Whatever you do, let people see that you are in good earnest. You cannot break men's hearts by jesting with them or telling them a smooth tale or patching up a gaudy oration. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures upon a drowsy request of one who seems not to mean as he speaks, or to care much whether his request is granted. Let us, therefore, rouse ourselves to the work of the Lord and speak to our people as for their lives.

Richard Baxter

An elder, a close personal friend of the pastor, recently filed for corporate and personal bankruptcy. "It's a tragedy," said the pastor. "But he was a 'positive thinking' kind of person who, when you asked him how things were going, would always say, 'Fantastic!' That was part of the problem. He was so optimistic about his business that he didn't pay attention to the warning signs. Consequently, the business went under, and they're going to lose their house and most of their possessions. He finally told me about it after it happened."

"Fred," the pastor had said, "where have you been? I'm your friend. I'm your pastor. Why didn't you let me know sooner?"

"I don't know."

"Do you remember when you were at my house, and I talked about almost losing my first church because I hadn't vet learned how to read the financial accounts?"

"Yeah. You were asking about me then, weren't you?"

"Yes, I even asked about financial threats you faced in your business. Why wouldn't you tell me?"

"I just didn't want to admit defeat," said Fred.

Now he and the pastor are meeting regularly, talking through the financial and spiritual realities in all of this.

"Fred finally is ready to admit a need for help," the pastor says. "But his wife still won't talk to me. She's never rude, but when I call her once or twice a week, she always puts me off. I can help Fred, but I cannot help Naomi. And I grieve about that."

A month earlier, the pastor could not help Fred either. His indirect overtures had been rebuffed. At times, only direct intervention can break through, but for direct confrontation to be effective, timing is vitally important.

Signs of Readiness

When people finally become willing to work on an area of their life, pastors must know when the moment comes, and not jump the gun. What are some of the signs of openness?

One of them is increased nervousness, as evidenced by blushing, inability to sit still, or intestinal problems. Body language reveals much about a person's internal condition.

A second sign of readiness is a lapse in the defensive posture. Before a person is ready to deal with an issue, he usually will be defensive about it. "Initially, if someone is defensive, I'll overlook it and show acceptance," says psychiatrist Louis McBurney. "But after I've worked with him a while and feel we have more of a relationship, if he's still defensive, I might challenge him a bit — 'It sounds like you feel a little defensive about that subject.' I may still have to wait, but before long he'll usually say something like, 'You asked me about that before. What do you think about that issue?' Or something will indicate he's not reacting with the same degree of defensiveness, that he's feeling more secure. At that point, I can raise the issue directly."

Both of these principles were put into play by Pastor Daniel Frantz.

Daniel had been approached by Eddie Wiebe, a young man in the congregation. "Pastor, Sherry and I have been married only a year and a half, but we've got problems. She's still seeing an old boyfriend who works with her. They eat lunch together — just the two of them — twice a week."

"Have you two talked about the problem?"

"Yes, but she says she's not doing anything wrong. I say it may not be wrong, but it sure tears me up inside. When she won't end the contacts for me — for us — I wonder if she loves him more than me. Would you talk to her?"

"Does she know you're talking to me about this?"

"I told her we should consider counseling, but she says we shouldn't need counseling after only a year of marriage."

Daniel agreed to talk to Sherry, and as was his custom, he asked Eddie to perform a "familyectomy" — to take himself and their son out of the house so Daniel and his wife, Ruth, could talk to Sherry alone. He didn't want her to feel humiliated or emotionally pressured by any other family members. Eddie agreed that the next Tuesday night he would tell Sherry about 7 p.m. that he needed to pick up something at the hardware store. "Come back around eight," Daniel suggested.

The next Tuesday evening, with his wife along, Pastor Frantz rang the doorbell about 7:10. Sherry answered.

"Hello, Sherry. How are you?"

"Fine, Pastor. Hi, Ruth. Come in."

"First, let me tell you why we came," he said, planted on the porch. "We don't want to come in unless you really want us. Eddie told me you two have been struggling with some things. I'd like to talk about them, but I am not going to push myself in. I realize you didn't invite us to come here. I've come because as your friend and pastor, I felt I should. But we won't come in unless you invite us. If you say no we'll still be friends. We won't say anything more."

He paused and watched Sherry swallow hard. (He calls this his "Revelation 3:20 approach" because it makes sure the person knows her freedom was not being violated. But it also forces a decision.)

As is the case in most of Daniel's experiences, Sherry said, "Come in." They sat at the kitchen table.

"Eddie tells me he feels he's got some competition for you. I wanted to hear your side of things."

