On Not Being a Jerk
A few years ago, I spent a week at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg as “pastor in residence.” It was an interesting week full of informal conversation, public lectures, worship services, and question and answer sessions. Toward the end of the week, I attended a lunch with a group of students who were considering pastoral ministry. Near the end of our time together, I was asked a simple and entirely reasonable question: “If you could offer one piece of advice to those either considering pastoral ministry or those taking their first steps toward it, what would it be?”
I remember thinking, You know, this is probably one of those situations I should have anticipated, one of those questions for which I should have had an inspirational and insightful answer at the ready. Perhaps I could talk about the centrality of compassion or theological acumen? What about diligence in the cultivation of an ability to interpret the cultural moment within which your congregation is seeking to live out the gospel. Or maybe I should talk about the prioritization of prayer and of not neglecting one’s own inner life. Or carving out space in your schedule for unstructured conversations with people. Or public speaking ability. Or conveying a “non-anxious presence.” Or behaving oneself online. Or good grooming habits.
None of those words were the ones that came out of my mouth. What in fact came out (after what I suspect was a bit of a strained silence full of feet shuffling and polite coughing) was this: “Don’t be a jerk.”
Well done, Ryan. Well done.
(I chose to interpret the puzzled expressions on the students’ faces as indisputable evidence that they were basking in the radiant glow of my penetrating wisdom.)
But the thing is, no matter how bluntly or partially or inadequately I might have expressed it at the time, I actually kinda sorta meant it. Not-being-a-jerk is actually quite important to being a decent pastor. For those who have spent any length of time in any church, I invite you to do a quick survey of your own experience. How many church crises could have quite easily been avoided if the pastor would have spent at least as much time on not-being-a-jerk as he (or she… but let’s be honest, usually it’s a he) did on steamrolling forward with his “vision?” How much energy-sucking controversy could have been avoided if not-being-a-jerk was as important to the pastor as ferreting out the theological errors of his congregations’ beliefs? How much time spent recycling tired power struggles between the pastor and someone on the church board or a fellow staff member could have been saved if one or both parties would have simply decided to prioritize not-being-a-jerk?
There are so many tiny little interactions in the life of the church that require this crucial quality of “not-being-a-jerk.” I’ve been a pastor nearly eight years now and I can say with confidence that some Sundays, the most Christ-honouring thing I will have done when I collapse into the couch on Sunday afternoon has nothing to do with the sermon I preached or the class I taught, but with clamping down on my tongue when someone says something irritating or insensitive, makes some unreasonable demand or generally conducts themselves in ways that could easily provoke my anger (sometimes, albeit rarely, even of the “righteous” variety!). Or better yet, when I respond with something resembling grace! In other words, some Sundays the best thing I do as a pastor is to avoid being a jerk.
This “not-being-a-jerk” strategy happily has a wider application, one that extends far beyond the boundaries of the pastoral vocation. It’s actually a pretty decent approach to daily life, professionally, personally, relationally. It works reasonably well for parenting teenagers (I’m told). It works at dinner parties with friends whose company you genuinely enjoy but who hold very different political or theological positions than you do. It works when dealing with grouchy, angry people. It works when you are forced to spend time in the mall. It works on committees (even the superfluous ones) and in meetings (even the online ones that make you want to gouge your eyes out in frustration when technology fails for the fourth time in twenty minutes). Not-being-a-jerk works in all kinds of situations and social contexts.
Why, you ask? Well, my working hypothesis is that people tend to enjoy (or at least more readily tolerate) being around not-jerks. It seems to reduce conflict. It tends to create more space for meaningful conversation, more opportunities for surprise, more space for differences to be negotiated with trust and generosity. Being a jerk just shuts a lot of this down. Being a jerk leads to a lot more sighing and moving on.
Not-being-a-jerk does not represent anything like a pinnacle of human aspiration. Not by a long shot. But it can be a decent start. It can create a space for better attitudes and behaviours, better ways of being in the world to take root and grow. Daily deciding to not be a jerk—or at least to want to not be a jerk—can be something like an incubator or a way station along the journey toward something real and meaningful—something like love, for example—being able to grow and take shape within and among us.
Love. Ah, yes. The sum total of the law, according to Jesus. Love of God and neighbour. Which sounds good and inspiring, until you try either or both. Neighbours come in all kinds of unlovely varieties, after all. And real love—selfless, determined, faithful, true—is actually quite hard. Jesus knows this, I suspect. He knows that we’re not terribly good lovers—that we’re not even great at wanting to love well.
I don’t want to presume to speak for Jesus (another way to fail quite spectacularly as a pastor is to regularly and with great zeal and confidence do this!) but I wonder if maybe, in light of our deep and abiding struggles with the heart of what God wants for his people and his planet, he might say something like this:
If loving your neighbour seems beyond you, maybe start with not being a jerk to them.
Who knows, after all, what not-being-a-jerk might lead to?