“Don’t bother pursuing a Ph.D. You’ll never make it.”
The man who said those words to me was a professor. An English professor. An English professor in my field of study. I had started his class at the beginning of the term and, two weeks in, had decided to go to his office to introduce myself. When I told him that I was excited to start on my thesis and to begin applying for Ph.D. programs, that was his response: brutal, cutting, unexpected.
I hadn’t even completed an assignment yet for his class, so he had no real way of assessing my abilities. I had no idea how he’d made such a judgment. Still, I was crushed. I left his office, walked straight to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall and cried. And in the middle of my sobs, I promised myself that if I didn’t get my Ph.D., it would at the very least not be because of lack of effort on my end. As it turned out, I ended up making the only A in our class of twenty; he wrote a genuine and effusive compliment on my final paper for the term.
A year or so after that, I shared the story with another professor in my department and she laughed. “He says that to all the students who visit him,” she said, “in order to test them. He thinks that if they can push past the criticism and keep on trying, it’s a good sign. And hey, you passed his test!”
That didn’t make me feel much better. To this day I can’t think of that professor with any fondness. His “test” felt cruel to me, and I have no doubt that it had probably turned away other students who were more than capable of pursuing their dreams. He didn’t seem to grasp what his words would mean to students who looked up to him.
I say all of that to say this: whether they realize it or not, people in authority are in a special and unique position to hurt others and cause pain. And this is especially true in Christian churches.
When I say “authorities,” by the way, I really mean anyone who is in a position of power or strong credibility within the church: pastors, sure, but also small group leaders and teachers. Authors. Retreat speakers. You know, the people to whom a certain amount of trust and esteem is given; people with distinct responsibility to the rest of the flock. These sorts of people are generally admired and liked; they get the benefit of the doubt. And because of that, they hold and can exert a certain amount of power over others.
This means that when people with authority speak, their words carry a lot of weight. An insult or a slight can crush. A discouragement can stop a growing ministry in its tracks. A baseless criticism can wound a tender soul. And this goes all the more for words that are spoken in carelessness and without thinking. They can leave devastation in their wake.
I’m not joking about the devastation bit, either. I’ve watched the ill-thought-out words (and actions) of a pastor split a congregation and disintegrate relationships. A long-married couple that I know almost never married at all when a spiritual leader in their church said that he didn’t think they made a good pair. I’ve known believers who stopped attending particular churches or stopped attending church at all over a cutting phrase, a hurtful comment, a snide joke.
The damage, at times, seemed all out of proportion to what was said, and in many cases, the speaker of the words seemed surprised by the result, surprised that their words could wound so deeply or cause so much trouble. Explanations range from I was just kidding to I didn’t mean anything by it to I was just saying what was on my heart. But what these people seemed not to realize was that their words carried a particular weight because of their authority and that, because they were in a position of their authority, they were obligated to think through them thoroughly.
We already know the Bible tells us to be prudent in our speech and to exercise restraint with it. How much more so for those who hold power within the church! Believers who have ever been in any position of authority know that our words have special power to wound, to crush, to discourage, to cause despair, to sow dissent, and to wreak havoc – and also to heal, to bless, to encourage, and to grow. Asking ourselves is this necessary? and is this edifying? is a good way to keep a cap on the things that might otherwise pop out of our mouths.
Words that are cloaked in Christian authority have an enormous impact on those who hear them. Because “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), those held in high esteem ought to do their best to speak only that which leads to life, abundance, and growth. The consequences otherwise can be profound.
Every now and then, when I think back to that professor, I remember his words to me. I decided to ignore them and prove myself as well as I could. But I often wonder about the other students who heard them and simply gave up: those who doubted themselves, who walked away crushed, who dropped the course and picked up another major.
If a professor can do that to a student, what might careless or cruel words from a church authority do to a believer?
Let’s not find out.