Sherry reassured Daniel that she wasn't doing anything wrong, that she and Roger were "just friends," that she had no guilt feelings, and that she was unafraid to be seen with Roger. As she continued to talk, however, Daniel noticed that while her mouth was saying one thing, her hands were telling a different story.

A box of Kleenex sat on the table, and Sherry unconsciously took one after another out of the box and shredded it. Before long the pile resembled a sizable bird's nest.

Finally Daniel remarked, "You keep saying you don't feel guilty about this relationship, but I'm not sure I dare believe it. You know why? Because your hands betray you." He pointed to the nest of shredded Kleenex. "I wonder if your sense of guilt isn't about as high as that pile of Kleenex."

She was speechless.

"You know," he continued, "when Jesus came into Jerusalem and everyone was cheering, the Pharisees said, 'Hey! Make them shut up!' And Jesus said, 'If I make them shut up, the stones will cry out.' Sometimes I talk to people who shut up part of themselves, but their gallstones — or ulcers or blood pressure — cry out. Sherry, I think you are crying out through this pile of Kleenex."

Sherry lowered her head and admitted there were things about herself that she hated. "She never admitted guilt, but she did talk about her loss of self-respect," Daniel recalled. "Her bravado was really a cover-up for her self-hate. We talked honestly, and she and Eddie have begun to make progress on their relationship."

In this case, the key was noticing her unconscious nervousness — the clue that the confrontation was striking close to home — and then moving gently but firmly when the defenses began to come down.

The Internal Work

Those who confront need to be aware of internal dynamics.

First, the goal is not an emotional experience but a change of the will. As one church history professor puts it, "Don't look for the highs and lows as much as the longs." That's true of people as well as historical movements. Helping those who don't want help takes a persistence and a perseverance — a long perspective, not a high.

Another pastor said, "I have to remind myself that the past is not as important as the future. I'm willing to forget point A, B, and C with a person. Those are in the past and can't be helped. What I'm looking for is point E, F, and G. I want to help individuals with the points they have not reached yet."

A second internal adjustment for confronters is to keep responsibility straight. "I have to remember that I am not ultimately responsible for their behavior — they are," said a minister. "My purpose is to help the individual function on his own, not to obey the decisions I make for him."

Other ministers confess a tendency to play the white knight, riding repeatedly to the rescue. "Every once in a while I find myself wondering what's happened to this couple or that person. I'm tempted to call and say 'What's going on? Do you need more help?' Sometimes they do, but more often it's probably more my need to be the great healer than it is something they need. I have to get unhooked from the need to be needed."

Escalating Steps of Intervention

What can pastors do during the period of resistance, when people refuse to accept input from others? How can the barriers be breached?

It is often safe to assume that the person has a reason for his behavior. Most pastors quietly but persistently seek the source of the hurt.

"I've found that almost any time people claim to be atheists, somewhere in their past they've sought answers from Christians and have been rebuffed," says a pastor in Kansas. "I'll say, 'You've been hurt by the church, haven't you?' And they'll say, 'How did you know?' Almost anyone who is resisting help is harboring a hurt."

The job of the confronter is at least partly to identify with the hurt that's causing a person's behavior. That creates an opening that can be used to great effect. The means can be as simple as an earnest question.

Most ministers try repeated loving probes, often simply by finding time for an unrushed talk and asking, "How are you doing? Really, how are things going for you at (pick one) work/home/church? I haven't touched base with you for a while. Give me an update." Perhaps this initiative will have to be taken more than once. Sometimes the response is "None of your business," but normally, if they trust the pastor, people will be honest and afterwards will say "Thanks for asking."

At times, this low-key, oblique approach is sufficient.

Richard Evers never realized what he was walking into when he agreed to see Sharla Holland. Sharla was a thirty-year-old mother of four. Her husband, Toby, two years older, was an airline pilot. Both had been regular church attenders. When Sharla asked to talk with him about "child discipline," Richard set up an appointment.

As Sharla began describing their home life, however, Richard quickly saw that, as is often the case, the problem was not with the children, but with the parents. The home Sharla described contained two separate empires. When Sharla was home alone, one set of standards reigned. When Toby was home, another regime took over.

"We bicker constantly," she said. But the problem of two separate discipline styles wound up being only the surface issue.

One of Sharla's offhand comments set off an alarm in Richard's mind. After complaining of Toby's short fuse with the older kids, she said, "But he spoils Joshua, our youngest. At night, he'll cradle Joshua on his lap and read him a book. They usually both fall asleep in the recliner. I have to wake them both to get them to bed."

