As a teenager, I was invited by some of my elementary school teachers to be a clown at a school carnival. I’m not sure why I was asked. Perhaps, my teachers assumed that I would be just the person to wear heavy make-up and bright colorful clothing. No matter the reason, I showed up at the carnival painted for the occasion.
I knew almost nothing of clowning. My skills fell quite short. My balloon animals were primarily snakes, and my magic tricks always failed. Still, I came armed with one piece of knowledge: There are some children who are deathly afraid of clowns. I quickly learned who were the most horrified. Their eyes would grow larger, and their lips quivered. If I did not back away, the wailing and screaming would begin. I was usually far away by then. I am not conflict-averse. I just have no desire to force my rubber nose into a situation where I am not wanted. Amazingly, parents praised my behavior. They thanked me for my gentleness and consideration.
Recently, I thought about this situation while reading some of the blogs on the Harvard Business Review’s website. Marshall Goldsmith writes the “Ask the Coach” blog, and he recently received the question, “Your job is to help people achieve positive, lasting change in behavior. How do you deal with people who have no desire to change?” His answer: “I don’t.”
He states further…
“If they do not care, do not waste your time.
Research on coaching is clear and consistent. Coaching is most successful when applied to people with potential who want to improve -- not when applied to people who have no interest in changing. This is true whether you are acting as a professional coach, a manager, a family member, or a friend.
Your time is very limited. The time you waste coaching people who do not care is time stolen from people who want to change.”
I’m a pastor, and I have thought long and hard about this piece of advice. As pastors, often we are teaching, coaching and serving some stiff-necked people. Is it a waste of time? I remember the story of the prophet Hosea who takes a wife of ill repute. The prophet’s marriage was a living parable of God’s continual love to his people in the midst of infidelity. God was not willing to give up. I remember Peter’s question to Jesus:
“Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)
I also remember Jesus’ answer:
“I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22)
I am certainly glad that God never gave up on me.
Still, prophets are killed. Pastors receive hostility. Some shun the gift of Christian fellowship. At those times, you want to simply dust off your sandals and quote Jesus’ other words:
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6)
Nonetheless, we have moved far from the original question. “How do we help people make positive changes when they are unwilling to change?” Surprisingly, I believe that the answer remains, “We don’t.” We do not control what other people say or do. We do not own the outcomes. We should not force our love and teaching on people unwilling to listen. We must simply work hard to remain faithful in our witness.
Teaching, coaching and serving take great discernment. Pastors should examine themselves. We need to search our own motives. There are several things that may motivate a coach, but a pastor should be motivated by love—love for God and love for neighbor. Are we helping others out of a sense of self-righteousness? Are we ourselves living with hypocrisy? Humility and repentance can break down barriers between pastors and parishioners. As the exchange between Jesus and Peter suggests, we are to love and forgive those we are trying to help. That does not mean condone everything that they do, but that does mean that we should continue to walk alongside them. In a climate of hostility, we are not to return evil for evil. Our integrity must be worth more than that. A pastor who is being abused needs to get help. We should continue to love and forgive, but abuse should not be tolerated.
There is a question of stewardship. Do we continue to offer time and talents on those unwilling to respond? I tend to agree with the Harvard Business coach that we should focus our efforts on those who desire to grow. However, the danger for a pastor is that we spend all our time with people that we like or like us. Sometimes God calls us to engage in what we might believe is “wasted time.” I know many examples of curmudgeons whose faith deepened as a result of a pastor unwilling to walk away. A pastor shouldn’t abandon a pastorate for light and transient reasons. Nonetheless, there are times to move on: when a ministry has been completed, when skills no longer match the needs, etc. These decisions should be based upon God’s timing and calling. In fact, a ministry can sometimes be damaged by sticking around. There are many clowns who overstay their welcome.