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To Intervene or Not to Intervene

In one of George MacDonald's books, there is a woman who has met a sudden sorrow. "I wish I'd never been made!" she exclaims petulantly and bitterly: to which her friend quietly replies, "My dear, you're not made yet. You're only being made — and this is the Maker's process."

James S. Stewart

Sometimes pastors regret stepping in. Despite pure motives and a deep desire to help, their well-intentioned intervention can at times do more harm than good.

Earl and Edna Waring were in their forties, and they were childless. David Lindquist, their pastor, also noticed — with everyone else — their penchant for public bickering.

In the adult Sunday school class, Earl would joke about looking forward to the church potluck "so I can finally get a decent meal." Edna would counter, "I'm just glad the church has a full-time janitor to clean the floor after you've eaten." The rest of the class would laugh nervously. The humor did not quite cover the barbed intent.

David wondered how he could help Earl and Edna relate to one another without continual put-downs. One day he stopped by their house and asked pointblank, "Sometimes you two seem unhappy with each other. Why is that?"

"We're not unhappy," Earl said.

"Around the church, people perceive you that way, and so do I," said David. "You bicker about money in Sunday school. You publicly ridicule each other's appearance. Last Sunday, Earl, in front of your wife, you told me, 'Edna can't cook worth a lick, which wouldn't be so bad if she'd only make the beds, but she never does.' It's wearying. But even worse, I worry about what it's doing to your relationship."

Earl and Edna didn't seem to take it seriously. David left, but he was determined to try again. He knew that often people needed time to get used to the idea of dealing with a problem. Over the next few weeks, he visited Earl and Edna two more times, and each time he'd ask, "How are you two getting along?" Each time, they'd reply "Fine."

But David didn't give up. On the next visit, he pressed harder.

"There must be something underneath that's rankling you two. Earl, tell me, what attracted you to Edna in the first place?"

As Earl retold the story of their meeting, Edna remained strangely quiet, seemingly preoccupied. When he was done, David pressed her to open up, to describe her relationship with Earl.

After a long pause, she said, "Earl, I need to ask your forgiveness." She seemed to stumble for words. She began to talk about her past, revealing several rather sordid sexual experiences with various men before she had met Earl.

"I was quite a floozy," she said. "Maybe that's why I'm the way I am now. I've never been too domestic a lady. Of course, I'm saved now, and that puts everything away, but sometimes I still feel guilty."

Earl listened wide-eyed. "I never knew that before!"

"I appreciate you sharing that," said David, feeling that at last he'd made a breakthrough. "Earl, how about you? What experiences in the past may be continuing to influence the way you relate to your wife?"

Earl hung his head and admitted that he, too, had been rather promiscuous in his young adult years. He admitted he still was attracted to other women, although he had not actually been physically unfaithful.

David talked about forgiveness and accepting one another. Before he left, he prayed with them that they would be able to support one another rather than tear each other down.

Unfortunately, the approach was a mistake — at least in that particular encounter. Now, ten years later, David wishes he had handled things differently.

"I got them to confess all this dirt to each other," he says. "But all it really did was create suspicion and distrust. 'Will she do it again?' 'Can he ever really put his past behind him?' They had been married about eight years at that point, and though they bickered, they had stayed together. But within another year, they were divorced."

Of course, they might have divorced anyway, but David feels his unwise, or perhaps untimely, intervention contributed to the failure of the marriage.

"Given their patterns of communication, I had simply added to the ammunition they could use against one another," he says. "They had learned to live with the bickering about cooking and unmade beds. That was a comfortable — and safe — way of fighting. But suddenly I'd introduced the heavy artillery, and even when it wasn't used overtly, it was always in mind, and that proved too weighty for the relationship to bear.

"For me," he reflects, "it raises the question of whether we really need to know everything in the past or not. Isn't the forgiveness of God sufficient not to raise those questions again?"

Seeking disclosure for disclosure's sake, he now feels, is a mistake.

David Lindquist's experience also raises another issue: At times, trying to help only hinders. If even well-intentioned intervention can prove destructive, when should a pastor intervene, and when should even a bad situation be left alone?

