Sharon Hodde Miller
“borrowed & slightly edited” from Christianity Today’s CT Pastors Special Edition Fall 2022
“No amount of information can persuade the closed-minded. It’s a lesson I’m still learning.”
“In 2020, as church leaders faced the triple whammy of the pandemic, nationwide racial tension, and a polarizing presidential election, the climate inside our churches changed with it. Our sanctuaries‘ air became polluted by deep partisanship, which meant every decision, every statement, every sermon, and every social media post coming from pastors was interpreted through a political filter.
In A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, author and family therapist Edwin Friedman, described our limited influence this way: “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.”
As much as we wish it were otherwise, information has far less influence than we give it credit for: Downloading the “facts” into others’ brains is not going to magically change their minds, but I will be first to admit this hasn’t stopped me from trying. God is showing me that I’m not merely attempting to guide them – I’m actually trying to control them. I am relying on knowledge, information, and the truth of God’s Word to function like reins on a horse, instantly directing others in the direction I want them to go.
But time and experience are teaching me that I am severely overestimating my own power to convince. Jesus himself hinted at the limited power of our arguments by concluding some of his hardest teachings with the statement “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matt 11:15). The implication is that some will not hear. They will not understand – not because they cannot but because they will not. No amount of convincing, no matter how compelling the evidence or airtight the logic, will move them. Not if they do not wish to be moved.
Research has shown this to be true. When we use information to change someone’s opinion, it can, in some instances, have the reverse outcome. The backfire effect is a term used in psychology to describe the doubling down that occurs when people are presented with information that contradicts their own beliefs. Further studies have shown that this phenomenon is especially likely to occur when belief is tied to identity. When new information feels like a threat to one’s identity or way of life, one is much more motivated to reject it.
Fortunately, I have learned to discern those persons who are receptive from those who are not. Bad faith assumptions about our motives, or a lack of genuine curiosity about our decisions are both sure-fire signs that our explanations will be wasted.
Identifying this struggle with control has helped me greatly in two specific ways. The first is captured well by the phrase “When you name it, you tame it.” Tension in my neck, back, jaw; the spiraling of my anxious thoughts; and insomnia that follows are telltale signs that I’m trying to control something God has not given me to control. Naming this temptation helps me reframe what is really happening: I am not trying to shepherd (disciple) my people; I am trying to control them.
Second, this realization about control has emphasized the priority of listening as key to pastoral ministry. When we try to control one another with arguments or attempts at persuasion, we often push our dissenters even farther away. In a loud environment like this one, the practice of being “quick to listen, slow to speak” is not just biblically faithful (James 1:19) but also a missional imperative.
Consequently, in both structured and spontaneous ways, we are seeking to intentionally listen to our congregants – especially to those who may be disgruntled or angry. Understand these times of focused listening serve as a countercultural witness in an ever-darkening society fractured by its issues with control.
Facing off with the ongoing temptation to controlling vs listening is crucial for everyone’s spiritual health, regardless of position. We cannot control our people – and attempting to do so will only do more damage. When we encounter the limits of our influence, we can either resist, OR, recognize this as an opportunity to lay down the burden we were never meant to bear. Perhaps the limits of our persuasion are not always a sign of the Fall, but rather a sign of the right order of things. May they remind us that it is time to take up the lighter yoke and to fully trust the Spirit – the one true mover of hearts and enlightener or minds – to do the heavy lifting for us.
Sharon Hodde Miller co-leads Bright Church in Durham NC with her husband, Ike. Her latest book is The Cost of Control (Baker Books 2022)
Dr Henry Cloud in Necessary Endings (book reviewed on Oct 27 blog), identifies a person’s utmost hopelessness (hitting rock bottom) is often the precursor to opening minds and meaningful conversation leading to effective necessary endings, and promising beginnings. In chapter Seven, The Wise, the Foolish, and the Evil details the Biblical basis for these categories and why they are pertinent for Christ-Followers today, and especially so as both church and society trends toward deconstruction, and hopefully, the future awakening. merlin