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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 planethe 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?

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. So, so true (and not only for pastors,believe it or not!!!) I loved reading this particular blog because it popped into my mail box just as I was dealing with my own experience of “not being a jerk.”

    April 20, 2016
    • Thanks! I hope your efforts were successful.

      April 22, 2016
  2. Thanks Ryan!

    April 20, 2016
  3. Paul Johnston #

    I think this post points us towards an important truth. “What are my responsibilities?” ought to the interior question asked by a follower of Jesus. The question, “What are my rights?” is not of Jesus, is not of the cross.

    Conscience, formed by correct teaching, mediated by self, community and the Holy Spirit leads to morality, the understanding of absolute and eternal truths. Jesus is absolute and eternal truth. His followers then, are called to seek the same.

    Ideologies are the musings of mankind, apart from God. Apart from Jesus. They are relative, transitory, malleable and always imposed, never freely chosen. They ostricise and condemn those who do not share their worldview. They are the politics of hate and division. At times throughout history, some followers of Jesus have behaved as ideologues. They have hated and divided. Some followers behave this way, even today.

    Love welcomes responsibility, seeks it out in fact. Fear and insecurity demands rights. As followers of Jesus we must do everything we can to reduce fear and insecurity in others. Love them, so as in turn, to help them love.

    Those who purposefully choose to remain ideologues are not of Jesus, are not of us. We must disassociate ourselves from their politics of selfishness. Their politics that hold others in contempt.

    Real faith in Jesus compels us.

    April 21, 2016
    • “What are my responsibilities?” ought to the interior question asked by a follower of Jesus. The question, “What are my rights?” is not of Jesus, is not of the cross…

      “Love welcomes responsibility, seeks it out in fact. Fear and insecurity demands rights. As followers of Jesus we must do everything we can to reduce fear and insecurity in others. Love them, so as in turn, to help them love.”

      Amen, Paul. So very well said.

      April 22, 2016
  4. Kevin K #

    Ryan, I appreciate the sentiment. Your quick wit is on display once again. I have a question though…

    What do you do when jerks accuse you of being a jerk to take advantage of the fact that that you want to not-be-a-jerk? Is there a way to not-be-a-jerk to jerks without just giving up and letting them have their way?

    April 21, 2016
    • I’m afraid you’ll have to ask someone with more experience and expertise at not-being-a-jerk on this one, Kevin. 😉

      (On a more serious note, I know that real life is just a bit more complicated than “just stop being a jerk to people.” If only it were that easy. Discernment, alas, is always required. I suppose the post was meant to argue for a bit of a bare minimum standard from which to negotiate more challenging interpersonal dilemmas like the one you describe.)

      April 22, 2016
      • Kevin K #

        Ryan, thanks for your insight.

        I think you may actually have given an answer to the problems you raise in this post, and in “The Shape of our Caring.”

        We are culturally drawn to grandiose expressions of anything. Perhaps both in our response to jerks and in our acts of compassion it is not that we are called to extraordinary expressions but rather extraordinary consistency.

        Though my wife may appreciate a mother’s day breakfast in bed complete with from scratch pancakes and roses that I had personally imported from overseas. It may be that putting down the toilet seat every day for a whole year might be the better gesture. The problem is a picture of a closed toilet seat doesn’t help fill my instagram feed.

        Simple, consistent acts of love are perhaps the better route in the face of great injustice or to put it another way in the face of the greatest jerks.

        Thanks for giving me something to chew on.

        April 22, 2016
      • Simple, consistent acts of love are perhaps the better route in the face of great injustice or to put it another way in the face of the greatest jerks.

        Yes, I like that Kevin. Well said.

        (You should do an experiment with that toilet seat lid on Instagram thing… You might be surprised 🙂 )

        April 26, 2016
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks Ryan. This is the part where I admit I don’t actually have an Instagram account, I just referenced it to appear culturally relevant. If I did have an account I’d at least consider your idea, I imagine I’d be surprised by the things people post. Thanks for the laugh.

        April 29, 2016
      • I’m not on Instagram either. I’ve long since given up pretending to be culturally relevant 😄.

        April 29, 2016
      • Kevin K #

        I hear parenting teenagers does that to you.

        April 30, 2016
  5. darryl #

    Wish I could have been there when you said this to those students. Sounds easy. Nope. Brilliant.

    April 21, 2016
    • Thanks, Darryl. 🙂

      April 22, 2016
  6. Rob #

    Quite possibly one of your best pieces Ryan.

    April 22, 2016
    • Thank you kindly, Rob.

      April 22, 2016

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