another look at security and evaluating their plans and procedures regarding the health and safety of their parishioners. We call this risk management. Perceptive churches have been doing this for years. Armed guards may seem an extreme measure, but how does one determine the importance of security, particularly when children are in the sanctuary — a place that is considered safe from harm and intruders?
Fortunately, tragic events such as the New Life shootings tend to be an anomaly, rather than a regular Sunday occurrence. Most people do not fire bullets in church. But many do throw stones — but not the kind that might shatter stained glass windows. Instead, the stones they throw shatter emotions, hearts, dreams, and hopeful perspectives. These stones can hurt. Ask any pastor who is nursing wounds he received from the verbal ambush of an unhappy parishioner or board member.
My wife and I have been there, too. After pastoring for nearly 30 years in small, medium, and large churches — while raising three children — we have had experience and education in triage while staffing our own first aid stations. Since serving as a district official for the past few years, I frequently help pastors and their families express angst and maintain their balance while recovering from stonings at the hands of those they serve.
My wife and I believe in the importance of risk management to protect our marriage and children from those who would intentionally or even inadvertently cause them emotional harm. How many adult children of pastors loathe the church and are far from God because no one protected their dignity and shielded them from assaults in church while they were growing up? How many ministerial marriages that seemed made in heaven ended because conflicts in the church disrupted and eventually destroyed family life? While you cannot hire security guards or build a fence to protect your marriage and family, consider these suggestions.
Recognize the Dangers
“If I’d only known.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard those words spoken regretfully by pastors who failed to recognize the negative influence church turmoil was having on their marriages and families. Enmeshed in the ministry and running on adrenaline, pastors can easily ignore the impact of negative circumstances on their spouses and children — but they will live to regret it.
Our own naiveté early in our ministry made us feel exempt from the damage we had seen in other ministry families. We reasoned, If we love Jesus and everyone in our church loves Jesus, surely we can all get along. That foggy reasoning quickly evaporated in the light of reality.
Years ago, as a 22-year-old rookie pastor, I made an innocuous comment while teaching an adult Sunday School class. Referring to a steady diet of manna, I mentioned that I could relate to the Children of Israel since I preferred more variety in my regimen than a daily ration of beans. I was not prepared for the explosion I was about to experience from one of the older men in the class.
“Why, you don’t know what it means to suffer. You didn’t have to live through the depression. And if you had spent weeks in a foxhole like I did during World War II, you would have been happy to have some warm beans to eat.” His tone was vicious. The longer he spoke the louder he raged. Humiliated, his wife finally calmed him down.
Although stunned by his outburst, I also learned a few things that day. First, even a simple Bible lesson can be fraught with danger when people misread or misrepresent your comments and intentions. Second, even though you may not have much history with a person, you may represent someone or something from his past that triggers a negative reaction.
These people are not just responding to you; they are throwing stones as a response to baggage they have carried for a long time. Finally, we learned to watch what we said around him and guarded our children when in his presence — always wary of another eruption from that volcano.
Place Boundaries Between Home and Church
We lived in a parsonage next to the church. While some may enjoy this arrangement, we found it challenging because there was no clear separation between home and church. Church members might stroll by at any time. Privacy was difficult to preserve. While being gracious and hospitable, we intentionally informed our parishioners that we viewed our home as personal space and wanted our children to feel secure there.
Because I (Jodi) was heavily involved in ministry as an unpaid staff member, and our children were young, I felt the tension between being a minister and a mother. Occasionally, someone would let me know I was not meeting her needs or expectations. That would sting. I appreciated my husband making public affirmations of me and our decision for me to be primarily a stay-at-home mom. He encouraged people to respect the fact I was not available 24/7 as the church counselor, Women’s Ministries leader, Bible study teacher, choir director, and pianist (even though I was active in all those roles). If we had it to do over again, we would probably erect even clearer boundaries with a better realization of our own limitations.
Too many ministry spouses feel the pain of comparison with their predecessor or with someone’s imagined ideal of whom they should be. Don and I have made an intentional effort to regularly be each other’s best cheerleaders — both privately (even in e-mail exchanges) and publicly. Sometimes a well-placed, Way to go! You’re amazing! written or spoken by your best friend goes a long way in strengthening the heart against stone-induced damage.
We also made a conscious decision not to force our children into ministry roles they did not feel called to or could not embrace enthusiastically. Over the years, they developed their own gifts and passions, often different from our own.
