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The Next Faithful Step

The Delayed Damage of Defensive Reasoning

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

It is very hard to learn from our mistakes when we fail to acknowledge our weaknesses and pretend they don’t exist. What is more, this hiding from our failings delays the damage done to the organizations that count on us.

I have heard from students and pastors many comparisons to understand how this principle of delayed damage happens in daily life. It’s like tennis, one woman said. She was one of those players who couldn’t hit a backhand. So instead of practicing to get better at the backhand, she used to run around every shot and hit them all as forehands. But that came at a price, she said. She’d get tired much more quickly than her opponent because she had to run so much further. And then, when she’d wilt with exhaustion at the end of the game, she’d say to herself that the other player was just in better shape. She delayed the damage by hitting only forehands and then rationalized away the result by congratulating the other player. It’s a nice little circle designed to keep the player from taking responsibility for her inability to hit the backhand. She acknowledged in retrospect that she had a clear motivation for this self-deception. She knew that when she finally admitted to herself that the problem was her backhand that she would have to take more time to practice – which she did not want to do. If the problem was that her opponent was in phenomenal shape, there was nothing she could do. It wasn’t her fault. But as soon as she recognized that her own failing was the cause, it became clear to her that she needed to do the hard work to improve. As she told the story, she said that she wasn’t ready to acknowledge the problem until she was prepared to work hard at solving it.

Another student was a nurse. He said that the denial problem was like an abscess. He explained that when the body gets a deep cut, it has to heal from the inside out. But sometimes people want to pretend that the wound is not very deep. They put a Band-aid on top of the deep cut and are satisfied when the scab heals. But the so-called healing only makes the problem worse. The deep part of the cut, in fact, has not healed and needs to drain in order to heal. So infection sets in and now the patient has real trouble. If the patient had been willing to admit from the beginning that there was a deep problem, then there are simple medical techniques to help the patient get better. But a person’s unwillingness to admit the depth of the initial problem delays the damage and turns something simple into something serious.

The same thing happens, of course, in ministry. Allan was an artist before he became a pastor. As a seminary student, he had taken every course in worship he could find because that’s what made his heart sing. He wrote wonderfully poetic liturgies and preached with elegant power. He was good at these things because he worked hard at them. He even prepared for the part of the sevice where he made announcements, thinking of it as the closest thing a pastor ever got to a Jay Leno monologue. And it worked, his announcements felt glib and spontaneous, even though he had prepared them with care. There were any number of things that made Allan an excellent pastor. But Allan hated conflict. A born performer, he wanted everyone to like him. So he avoided Jeri, the cantankerous head of the worship committee. He’d send her email whenever possible and left phone messages at her home when he knew she was at work. Well, it is easy to predict what happened. One February, he moved the normal communion service from the first Sunday of the month to the second week because he’d scheduled something special for the service. Jeri did not get the phone message (teenage sons being what they are) and she set up the communion service at the front of the sanctuary. She was, of course, appalled when she discovered too late that the Order of Worship did not include a Eucharist liturgy. There were tense words in the narthex before worship and something little had escalated into something big. Allan predictably blamed Jeri for over-reacting to a simple miscommunication. And he never understood that the root of the problem had little to do with Jeri. The miscommunication was inevitable because Allan was not willing to embrace his failing and learn how to deal with conflict.