"How often does that happen?"

"Oh, almost every night," she said. "He seems to spend more quality time with Joshua than he does with me."

Richard wondered what that did to their sex life, but he decided not to raise the issue just yet. He offered Sharla a book on child discipline and suggested she and Toby both read it and come in together to see him the following week.

He wondered if Toby's lack of interest in intimacy with his wife could mean something more was happening. He decided to raise the issue directly but to be indirect in implicating Toby. Richard asked Toby to meet him for lunch. After some casual conversation, Richard said, "As your pastor, I'd like to know how you're doing as a Christian. You're in a tough job. Pilots are away from home a lot. You're alone. I would imagine temptations can be pretty strong. They would be for me!" He consciously tried to avoid any hint of accusation of infidelity; rather, he tried to suggest that the potential for compromise would be there for anyone, and it was OK to talk about it. "How are you coping with that?"

"The best I can," Toby said, but he didn't look Richard straight in the eye. "You're right, it's not easy. You just have to keep yourself busy — have things to do."

Richard asked how it affected his relationship with Sharla, and Toby was equally noncommittal. The lunch ended on polite but hardly intimate terms.

Two days later, however, Toby showed up at Richard's office.

"You knew, didn't you?" he said.

"About what?" Richard asked.

"That I've been seeing someone," Toby said. "I knew it couldn't be kept secret forever. Did Sharla tell you? I wondered if she was beginning to suspect anything."

"No, Sharla didn't tell me. But you're right, it's hard to keep something like that hidden for long. Want to tell me about it?"

Toby explained that he had been seeing a young woman, another employee of the airline, for almost a year. "I've been trying to live in a dream world," he said. "I guess I knew I couldn't have a wife and a mistress, too. But you don't think about the consequences when you get into these things."

That was the beginning of a long road back for Toby. Eventually, he quit the affair, and he and Sharla were able to repair their relationship. The story might not have ended so happily, however, if Richard had not firmly but tactfully taken the initiative to see Toby. His intentional but oblique confrontation helped save a marriage and heal a home.

Tips for Interveners

Confront with tears. In any confrontation, the tendency is for the person being confronted to say, "You don't understand. You don't know what I've gone through." Graciousness, tenderness, and empathy are important even when you have to be firm.

"I've got to feel their pain, and let them know I feel it," says Joel Eidsness of Trinity Bible Church in Phoenix. "When you say the hard things, say them with tears. I've found that people who enjoy confronting make lousy confronters. A psychologist told me a long time ago, 'When you have to confront, be sure to share how you feel — not just with your words but with your body language, your facial features, your tears. Let them know this isn't easy.' It was good advice. People are much more open if they don't feel you enjoy correcting them."

He finds it takes away the impression that the pastor arrogantly thinks he has all the facts, has interpreted them correctly, and knows exactly what the person needs to do.

Confront with strength, not authority. There's a difference between intervening from a position of strength and a position of authority.

Authority means coming down with an imposed order and saying, "You need to stop this because the board (or the pastor or the Bible or the church constitution or the denomination) disapproves."

Intervening from the position of strength is to point out strongly the natural consequences of the present course. "If this keeps up, here's what's going to happen." And perhaps "Some of those things have happened to me, and they hurt like the blazes. Do you really want to do this?"

When talking with Katie, the woman in chapter 5 who was marrying a second nonbelieving husband, her pastor not only spoke of the biblical prohibitions, but also showed her a Newsweek article revealing the unfavorable statistics on second marriages working, especially when the marriage takes place within a year of the divorce.

Very few times will a person turn around by being told he is doing something evil or unacceptable. More often change will happen when a person is confronted with what's in his best interest — "Have you considered this consequence?"

Don't fear their tears. "When I was a younger pastor, I was more lenient with people," says David Seamands. "I didn't like to see anyone cry. Now I'm not as afraid of tears. Sometimes, if a person is reduced to tears, it can be the breakthrough you need. Obviously, you are not simply out to manipulate emotions, but you can be direct with the facts — biblical facts, statistical facts, personal experiences with the consequences of such behavior. You cannot afford to let sentiment prevent you from making the person face reality. If the person cries, that does not mean you've done something wrong. It means you may be getting through."

Encourage them to take even small steps of responsibility. Many pastors don't try to straighten out every area of a person's life at once. "I take my model from Elisha with Naaman (2 Kings 5)," says Mike Tucker of Bethany Community Church in Tempe, Arizona. "After Naaman was healed, he asked for some Israeli soil to take back to his homeland so he could worship God there. Elisha did not correct him with a lecture on God not being tied to geographic locale or holy dirt. Naaman wasn't ready for that. His desire to worship God was enough for now. Elisha simply said, 'Go in peace.'