Obviously, even in small churches, there are going to be more fires flaring up, more problems in people's lives, than any pastor can personally stamp out. How do you decide which ones to take on?

When NOT to Intervene

There are occasions when it is probably best not to try to help those who don't want help.

When you don't know the person. Without some kind of personal relationship, intervention is difficult and risky. In these cases, the better strategy is an indirect approach.

"At the shopping center, I often see harried mothers ready to strike their toddlers or scream at them for simply being young and dropping their ice cream or whatever," said one woman, a co-minister with her husband. "Since I don't know them, I don't feel I have the right to directly intervene, but one time I walked by and said, 'They're a handful, aren't they? I'd forgotten how much patience it takes to be a parent. Even so, I wish my children were that age again. Yours are so cute.' It knocked the props out from under the mother. Suddenly she said, 'Yeah, they are kind of cute.' I was simply trying to be a little salt of the earth. We never exchanged names, and we may never meet again, but that compliment kept her from throttling her kids."

When you're beyond your depth. When a situation demands more skill or time than you have available, the best thing you can do for yourself and for the person is to bring in someone else.

One pastor found himself facing an impossibly complicated marriage triangle. Initially the wife came to the pastor complaining about poor communication patterns. When the pastor met with the husband, he discovered the man had been having an affair for over a year.

The problem was that the wife was pregnant, and so was the mistress! The husband didn't want to lose his family; he wanted to keep his wife. But he was not only emotionally attached to the mistress, he felt a moral responsibility to help her through the pregnancy and delivery of their child.

The pastor was stumped. "Normally, I'd tell a man to stop seeing his mistress as a prerequisite to rebuilding his marriage. But what could I do in this situation?"

When the husband started bringing the mistress to the pastor for counseling, the pastor knew it was time to call for reinforcements.

"I was in over my head," he said. "I think I know how to help couples repair their marriages, but I can't do that and help the husband and his lover at the same time."

Since the husband and wife were members of his church, he continued to see them, but he referred the mistress to another Christian counselor.

How can you tell when it's time to refer? Another pastor offers a helpful image: "I give it my best shot in two or three meetings to see if there are any indications of healing. I'm a counselor, not a psychotherapist. The difference: Counselors put bandages on the wounded so natural processes can help them heal. But when a person is continually ripping the bandages off the wound so it will never heal, it's time for the psychotherapist."

Perhaps the best most pastors can do is clean out the dirt to prevent infection, apply bandages, and set up the situation where normal healing processes can work. When the person persistently sabotages that treatment, it's time to refer.

When your motivation isn't right. Motives are always mixed; elements of fear/love/worry/altruism/reputation all get tangled together when confronting a volatile situation. And yet, pastors have found that some of their most counterproductive confrontations take place when they've gone in with the wrong motivation. So they identify warning lights that occasionally tell them their motives are not right for intervention.

"I was once tempted to confront a husband about his misbehavior, but I realized the only reason was because I liked his wife. Instead of being an ambassador for Christ, I would have been the woman's advocate, her mouthpiece. I realized I was not the right one to counsel that family."

Other pastors admit the temptation to make an appointment with a woman to discuss a problem her husband had mentioned, motivated largely by the pleasure of being with her. In that case, too, the motive is probably sufficient to rule out personal involvement.

Another dangerous and ineffective motivation is self-righteousness. "I've found being dogmatic and legalistic does not lead a person to want help. It turns him against it," said a pastoral counselor. "But if he feels he'll get a fair hearing, he's much more apt to let someone step in. It's crucial to sincerely want to understand that person's point of view. Even if I wind up disagreeing with the decisions he makes, I want to know the factors that went into making those decisions."

Anger is yet another motivation that must be brought under control before attempting intervention. As Laurence J. Peter once said, "Speak when you're angry — and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret."