For the most part, our congregations were gracious and allowed our children to explore their individuality beyond the context of being the preacher’s kids. Do your children feel the freedom to be themselves and express their own individuality and style without facing criticism from people in the congregation?
Guard Your Children
Even if you live far from the church, it is too easy to blur the boundaries and bring home church problems. This creates an unhealthy environment for children. If you are not careful, your children can begin to associate church with negative feelings.
While the church may be the place Mom or Dad works, it needs to also be a place where children feel secure and valued. If parents come home from church nursing their wounds, children may begin to feel anxiety about church and view it as a place of pain rather than a place of peace and enjoyment.
No matter how you feel about firearms, it is tragic to hear about children who died after playing with a loaded weapon in their own home. If pastors and their wives are not careful, their own unresolved anger or bitterness toward those who have wounded them can be like a loaded weapon that is left unguarded.
Though pastors never intend their children to pick up their angst and negativity, if children find it at home, you can be sure they will be curious and start playing with it themselves. The results can be tragic. Do a check to ensure you have safely unloaded the bullets of bitterness, cynicism, or pessimism from your attitudes so your children do not pick them up at home and injure themselves.
Having unrealistic expectations that our children will be perfect examples (in behavior, athletics, talent, godliness, scholastic achievement) for the other children in the church can also be dangerous. Once a year, I (Don) did a Parson to Person Chat on a Sunday evening with our congregation. I communicated that our children were just like theirs, and were under no obligation to try to meet everyone’s expectations of the perfect PK. Even with our best intentions and a loving congregation, at times our children still felt compelled to live up to a certain standard that their peers did not need to.
Today, we encourage parents to create an atmosphere of grace and mercy in their home. Pastors need biblical standards of behavior, but they also need to allow their children to be who they are. Be proud of them, spend time with them, and never stop trying to build bridges of communication to their hearts. Parental love and acceptance provide the best bulletproof vest for a child. Communicate with your congregation that if they want to do something for you as a pastor, they can love your children and affirm them whenever possible.
Your children also need friends that share the same circumstances in life. They need connection with peers who understand the joys and challenges of being PKs. Many districts have PK retreats or camps designed to offer specialized encouragement and connection with peers. Take advantage of these opportunities. Remember, you can listen and provide a safe place when your child needs to vent or voice struggles associated with life in a ministry family. Do not take it as a personal attack or the last word on how they will feel. They may just need to put words to what is bugging them. Knowing that you will listen will be a great help.
A normal family life cannot flourish in an environment where crisis is common. People will throw stones. Conflict is a normal part of life.
In a healthy church environment, people can manage conflict. Many articles and books are available to help you learn to manage conflict.
Do not view every disagreement as a major crisis or battle. Good people can disagree, and do so agreeably. Not every person with a different perspective or who questions a decision is an enemy or a tool of the devil. Not every mountain is worth dying on, so choose your battles wisely. As a pastor/parent, resist the urge to enlist your spouse and children in formulating battle plans.
Prayer is our best line of defense when we become targets. When people stir our emotions and hurt our feelings, the discipline of prayer requires us to pause and reflect before engaging in words or actions that might further exacerbate the problem. There is a time to act — to defend, deliberate, or discuss — but prayer needs to be our initial response when a stone wounds our heart and bruises our spirit.
Jesus told us, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Paul reflected, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly” (1 Corinthians 4:12,13). It is nearly impossible to respond this way unless you have first prayed and received the Holy Spirit’s enablement to respond correctly.
Many times we were heavy-hearted and joined hands as a couple or with one of our children to pray over a hurtful situation. Our kids need to know that we run to Jesus first when people wound us. They also need to hear us praying, not only for the people who have wronged us (if they are aware of the situation), but also for insight and forgiveness for our part in conflicts. As imperfect people, we need to admit that stones sometimes fly from our fingers, too.
Too many of God’s servants choose to suffer alone. Either their circumstances embarrass them, or they hope it will blow over in time. Others suffer in isolation because they lack a trusted friend and confidant.
In 2005, we drafted a survey for ministers and spouses in the Northwest Ministry Network regarding challenges they faced in ministry. One question was: How many times in the past year have you experienced critical challenges in your ministry?
Thirty-seven percent of the respondents to that question circled “2 or more,” while nearly 11 percent reported “4 or more” critical challenges in the past year. Only 23 percent reported “none.” We asked a follow-up question: Where do you most often turn for help when you are experiencing major challenges in your ministry? While the top answer (46.5 percent) was “a friend or colleague in ministry,” more than 17 percent of respondents indicated “they just try to plow through on their own.”
