Trying to change the other…

I have to start off with a disclaimer. This post might come across as critical and judgmental of others. Please understand that I write this as a confession. So if it comes across rather harsh, the harshness is also directed at myself. As Jim McQuiggan once quipped in a large gathering he was preaching to, “Please, I’m sorry that I’m shouting. I’m really not shouting at you. I’m shouting at myself.”

I’ve been in ministry for over 35 years. I’ve officiated weddings, I’ve offered spiritual counsel, I’ve been a part of several congregations, and I’ve been in thousands of conversations with other ministers about their experiences.

All of this is to say, I think I may know what I’m talking about when it comes to trying to change people–whether we are speaking of a spouse, children, counselees, an eldership, or a church.

You can’t.

At least not in a healthy sense. I suppose you could control people and beat them down to the point they will do what you say. But by then you have changed them by abuse and dysfunction. In other words you would have become dysfunctional and evil.

But you can’t force someone to become more healthy, more responsible, and more functional. You can only encourage and support.

I do not know how many times I’ve seen young adults marry someone one who had severe problems thinking they could change this person. I’ve talked (and have been one of) countless ministers who thought they could change a church or an eldership they agreed to serve. And so they entered into a marriage with a person, a ministry with a church or a leadership that was unhealthy, dysfunctional, or completely different in personality or opinion, thinking they could change them into their image.

It’s a pipe dream and I would suggest it is even wrong.

Why? Because you are entering a relationship as a “savior” or a “messiah” and you are being dishonest to them and yourself. They hire you (or marry you) thinking you are going to make them “complete” or grow without changing them (at least not in a terribly uncomfortable way). You are going thinking, “Yes, they don’t want to change, but I know what is best.” Immediately you are entering the relationship seeing yourself as superior and they as inferior. That in itself is a dysfunctional approach. You come with an ideal and they want to remain the way they are.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The ideal is the enemy of the real”.

It is a recipe for disaster.

You will either damage the person/church or you will be damaged. Sometimes irreparably.

So, what to do?

This is difficult and I know it will not be listened to by many–and while that is sad, it’s OK. I can’t change you, either. Only you can do that. I can only hope you will consider this and at least take time to reflect on it.

The answer is simple but difficult. If you find yourself wanting to marry someone in order to change them.

Don’t do it.

If you are being “courted” by a church and you know it has major problems. You know the congregation itself has no desire to be different. Even if the leadership has promised a bright future if only they can get the right person in.

Don’t go.

Remember that leadership came from that congregation. Unless something has happened to infuse the congregation with a new understanding of grace and compassion (and it won’t be that “try out sermon” you preached) they will not change.

The Bible is pretty clear that even God does not force people into repentance (the religious word for “change”). It is a choice that has to be freely made or it is worthless.

Again: this is not to criticize or judge anyone who has fallen into this trap. To do so is to judge myself. I, too, have been guilty of trying to change people, thinking somehow I had that power. I have done this as a husband, as a father, and as a minister.

I have dear friends who are the best of the best–incredible men and women–who look back and say, “I wished I had thought that one through.”

So please do not read this as condemnation or judgment. We all are tempted in this way, many of us fall into this temptation. Which is to say, we are all imperfect and unrealistic at least sometimes. And because of this we need to be reminded:

We are not messiahs. We are not saviors. We will only damage ourselves and others if we take on that mantle.

Does this resonate with anyone?


About Darryl Willis

Darryl has been working for non-profits for over 36 years. His current work takes him to Ukraine several times a year. He has fallen in love with the country and the people. Darryl writes poetry and his work has appeared in several online and print journals.
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2 Responses to Trying to change the other…

  1. Betty Scarlett says:

    Yes and you can’t push a rope! I’ve found that people always want to make a good first impression and try to put their best foot forward. A lot of times they think they want to change and do better but they really don’t. They haven’t even realized they don’t so (I’m speaking first person singular here too) we end up getting beaten down several times before we get the message. Good point…think I’ll use it with my group…I’ll use your name, they’ve heard some of your material previously 🙂

    • Thank you, Betty! The most difficult thing is to be honest with ourselves and our motivations–and I speak from my own experience with myself! I think the Hippocratic Oath is important as we work with people: “First, do no harm.”

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