"Another example is Christ. Several times he says, in effect, 'I've got a lot of things to tell you, but I can't tell you yet. You're not ready.' As a pastor, many times I must be sensitive to how much a person can receive. So many times I encourage a small step rather than a total transformation."

One pastor said his approach is to tell counselees not to set up the next appointment on their way out of the office. He specifically tells them, "Call tomorrow to set up an appointment." This is to insure that people have to take some initiative, to invest some effort, so they will take the session more seriously. A small but significant step toward responsibility.

Another pastor was counseling a divorcée who was sleeping with a man five nights a week. "Interestingly, she told me she wouldn't marry the man because he was not a Christian and was not interested in becoming a Christian," said the pastor. "But she had this great need for affection, and no Christian men were interested in her."

Since her previous attempts to cut off the relationship entirely had failed (largely because she didn't really want them to succeed), the pastor decided to aim for a more modest goal.

"I asked if she thought she could cut down to sleeping with him only one night a week. I figured you have to start somewhere, and she wasn't ready to stop seeing him completely. She agreed to try to reduce their contact."

The affair gradually withered. "Today she is walking with God and doing pretty well," the pastor reports. "In fact, she remarried her former husband. The strategy worked that time. I don't usually do it that way. I may never do it that way again. But it has worked."

A counselor in Dallas, Creath Davis, says if he can get a person to agree to break off an affair for six weeks — which doesn't seem totally impossible to most people — he's found that in most cases the feelings fade, and the affair can be ended. "But the agreement must be no contact. Not just sexual contact, but no visits, no phone calls, no notes," he says. "Why? Because affairs are not just sexual in their orientation. They usually end up there, but it's the emotional addiction that's tougher to break. But if the lovers can stay apart for six weeks, that's usually enough to help end the addiction."

When small steps are successfully taken, they can be the basis for subsequent major changes. Counselor Robert Carlson writes of two cases where small steps led to life-changing results:

"Lyle and Betty had been struggling. One problem was that Lyle had been raised with four sisters, and he had never learned to take any household responsibilities. Lyle had an affair, and he and Betty separated and finally divorced. After two years, Lyle came to visit his children, who were living with Betty. The conversation was polite and guarded. Betty was cautious, but inside she was praying for a miracle. As the family spent the evening together, Betty noticed how delighted the children were to see their father, and how much like old times it was, but she noticed one other important difference: he carried his own dishes to the kitchen, and he emptied his own ashtrays.

"Eventually they decided to try again and were remarried.

"Seeing even small changes enables people to see the potential of negotiations made in good faith. This provides the loamy soil in which hope grows.

"With Ted and Andrea, the problem was communication. He was in sales, she in education. She would talk about her day at school, and he would respond with advice. She thought What does he know about it? She wasn't after answers, only understanding. She grew more and more silent at home. He would try to dig and probe, but of course, you can never make someone else talk.

"We examined the habits and patterns of their interaction. He agreed to 'invite' her to talk about school. She agreed to try to share something. He agreed to listen and withhold advice. It was tough at first. He felt obliged to 'help her out.' But gradually he began to change. Then she had the courage to deal with the bigger things in their life."1

Make use of other relationships the person holds dear. Pastors have found the people with the most potential for making changes in another person's life are the individuals that person respects most. Sometimes pastors can make use of these already-established relationships.

In his autobiography, Norman Vincent Peale recalls one time he was faced with an emotionally volatile situation.

A fourteen-year-old boy came one day to my office in Kings Highway Church. Sitting on the edge of the chair, he nervously twisted his cap. He was disturbed about something and that it was a painful matter was very clear. I tried to put him at ease.

"What is your given name?" I asked.

"It's Robert and you know my father. I don't know what to do," he stammered.

"Why don't you talk to your father?"

"I can't; I just can't. That's why I've come to you."

"Well, tell me about it and I will help all I can. And remember that as a pastor you can tell me anything in confidence."

"Reverend Peale, is my father straight? Is he a good man?" He seemed to choke up as he put this question.

"Robert, I am not very well acquainted with your father, but to me he seems a fine man and I've never heard anything bad about him. Why do you ask this question?"

"Well, you see, I love my father very much and I've always looked up to him. I think he is great, the finest man in the world." As he made this statement, tears ran down his face.

"I'm sure he is just that, Robert."

"Oh, I hope so. But the other kids have been whispering things so I can hear them about Dad and some woman. Oh, it can't be true, it just can't," he sobbed.