Solo suffering is like trying to scratch your own back. You may know exactly where the problem lies, but are at a loss as to how to reach it on your own. We often lack the objectivity and dexterity necessary to diagnose and treat ourselves. Our emotions may blind or obscure details that offer potential solutions — details that a friend’s fresh eyes may readily spot.
Over the years we have discovered that people who crawl off into the bushes to hide and nurse their wounds often die there. There is a time for solitude. Personal reflection is impossible without it. But there is no substitute for a trusted, faithful, uncritical friend to help you unpack your pain and mine the depths of your emotions until the precious gems of character come polished to the surface. George Eliot wrote, “Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.”
The breath of kindness is a refreshing and rare breeze with medicinal powers, particularly when it follows an extended session of listening. Both as a couple and as individuals, we would not have survived in ministry had it not been for encouraging friends who listened to our battle stories as they walked with us through the halls of suffering.
We must have friends we can go to during a time of crisis. Unless we cultivate friendships during seasons of fruitful activity, we will not reap the benefits of friendship during seasons of lonely adversity.
Too many pastoral couples have confided in us that they do not have close friends. Our advice is always the same: find a friend, talk to someone, invite another couple to lunch, be a friend — do something.
Don’t assume that everyone is too busy, no one cares, or pastors of other churches (especially large ones) are problem free. Years ago while pastoring a smaller congregation, we regularly met with another pastoral couple in similar circumstances on our day off. Because we lived an equal distance from a larger city, we usually met there and spent the day having fun and processing whatever situations and feelings we were experiencing at the time.
On one particular day, the husband and I (Don) did some guy activities while our wives went shopping. While driving past one of our larger denominational churches I asked, “Have you ever been in that building?” Because neither of us had, we decided to stop. After introducing ourselves to the receptionist, she indicated that the pastor would probably enjoy showing us around. We protested that we were just small-church pastors from the area and knew that he was a busy man, but she seemed insistent.
For the next hour the pastor gave us a tour of the facilities and shared his vision for ministry. We learned he had some stone throwers in his congregation as well. Before leaving, we prayed together. Our presumption that he was a busy person and would not be interested in a couple of small-town pastors could not have been less accurate. His parting words provided a lesson I have never forgotten: “I have pastored here for a number of years. This is the first time another minister has stopped by to see me. Thank you guys so much.”
Above All, Guard the Sanctity of Your Marriage
A strong marriage relationship is the best defense against outside influences and stone throwers. Determine what kind of shields will best protect your marriage relationship and the emotional/spiritual health of your spouse. Some couples do not discuss certain church-related items at home. Some pastors choose to shield their spouse from negative church circumstances or conflicts they are facing. Other couples (we are among these) believe the marriage relationship provides a safe, confidential sounding board to debrief, get perspective, and pray together about stone-throwing people or rocky church situations. (Even when this is the chosen pattern, some confidential issues must remain undisclosed, even to a spouse.)
Whatever your strategy, be careful that all your couple time is not consumed by counting and examining your pile of stones. If you are not careful, it will be easy to pick up the stones that bruised you during the past week and, in frustration, sling them at the one closest to you — usually your partner. Having fun together, believing in each other, creating time and space for romance in your marriage are some of the best ways to absorb the impact and lessen the sting of a hurtful attack from the outside. If we are secure in our primary relationships — with the Lord and with our marriage and family — we will be able to withstand many challenges.
Forgiveness and reconciliation provide the greatest healing from thrown stones. Shortly after the New Life shootings last year, Senior Pastor Brady Boyd quietly organized an emotional meeting with Murray’s parents and the parents of the two teenage girls he had killed. Murray had also shot the father of the girls. The father, along with his wife — with tears — offered forgiveness to Murray’s parents. As a result, reconciliation began. “As Christians, we can talk philosophically about forgiveness and redemption, but I saw it modeled in a way I’ve never seen it this week,” said Pastor Boyd.
Until we get to heaven, where the only stones will be brilliant jewels that make up the walls and gates, occasionally those who hurl insults, accusations, and criticisms will hurt us. Those dents and dings in our armor of faith probably mean we are doing something right. If we pray, develop and rely on safe friendships, and ensure our homes and marriages are healthy, joy-and grace-filled stone-free zones, we will be able to deflect and disarm the weapons others form against us.