Handbags on the train
I was coming back from London on the train the other day when the unthinkable happened. Well, the unthinkable to British people: confrontation. A man was trying to watch something on an iPad, which was set on the tray table attached to the seat in front of him. On that seat was an 11-year-old boy who, while not being badly behaved, was moving about a lot, trying to get rid of his younger brother.
Just before Berkhamsted station, the man erupted and shouted at the boy to stop jumping up and down. Almost immediately, the boy’s mother rounded on the man, yelling at him for being aggressive. The boy started crying. Most of the rest of the carriage shrank in their seats.
The shouting continued, the man defended himself, the women shouted back. A third person joined in, telling the mother that she in turn had been aggressive in shouting at the man. The argument would have continued, but the family got off at Berkhamsted. The man returned to his iPad. The carriage breathed again.
Long after I got home, I thought about the events on the train. Who was in the wrong? What would I have done in the man’s position? What would I have done if it was a child I was responsible for who was being shouted at?
Well, despite his protestations, the man had shouted at the boy. It seemed like he’d put up with his iPad being shaken until he could stand it no longer, and then blew his top. What would you have done in the man’s place? In your children’s work, do you face up to problems straight away or put up with things in the hope they’ll change?
Waiting until the last minute is rarely the best way to raise a point, solve a problem or sort out an issue. By that time, you’re usually so worked up that you appear aggressive and unreasonable to those listening, and your reaction seems out of all proportion to the matter in hand. Alternatively, everyone else might have already arrived at a decision and you seem obstructive and negative when you finally speak.
What about the mother? Was she right to leap to the defence of her son? Well, yes, I don’t think there would be anyone who wouldn’t. But the way she did it was wrong. The person who chipped in at the end was right – she was aggressive, when a calmer, more reasoned approach would have diffused the situation much more quickly. Yelling only leads to more yelling. When confronted with anger, people rarely change their attitude or agree that they were in the wrong. They’re much more likely to get defensive and reply with anger of their own. Had the woman reacted calmly to the man, she would probably have got an apology out of him. However, as it was, she was angry and hurt, the man was angry and hurt, and the boy was still crying.
Often we want to strike out at those who have wronged us and our ministry in church is no different. But that rarely corrects things and often makes things worse. We stew on what has happened and events grow and distort in our minds. There is no resolution. And the next time we find ourselves in a similar situation, we react in the same way, maybe even more extremely, because of what has happened in the past.
Churches are places where people of all different personalities and backgrounds mix and work together, and we need to be honest and open. At its worst, being like the man with the iPad or the mother can only harm ministry, leave children bewildered and offer them a terrible example of being a Christian. So, if you need to sort something out, speak sooner rather than later, be calm and reasonable, honest and clear.
Alex Taylor is Children’s Ministry Trainer for the Diocese of London and regularly travels through Berkhamsted.
Image: “Berkhamsted station” by David Howard is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Edits were made.