"Now look here, Robert, you must not let your faith in your father be shaken by some stupid whispers by a bunch of kids. You and I are going to believe in your father. But just to give you peace of mind I'll check up a bit."

Next day I telephoned Robert's father for an appointment. "What is it about?" he asked. I told him I had a matter to take up with him. As I sat across the desk from him, I felt that he was somewhat uneasy. I noted the strong resemblance between father and son. "In the job of being a minister we get all kinds of cases and problems," I explained, "and some of them are quite delicate and personal. But we have to do the best we can with each one. We are in the people-helping business."

"Yeah, I get you," he responded impatiently. "But what has this got to do with me? I don't need any help."

"Maybe not, but your son Robert does."

"Robert," he echoed. "What possible trouble could he have that he wouldn't talk to me about?"

I let the matter hang in the air for a few seconds. "You," I said.

He flushed angrily. "What do you mean by that, Reverend? I don't like what you are saying."

"I don't blame you for that, and you may think it is none of my business. I assure you that what must be said to you is most unpleasant for me. But I have to keep faith with your son who loves, no, idolizes you." Then I told him of my conversation with Robert. "I've gone out on a limb in urging him to have faith in you and not to believe those whispers. But in my opinion you are on the edge of absolutely devastating this boy and ruining your relationship with him. What shall I say to Robert; or how do you want me to handle it with him?"

He sat quite still as though in shock, face white. The silence continued until I became concerned about him. Finally he said, "Let me think. May I see you later?" I left him with his thoughts and his problem, and my heart ached not only for the boy but also for his father.

That night, after a meeting at the church I found the boy's father waiting for me outside. We went back and sat in my office.

"I want to level with you, Reverend. I am involved with a woman. I'm a dirty, low-down no-good. My wife is the finest woman in the world. I've done this because I'm dirty in my mind, in my thoughts. I see clearly what I'm doing and it just isn't worth it. I'm a damned fool. But how can I get out of it?"

"Just tell her you're through. And then be through." He didn't say anything, so I continued. "But that is only the start. You not only must get out of it but, more importantly, you have to get it out of you. It is just plain old sin that got you into this mess. And now we need to get sin out of your mind, out of your heart. That is done by your becoming a new person through faith in Christ. Do you want this change to happen in you?"

Suddenly all the pretense dropped from him. "Oh, my God, Reverend, I can't live unless you get me out of this and get me changed. I've got to control my evil thoughts. Lust, that's what it is. It's the evil in me. I'm no good."

This was healthy, the way he was talking, for it was conviction of sins. He made no excuses. He was honest about what he was and what he had done. And that was basic to becoming what he could be. He was also taking another important step: confession. He emptied out all his sneaking and lying and dishonesty and infidelity. He portrayed graphically his inner warfare between good and evil. He saw what he was and the sight was decidedly unpleasant.

Then, it was important to have him see what he could be. "Telephone the woman now and break it up."

"You mean right now, here with you?"

I shoved the telephone over to him. "Tell her you are with your pastor, in confession, and you are changing your life, beginning now."

Red of face, with a shaking hand holding the receiver, he told her exactly that. Slowly he replaced the receiver. "Know what she said?"


"'You're a good man. Better be that.'"

"She is right," I commented. "… Now ask the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive and cleanse you from all sin. Tell Him that you believe in Him with all your heart and accept Him now as your Savior."

He did this with deep sincerity and with tears. I repeated that great old verse: "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow," and the glorious words of Jesus to the woman taken in adultery: "Go, and sin no more."

When he arose from prayer, on his face there was an unforgettable smile mixed with tears, like sunshine after rain. He grasped my hand with a grip like steel. "How can I ever thank you?" he asked.

"Just by keeping the faith with the Lord and being a wonderful father to that terrific boy of yours. And," I added, "by being true …"

Some weeks later father, mother, and son stood at the altar of the church as I received them into membership in Christ's Holy Church, into the society of the redeemed. But it was the look on the boy's face that got me. The whispers ceased and the father kept the faith to the end, so powerful was the change that Christ made in him.2

These happy endings don't happen every time, perhaps not even a majority of the time, but they occur frequently enough to encourage pastors not to give up hope. And hope is warranted even in what is perhaps the most vexing pastoral situation: working with withdrawn, unwilling family members.

Robert J. Carlson. "Hope for Hurting Marriages." Leadership, vol. 7, no. 1 (Winter 1986), pp. 36-37.

Norman Vincent Peale. The True Joy of Positive Living. (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1984) pp. 98-101.