Catching the Foxes That Ruin Ministry
by Shelly Esser
I stumbled through the church doors loaded down with my Bible, purse, diaper bag, infant and my toddler clutching my leg, so looking forward to worship. Only halfway down the corridor, I was greeted by a well-meaning parishioner who proceeded to pour out all of her criticisms and complaints about the church. I felt like I had been the receptacle of a huge dump truck. As she headed out, I was left with overwhelming heaviness and irritation.
“Couldn’t she have waited at least until after the service to unload?” my heart cried to God. “If she only realized what effort went into getting myself and two young daughters to church that morning.” I look forward to Sundays to be with God and His people in a celebration of worship. I hadn’t even made it into the service and my worship was ruined by criticism! The following week another complaining parishioner hit me again.
“What do people think I am,” I asked the Lord, “a dumping ground?”
For many of us, this is an all-too-familiar scenario of our Sunday morning experience. For whatever reason, parishioners come to us ,the ministry wife ,hoping to capture audience for their nagging complaints. But how do we lovingly handle these potentially destructive people, and how do we keep their cutting remarks from ruining our personal lives and church family?
As I was seeking God’s perspective, I was directed to a verse in Song of Songs 2:15, which says, “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.” Although the verse addresses a lover’s relationship, I think we can apply it to the relationship in the ministry as well.
I’m told that foxes (or jackals) have a fondness for fruit, especially grapes. In the Palestinian vineyards of old, foxes abounded. These animals were especially destructive to the grapevines in the area, particularly the ones that were in bloom. They would come in at night and harmfully and subtly rummage through the fresh grape crops, completely ruining them. In the beginning, their damage seemed small, but if not stopped, the vines never bore fruit again.
The “foxes” that are being referred to here are the damaging attitudes that can creep in, threatening the lover’s relationship. Likewise, for us in ministry, the “foxes” can represent the destructive attitudes Satan uses to gnaw and destroy our personal lives and ministries, which are in bloom. Some of the destructive ministry foxes include: the fox of gossip, the fox of a critical spirit, the fox of unforgiveness, the fox of pride, the fox of independence, the fox of impatience, the fox of complaining, the fox of bitterness and rage, the fox of jealousy, the fox of selfishness, the fox of mistrust, and so on. These attitudes can creep into our lives or those around us in the church so subtly and quietly like “foxes in the night” allowing Satan to ruin the ministry.
So how are we to deal with the “foxes” that creep into our lives and ministries? You will notice that the verse starts out with an action word, “catch.” “Catch for us” means “to grasp” or “apprehend.” Diligent searching and action are required to discover the foxes’ lurking places and to drive them away before they do permanent damage to the ministry.
How then do we practically “catch” the foxes, stopping their potential for damage? Left uncaught, they will destroy everything God is trying to do. I’ve found that we can “catch the foxes” we come across in several ways.
First, we can provide a listening ear to the critical person, but to keep the critical spirit from ruining the vineyard (especially as a ministry wife) we remain loyal to the church leadership even if we may agree with some of what is being said. This means exercising self-control so that we don’t participate in feeding the foxes with our own fuel and destructive comments, causing further damage.
Next, we need to point the person to the capable leaders overseeing the area of complaint or criticism. Instead of getting involved in an area we know little about, we need to redirect people who come to us to the appropriate channel for voicing their complaints. (For example, if it’s a complaint about youth ministry, direct them to the coordinator or pastor of that area.) It would be unfair and irresponsible of us to address complaints in areas with which we are unfamiliar. We can do further damage to the situation by not sending people to the proper channel. This also releases us from the temptation of talking behind a ministry partner’s back.
I’ve also learned to be careful about troubling my husband with all of the little foxes running around the vineyard. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of spilling out all of the complaints during our mealtime after the service. I soon discovered that by doing this, I was allowing the church foxes to follow us home, ruining our vineyard of fellowship. Instead of enjoying each other, we were now focusing on all of the negative things at church, which ruined our Sunday afternoon. It is a wise wife who doesn’t burden or trouble her husband with the petty church foxes unless they directly involve him or have the potential of becoming a church-wide problem. (In those cases, the timing in telling him is important.) Our husbands have enough on their shoulders without more to concern themselves with.
We can also challenge people with criticisms and complaints and other problem attitudes to be part of the solution to the problem. By loving confrontation about their lack of involvement in the situation (which is usually the case), we can encourage them to get involved, taking more personal ownership of the ministry.
One of the most effective ways to “catch the foxes” is prayer. Pray for those who carry destructive attitudes, pray for wisdom in handling them, pray that God will prevent bitter roots and dissension from springing up in the vineyard, and pray that there will be no damage done. Most importantly, pray that God’s plan for a fruitful ministry will prevail.
Finally, we need to be careful that we don’t assume that the foxes only come in the guise of other people’s attitudes. Those destructive foxes can invade our own personal vineyards as well in the form of sin and hurtful attitudes toward the ministry. We need to trap our own wrongful attitudes with God’s Word, confession, repentance, and by asking God to change us.
I used to get irritated with the difficult people who unloaded negative criticisms and complaints on me; now I see those moments as God’s opportunities to “catch” some of the destructive foxes running around our church. Satan would love nothing more than to destroy the ministry. We must be on continual alert and put a stop to anything that would injure, damage or ultimately ruin God’s blossoming ministry. What a privilege and a responsibility!