Even when the individual has acted so badly as to deserve punishment, "you need to deal with your own feelings before you can deal effectively with the situation," says psychiatrist Louis McBurney. "It's natural to see a child abuser or workaholic as a real villain. But simply being judgmental will not help anyone. The only way I've found to get feelings under control so you can work with the person is to start asking What's caused this person to act this way? Everyone is part victim as well as part villain; every story has two sides. Obviously, we've got to get the individual to stop the destructive behavior, but to do that, we must understand what factors led him or her to act that way."

By checking emotions of anger and judgment, we can begin to truly listen and ask the right questions. McBurney observes, "At this point, you can form an alliance with that person, so he doesn't see you as being against him but with him, and often the person can say, 'I hate this about myself, too. I really do need help.'"

A final motivation pastors find they must guard against is seeing themselves as saviors.

"I have a standard speech for my staff I call 'Messiah Complex 101,'" says a pastor in the Southwest. "Everybody gets it several times because all of us in the helping professions have a little touch of the Messiah complex. We tend to believe that given enough time and money, we can love people enough and pray hard enough and work hard enough to help anybody. Not so. There are some people you cannot help no matter how hard you try. Everybody has to learn that, and if you don't, you can create more problems than you solve. Part of learning to be a minister is recognizing there are some people for whom you have nothing to offer — at least at this point in time."

How can you identify the people you can help? Do you have to try and see if you get rebuffed? Or can indications tip you off right from the beginning?

When TO Intervene

How do you discern the leading of the Spirit from a human compulsion to correct someone? Here are some of the factors pastors point to when deciding whether to help a person who doesn't want help.

God's persistent call. Opportunity does not equal a mandate to act. Just because you become aware of a need does not mean God is calling you to meet that need.

"I do not think God has called me to straighten out everyone," says one long-time pastor. "Unless it's an obvious emergency, I consider a concern God-given only if it stays with me over time. If it's a passing thing, I doubt if it's the call of God. But when the Lord lays it on your heart to help someone, he'll make sure you don't miss it. The story of young Samuel comes to mind. God will call you more than once if it really is of him."

Another pastor said, "In some cases, I've waited three weeks to six months before I knew God wanted me to act. He used that time to show me other facts I needed to know. I became more observant. I gained wisdom and necessary evidence."

When, before God, motives are right. If we are tempted to "straighten someone out," it is doubly important to check our motivations. What should the motivation be? Because I love God. It sounds simple, and it is. But in essence, that has to be the primary motive: loving God and wanting to help others love God, too.

"One motivation I have to guard against is feeling pious and smug before God," said one pastor. "It's easy for me to point out misbehavior or sin because it makes me feel righteous. It's even sweeter when something bad happens to the person and I can say, 'Don't you remember when we talked about that? I warned you.' But that doesn't do the person any good, and it certainly doesn't help my spiritual life. It's pride, which leads to the Elijah syndrome — 'It's just you and me, Lord, and sometimes I wonder about you.'"

A check on that motivation is to ask, Do I care deeply for that person, and not simply for the other people in the situation? The guidance in Galatians 6, the passage that commands those who are spiritual to restore those who are "overtaken in a trespass," is all couched in language emphasizing the importance of eliminating any self-righteous tendencies. We are to "bear one another's burdens" (v. 2) and "watch yourself, or you also may be tempted" (v. 1) and not think too highly of ourselves (v. 3) and test our own actions (v. 4).

As counselor Everett Worthington, Jr., writes, "Only after careful self-examination — more than a cursory overview — praying in the presence of the Holy Spirit, can we see well enough to even attempt to remove the painful splinter from the eye of a friend. It is never hasty."1

Before attempting to correct anyone, he asks himself these questions to check his motivation:

• Do I really care for that person?

• Am I a close enough friend that I am willing to bear his or her burdens?

• Is the timing right for a confrontation?

• Is the Holy Spirit directing?

If the answer to all these is yes, then Worthington considers how to broach the topic. "The key is that we restore people 'in a spirit of gentleness,' lest we too be tempted (Gal. 6:1)," he writes. The danger to pride is ever present.

The timing is opportune because of a crisis. Often it's a matter of time before you break through to resistant people. And many times breakthrough arrives as a result of a crisis in their lives.

