It seems that at every new place you ever go to serve in ministry there is someone who wants to tell you about ol’ what’s-his-head, or what’s-‘er-name, doesn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you are a new minister or a veteran or even a minister at all, here’s an invaluable bit of advice that has served me very well over the past 15+ years of ministry since I learned it by a couple of rather memorable experiences: Don’t let another person define your impressions of others.
Years ago I was moving to a new town and beginning a new ministry. I was still pretty young and wet behind the ears, and chomping at the bits to hit the ground running. An older brother I respected was helping me out with a run-down of things I needed to know about the city, the church, the building, etc. Most of it was quite useful, and I soaked it up gratefully. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned this valuable lesson, and so when he started telling me about a few people in the church that I would need to “give a wide berth.” I thought he was being helpful (and I truly do believe that was his motive, I don’t think he was just bad-mouthing, he wasn’t the type). It was intended to be kind of like telling a soldier where the mines lay in the field, so to speak. I only remember now where three of those mines supposedly lay, and I remember because, quite frankly, they turned out to be duds, and that taught me a great deal.
Concerning a sister in her senior years, he said, “You’re a funny guy. She won’t like that. She’s a great sister, but humor is not her thing. She won’t appreciate it, and usually scowls whenever I try.”
Because of that statement, I didn’t joke with her for the first couple of years. Then one day, she started busting on me about something I’d said, and she was just cracking me up. Not only did she have a great sense of humor, we regularly kidded back and forth for years. I just wish I’d known that sooner. I learned the day the crack in the dam of our shared humor that leaning on another’s impression of others could cause you to miss out on some great moments in life.
There was another sister, of whom it was said that no one got along with her very well…she proved to be one of the great encouragers in my life. Sure, she was rough around the edges sometimes, but it was more spunk than anything. I like someone who knows what they think, does think, and isn’t afraid to think out loud. She was usually only riled up because she actually cared about people, and if you understood that, you understood her. She’s since gone on to be with the Lord, and we miss her terribly.
There was a brother, too, who was said to be very difficult, always mad about something. I don’t know, but I think he may have been upset about being perceived as being upset. He turned out to be an extremely helpful brother in the ministry in that church, and seeing him with my own eyes instead of through the pre-packaged first impression I was handed is one reason I believe so strongly in this bit of wisdom: Don’t let another person define your impressions of others.
There are people in your life — I guarantee it — that you have negative impressions of, and only because someone else told you that you should. When we accept the lens that is given us by another, we see people as they have seen them, and we often inherit all their personal baggage. We then respond to that person’s actions, body language, and words in a way that can be seriously skewed, and possibly so inaccurate that we might be causing friction for no reason whatsoever. That’s a shame, because what these three relationships taught me was that when we let others’ impressions become our own, we potentially miss out on some the greatest relationships of our lives. I thank God I came to this before I missed out on these three friends, and on wonderful opportunities for ministry in that church and community…not to mention many laughs.
Over the past decade and a half since, I’ve gotten to where I simply don’t entertain such introductory conversations. Sometimes people rattle it off before you can stop them, but be wise and let them roll off like water on a duck’s back. Sure, there are times when people really do need to warn you about potential pitfalls, but let’s face it, most of the time people are just trying to get you to see others the way they see others so that they can reinforce their own perceptions, and sometimes gain reinforcements for their relational battles. Ministers, we never need to get sucked into that, yet it’s a pitfall I’ve seen brother after brother fall into. It seems so often it’s the first thing some people want to drag the newest minister in town into. Avoid it all costs. You’ll be blessed and far more effective when you do (something about that whole “blessed are the peacemakers” thing I read somewhere).
There’s one other dimension I think is also really important to mention, and one that I think is tied to the very core of the gospel of Jesus — Don’t let your own impressions of a person remain frozen in the past. Our brothers and sisters in Christ grow, mature, change, and are constantly being worked on by the word and by the Spirit. Treat them by that truth. See them through that lens. Let’s not assume that the same impression of them you had 20 years ago is still accurate today. The Lord knows you and I aren’t the same people we were then, and we wouldn’t want to be judged today by where were on the maturity continuum in 1990, right? Think of it as a bit of the Golden Rule in action to assume there has been growth in the souls of your Christian family rather than stagnation. After all, assuming God’s been working in their life is a faith thing, right? None of us are today what we used to be, by the grace of God.
– Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by a friendship that happened despite all the misinformation you’d received about them?
– How have you been affected by someone shaping others’ impressions about you? Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “You know, you’re nothing like what so-and-so said…?”