Controlling Your Temper

Recently, one of my high school leaders stopped into my office to say hello to me. Over the last four years, I have been blessed to have this student as an active member of my middle school ministry program. Together, we have gone on three different mission trips, served at countless community events and service programs, hung out at youth events and recently co-lead a series of small group Bible studies with our younger middle schoolers.

He plopped down in front of me, and after some cursory small talk, he lowered his voice and said confidentially, “Cassie, there’s just one thing I honestly don’t understand about your job.”

I stopped what I was doing and quizzically looked up, wrinkling my brow as I encouraged him to go on.

I know, it’s one of those moments we’re all slightly afraid of encountering–that point where someone asks you a really difficult question that could potentially turn your world upside down.

It’s the same feeling I get when someone leaves me a message that says something like, “I need to talk to you RIGHT AWAY.” My mind immediately jumps to the worst-case scenario, thinking irrational thoughts like, “Oh no, a small group leader must’ve taken an entire group bungee jumping, and there was a horrible accident!” or “Someone left the student center microwave unattended, and the entire building is burning to a crisp as we speak!”

My heart races, my adrenaline rushes, and I go into super-high-alert mode–which is exactly what I did when my young friend asked me this simple question about my job.

He drummed his fingers on my desk as he continued, “Well, I’ve hung out with you for a lot of years…with some really crazy kids in our youth group. I realize now how bad we could be, on occasions like when some of us tried to scale a mountain cliff on a mission trip, or all those times we tried to pull all-nighters, or when we goofed around. My question is this: How did you not kill us?”

Immediately, I laughed. So much for a question that would rock my world.

However, this semi-serious question gave me pause for reflection. To say a cop-out answer like, “Jesus loves me so much, that I love everyone else around me, too!” doesn’t do justice to the topic. True, the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, as it clearly says in 1 Corinthians 6:19a: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”

That being said, I’m fairly positive you’ve all experienced your fair share of wildly irritating moments in ministry. Many of mine have involved extreme embarrassment as students fire off spitballs at each other in restaurants, furious anger as students attempt to stupidly scale dangerous cliffs on mission trips (as my young friend recalled), or total frustration as students would rather goof around and giggle instead of staying on topic in small group Bible studies.

I’ll be the first to admit that, while I can say with confidence that I have a long fuse on my anger, my temper has gotten the best of me on a few occasions.

So how do you handle your temper, as you undoubtedly face frustrating situations, maddening parents, difficult leaders, ridiculous expectations or out-of-control students?

I think it’s important to first seek to understand yourself. Reflect on what really steams your grits. What sets you off faster than anything else? Why? For me, I instantly want to lose my temper when I see bullying occurring around me. I guess I’ve just always had a heart for helping the underdogs and making sure justice prevails–but nothing fires me up quicker than when I see a student bullying another kid, or an adult bullying others.

By knowing the hot-button issues that set your anger ablaze, we can better prepare for those situations that will arise and drive us bonkers. When bullying happens, I attempt to have a cooler-headed leader deal with the issue first, as I slap my hands over my ears to hide the steam that’s pouring out of them. If I’m on my own in dealing with it, I know that I absolutely must count to ten and say a quick prayer for discernment and patience as I deal with those who are misbehaving.

Secondly, be prepared for working with middle school students. Seek to understand that they are in a complex stage in their lives, wrestling with their own fears and frustrations, and that they haven’t yet reached a completely rational, adult-like state–as much as their appearances and behavior might lull us into believing otherwise. Sometimes you have to chalk their bad behavior or unwise decisions up to the fact that their brains simply haven’t finished developing yet. Be mindful of the fact that your angry words, spoken carelessly, can eviscerate a middle schooler’s self esteem.

In my opinion, it’s like yelling at my dog for doing something irritating when he has no idea of what actually irritates me–he’s a dog, and he’s unable to make the same judgment calls that I can (well, that and he can’t talk!). I have to take a step back, cool my jets, and let him off the hook sometimes.

Thirdly, have boundaries in place so students and leaders alike know when they’ve crossed the line. Behavior covenants are essential in our ministry, whether we’re going on a mission trip or in a small group, and there have been numerous occasions where we’ve had to pull them out and hash through them again as we wrestled with bad behavior. When everyone is on the same page with expected behavior as well as agreed-upon outcomes, it’s a rosier ministry world to exist in.

Be quick to give grace, and to forgive gracefully and often and move on peacefully. Goodness knows I haven’t mastered this, and I have a feeling it’ll be a lifelong process for me to learn how to do this. I often feel that Jesus was not only talking to His disciples, but to me, too, when he said to forgive those who sin against you “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).

People and situations and responsibilities will irritate you in your ministry. It’s a given. If not, we’d probably have one of the most over-saturated job markets in history–but that’s not the case. It’s a burden and a blessing to do what we do, and see the worst of this world side-by-side with those little glimpses of heaven on earth.

In those moments when you want to pull your hair out, scream and chuck your Bible across the room, know that someday, one of your students will honestly seek to understand how you didn’t kill him, as he reflects on how difficult your job is.

And on that day, you can honestly say, “By the grace of God, I served as best I could…even though you guys were a bunch of chuckleheads sometimes.”