Ike, for instance, was a farmer and a father of the old school — strict with his children and never showing emotion. He would make his children line up when he entered the house, and he expected them to sit without speaking at the dinner table.

His pastor, Eb O'Malley, claimed he could never talk to Ike about anything personal. Ike was always polite but reserved; conversations were kept on a surface level … until Eb was called to perform the funeral of Ike's brother.

A few days later, Eb met Ike at lunchtime, and Ike said, "You know, my brother and I were very close. One reason was because we endured a lot together as kids. My father was a harsh man. When I was twelve, my mother died, and the day of her funeral my dad got us up early and forced us all to work in the field from 6:30 to 10:15. Then he called us in, and we had fifteen minutes to get dressed for the funeral. We went to the funeral home, and immediately after the service, he loaded us back in the car, brought us home, and sent us back out to the field. We couldn't even go to the dinner that everyone else was having after the funeral. I remember thinking Aren't you supposed to cry when your mom dies? But Dad never gave us a chance. He wanted to keep us busy."

Ike looked at his pastor. "After my brother's funeral a couple days ago, I got to thinking. Maybe I'm more like my father than I'd like to admit."

Eb said later, "From then on, he was much more willing to talk with me about his relationship with God, his wife, and his children. His brother's funeral seemed to be the turning point."

Sorting Out the Options

Most pastors, as they mature, begin to seek counsel before riding off on any rescue missions. As one pastor described it: "Early in my ministry, I took a solve-them-as-they-come approach. My assumption was we shouldn't have problems in this church, so anything I became aware of I tried to solve. Even though my motive was good, my assumption was not well thought out. I never asked, 'How does this problem compare to this other problem, and which of the two should I be spending time on?' I didn't have any plan of action. As the bullets were fired, I tried to bite them. I about lost my sanity.

"In my second church, I began to trust the advice of my two part-time staff members. Before I acted, I'd sit down with them and discuss the situation. We would decide whether any action was necessary or not. If not, we'd pray about it and leave it. If we decided action was necessary, then we'd decide who and how, or if anyone else (such as the board) should be in on it."

Before taking the initiative in a ticklish ministry situation, this pastor and his associates asked themselves these questions:

1. Do we have all the facts? Do we have something more than hearsay? What can we do to get a fuller picture?

2. Once we have a better understanding of the situation, is it as bad as we thought? Whom does it really impact? Is it a church-wide problem? Is it going to affect one family, four families, or forty families?

3. Can we afford to wait? If we don't respond, what's the worst thing that could happen in a week? In a month? In a year?

"That's not passing the buck," said the pastor. "That's gaining the wisdom of time. You don't ignore it forever, but instead of rushing to the fire immediately, take some time to gain perspective. If we felt the problem could wait a month, we would let it go. My tendency was to exaggerate the urgency. I was surprised how many 'emergencies' took care of themselves in a month.

"If we had a limited problem involving three or four families, and we felt it was intense enough to require action, then we would assign one of the pastors to chat with the individual or the family and see what could be done.

"If we discovered forty families were being seriously affected, then we would bring it before the church board and say, 'Here are the facts as we understand them. Do any of you know anything we don't know or anything that would be helpful?' Then we would say, 'What do you think we should do?'"

Farmers know crops go through three stages: green, ripe, rotten. Harvest is effective only at one of the three stages. Pastors, too, have learned that intervention is not always the appropriate action, but at the right time, it can produce a rich spiritual harvest.

There's another lesson from the farm, however, that applies. For people to grow, they, like plants, demand an environment where growth is possible. You simply can't force growth out of corn by tugging on the stalks. To grow healthy plants you try to provide nutrients and protection from insects, but you don't keep pulling the plants up every day to check their progress.

So it is with people who don't want help. Sometimes the best thing we can do is provide an environment where change can take place. A steady, consistent witness is often more influential than stormy confrontations or attempts to create an artificial crisis.

So we turn to climate control.

Everett L. Worthington, Jr. How to Help the Hurting. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1985) pp. 48-51.

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